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Best small cars under $20,000

We rank the five best cars under $20,000.
Tom White
Journalist
CarsGuide

6 Mar 2019 • 8 min read

What was once the stomping ground of small sedans and wagons is now almost exclusively the domain of entry-level small hatchbacks.

The good news is, while your money might be buying you a smaller car, thanks to advances in technology and an increasingly competitive market, this segment is now safer and better equipped than ever before.

Plenty of choices in this segment are good small cars, but we’ve crunched the specs and numbers to rank the best five cars for under $20,000.

We came up with this ranking based on several factors. To even be considered, each car must have an MSRP of under $20k in automatic form. We then ordered them based on relative value, the availability of big-ticket spec items (like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), safety items (like auto emergency braking), engine specifications and practicality.

It’s also worth noting that cars a size-bracket up from these (like the Kia Cerato, for example) often drop their prices down to $19,990 drive-away on a promotional basis, so keep an eye out for what’s available at the time before making your final decision.

5. Kia Rio S - $19,090

The Rio looks great and has a fantastic warranty, but is let down by its lack of active safety. The Rio looks great and has a fantastic warranty, but is let down by its lack of active safety.

The entry-level Rio is a great choice for under $20k, although it just edges on to this list due to some major drawbacks over its rivals.

We rate it for having good looks, a spacious cabin, excellent boot space, stellar multimedia (with seamless Apple Carplay/Android Auto support), and a best-in-class seven-year warranty.

However, it’s the only car on this list which lacks auto emergency braking (AEB) and it has an ancient 74kW 1.4-litre four cylinder engine combined with a four-speed auto that isn’t particularly fuel efficient.

The Rio also bumped the Honda Jazz VTi-S off our list. The Jazz is still worth considering and would have been the most practical car on this list, but it is expensive ($19,990) and lacks any decent multimedia or active safety.

4. Toyota Yaris Ascent (w/Safety Sense pack) - $17,570

The Yaris has a decent optional safety offering, but has a lackluster engine & transmission. The Yaris has a decent optional safety offering, but has a lackluster engine & transmission.

Just ahead of the Rio is the Toyota Yaris Ascent. We rate it for coming in well under $20k even with the must-have optional 'Safety Sense' pack ($650) which adds auto emergency braking (AEB) and lane departure warning (LDW). At an MSRP of $17,570 the Yaris is the second cheapest car on our list.

It lost points for the lack of a decent media system (with no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto), annoying six-month service intervals and the underwhelming 1.3-litre 63kW engine paired with an archaic four-speed automatic.

It also has the second smallest boot on this list, but outranks the Rio thanks to the presence of active safety items.

3. Mazda2 Neo - $17,320

The Mazda2 has no media screen, but a good safety and multimedia offering. The Mazda2 has no media screen, but a good safety and multimedia offering.

While the Mazda2 Neo is the only car on this list with no multimedia screen at all it still sticks it to the Yaris and Rio with its standard city-speed auto emergency braking, its cracker of a 1.5-litre engine (79kW/139Nm), smart six-speed torque converter auto, good looks and a classy cabin.

The hatch has a small boot, but the Mazda2 is the only car on this list which can be had at the same price as a sedan with a much deeper storage area.

It is also the cheapest car on this list, giving you some wiggle room for premium paint ($300) or an armrest console ($470).

Also consider the better-equipped Mazda2 Maxx auto ($20,080) which had to be disqualified for having an MSRP slightly above our limit.

2. Skoda Fabia 81TSI - $19,990

The Fabia is often overlooked, but has a lot to offer. (international model shown) The Fabia is often overlooked, but has a lot to offer. (international model shown)

The Skoda Fabia is a quiet achiever in the under $20k stakes, bringing with it a smart 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo engine, a slick-shifting seven-speed DSG auto and a decent 81kW/200Nm of power.

It also scores auto emergency braking and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto as standard and has a decent load space with some neat practicality tricks.

It loses points for being the most expensive car on this list (and therefore, probably not drive-away for under $20k) and the necessity of refuelling it with premium unleaded.

1. Suzuki Swift GL Navi (w/ Safety Pack) - $18,990

The Swift manages to pack a great safety suite, impressive multimedia and a decent drive experience in at under $20k. The Swift manages to pack a great safety suite, impressive multimedia and a decent drive experience in at under $20k.

The Suzuki Swift takes top honours on our list as the best value small car under $20k. The GL Navi with the Safety Pack comes in at $18,990 and has the most expansive safety offering on this list. Included is freeway-speed auto emergency braking (AEB), adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane keep assist.

The Swift also has a great multimedia offering with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support and is the only car on this list with built-in navigation.

Bonus points are awarded for standard alloy wheels and its good looks.

On the downside, the Swift has an average 66kW/120Nm 1.2-litre engine and the smallest boot out of all the cars on this list. The five-year warranty is also conditional on you servicing it every six months (too often) at a Suzuki dealer.

What's most important to you on a cheap car? Safety, practicality, performance or multimedia? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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