Today's least expensive new cars are packed with modern safety tech

Dave Kunz Image
Wednesday, October 16, 2019
Today's least expensive new cars are packed with modern safety tech
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New technology means you can't buy a new car for $10,000 anymore. But in the $15,000 range, you can get a car that's safer than ever and includes some features that used to only in in luxury cars.

How little can you spend on a new car these days? Well, not a little as before.

About 10 years ago, I showcased the last two cars that had sticker prices just a tick below $10,000: a base Nissan Sentra and a base Hyundai Excel. Neither car came with air conditioning, a radio or power windows. They were bare bones transportation for those who wanted it, priced at $9,999 and $9,979, respectively.

It's a different story today.

"Cars come with so many features now, a lot of them mandated, that the price has gone up," said Carrie Kim, managing editor at Autoweb

Several new 2020 subcompacts do start out with a sticker price of $14,000-15,000. For example, the Chevy Spark, Mitsubishi Mirage and redesigned Nissan Versa S can all be had for relatively low prices, if you can skip all the options. These base prices are typically for low-content cars without anything fancy, and often with manual transmissions.

Some brands are walking away from the small, inexpensive car market altogether, notably Ford. The company has discontinued both its compact Focus and subcompact Fiesta. The smallest Ford model you can buy in the U.S. right now is the EcoSport subcompact SUV.

But even if you do want a well-equipped basic car with an automatic transmission and some of the latest safety and tech features, you can get something like the 2020 Nissan Versa SV for under $18,000. It's got things that used to be only on cars with much higher sticker prices.

Analysts like Kim say picking a car one trim level up from base level means a buyer can get a lot of modern tech.

"A lot of the safety features are needed today on the road, and it costs money. And for a lot of that, because it's mandated, the car companies say that it's standard. So it will protect you, but there's cost there," she noted.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Or, you have to pay for what you get. Thanks to pressure from the government, lobbying groups, and consumer demand, it's not possible to buy a truly "no frills" car in the 2020 model year. But, buyers are getting safer cars overall.

There's collision warning, for example. Yes, it's on a number of cars for well under $20,000 these days. The mid-grade Nissan Versa SV even has some things that used to be luxury car items not all that long ago.

"Blind spot monitoring, rear traffic alert and adaptive cruise," said Kim, listing some of the features on the new mid-grade Nissan.

The adaptive cruise control she mentions is the kind that lets you take your feet off the pedals in traffic. The car will automatically maintain the distance behind the car in front, even at low speeds. If you spend a lot of time in heavy freeway traffic, that's a true convenience. And, it was something that used to only be available on high-end cars.

So while inexpensive cars aren't as inexpensive as they used to be, they're feature-packed cars. And, they're at the bottom end of today's price range.