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Budget bargains! The hot new circa-$20k Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan and other models Australians deserve that could take on the MG3 and MG ZS

Crossovers with character and attitude are leading the charge downmarket as carmakers try to lure younger and more savvy buyers.

Australians seeking a cheap new set of wheels are caught in a perfect storm right now.

Stocks are low, prices are high and waiting times have blown out. Worse still, they’ve pushed prices of good used alternatives through the roof.

Plus, lately, most brands have abandoned the bottom end of the market, dropping the essential $13,000 to $20,000 newbies that used to be the only option for buyers on a budget.

The numbers don’t lie. In 2016, there were 94 models priced under $20,000 – 88 cars including variants of the Holden Barina, Ford Fiesta, Honda Jazz, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Pulsar, Peugeot 208, Renault Clio, Skoda Fabia and Suzuki Swift, along with seven utes from Nissan, Great Wall, Mahindra and Tata, two SUVs (Chery J11 and Mazda CX-3) and one van (Suzuki APV). What glorious choice!

Today, it’s just 18 and falling – five Kia Picantos, a trio of MG3s and Mitsubishi Mirages, a pair of Suzuki Balenos and Suzuki Ignis’ and a single Fiat 500, Kia Rio and VW Polo apiece. By January the Mirage too will be just that.

No wonder, then, that the $16,990-drive-away MG3 now commands nearly one-third of all sub-$25k new-car sales, leaving former bestsellers like the Mazda2 (from $20,990) and Toyota Yaris (from $23,740) to squabble over crumbs. Two years ago, both started at $15K.

Similarly, the MG ZS is Australia’s number one small SUV, soaring 400 per cent in 2021, while the overall brand’s 200 per cent sales spike is truly deserved if it keeps people out of over-priced worn-out second-hand castoffs.

Here, then, is our circa-$20K wishlist we reckon us Aussies need. It’s been a tough two years and so high time that good folk on a budget get some love again from the big carmakers. Like they used to.

Toyota Aygo X

Holden Spark. Volkswagen Up. Smart ForTwo. Fiat Panda. Nissan Micra. Suzuki Celerio. All gone. But if there’s one runabout that could bring back the city-car breed from the brink of extinction, surely this would be it.

Built on a truncated version of the latest Yaris’ GA-B platform, the Aygo X (for cross – as in ‘crossover’) is be a slightly shorter five-door hatch to take on Kia’s excellent little Picanto.

To be unveiled globally in early November, the Japanese city car is Toyota’s first full model to be planned, designed and manufactured in Europe. It will literally stand out from its rapidly diminishing pack with funky styling, a wide stance and a high riding position. Under the stubby bonnet is a 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine, though whether it also adopts electrification like Yaris, we’ll have to wait and see.

So, what’s keeping the Aygo X from dazzling design-savvy budget-wary Australians? Production for now remains at the same Czech Republic facility as the previous two generations from 2005 and 2014 respectively. These were part of a joint-venture with Peugeot (107/108) and Citroen (C1), but the French have since left the partnership, leaving Toyota to go it alone for the third iteration.

But here’s why we have such high hopes for the Aygo X: the 2022 model is heavily Yaris-derived with no links to other, outside brands. Hopefully, Toyota will make its Euro city-car marvel available for all. After all, the Picanto has already shifted well over 5000 units this year alone in Australia, so there’s clearly still a market for it.

Dacia Sandero

Renault importer Ateco Group has already flagged its intentions of finally bringing Romanian brand Dacia to Australia in the near future, with a Toyota Corolla-sized hatch called Sandero, a small SUV dubbed Duster and maybe even a car-based dual-cab ute known as Oroch expected to lead the charge.

All show great potential, with the Sandero sizing up as the cheapest. Only released this year in most markets, the latest, third-generation version could shape up as MG3’s worst nightmare, since it’s larger in every direction, roomier, more advanced and – according to European reports – a delight to drive and travel in. Looks good too.

Better still, the Sandero offers essential safety like AEB and six airbags, sharing its platform with current Renaults and Nissans like the Captur and Juke respectively, while a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo in manual or CVT auto are available. No creaky old tech here.

Oozing Euro chic rather than U-R-cheap, the Sandero even became Europe’s bestselling car in July for the first time, beating out the similarly-sized VW Golf. Given a chance with sub-$20K pricing, the roomy Romanian could become a big hit here too.

Hyundai Casper

We applaud Hyundai for already offering Australian buyers a light, fun SUV in the shape of the homely Venue (from $20,940), but the ridiculously cute Casper is smaller again. And a whole lot cooler.

At under four metres long and 1.6m wide, and sitting on a 2400mm wheelbase, it mirrors the very closely-related Kia Picanto, except that the Hyundai sits a bit higher up, more upright, is roomier and offers a sliding rear seat for maximum space utilisation.

With a 1.0-litre three-pot turbo option, advanced driver-assist tech, seven airbags including a front-centre item, digitised instrumentation and a raft of personalisation combos, the brand is going all-out to lure buyers seeking real smarts as well as savvy style.

And here’s something else: in its South Korean home market, the Casper almost duplicates Australian Picanto pricing too, starting at a little under $16,000.

Perfect, then, for the legions of 2000s Getz and 2010s i20 fans who might fancy a modern interpretation, but with far more moxie. Hyundai calls the Casper an “entry level” SUV, and we reckon Aussies would lap up this little cutie pie. A cult car in the making for sure.

Toyota Raize

Developed and built by Toyota-owned Daihatsu – which sells a version called the Rocky for fans of tiny ‘80s Japanese 4x4s – the Raize is one of the new-wave light SUVs sweeping the world, melding city-friendly styling and low running costs with a spacious, high-riding crossover attitude. Think RAV4 Jr. 

A brace of perky three-cylinder engine choices (what else!) are available, driving either the front or all four wheels via a CVT auto, backed up by advanced driver-assist safety tech that has earned the diminutive Dai-yota a five-star safety rating in Asia. 

Having stormed Japan since launching there in late 2019, the Raize has the potential to shake the MG ZS to its core in Oz too, should Toyota remember that lifetime brand loyalty begins with getting buyers in when they’re still young. Home-market pricing sees the range start from around $20,500 converted to our dollars, so why not?

Fun fact: Rocky/Raize is a direct descendent of the Daihatsu J100 Terios, sold here for a decade from 1996.

Nissan Magnite

Another circa-$18,000 light SUV, Nissan’s pleasingly styled Magnite is a sub-Juke crossover created for emerging or low-cost focused markets, and is currently only manufactured in India and exported to countries like South Africa and Indonesia. Next stop Australia? Never say never.

As with so many similar vehicles, the Magnite is powered by a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine in regular or turbo configuration, driving the front wheels via a CVT auto. One key difference is that the Nissan is a little wider than some, and sits on a comparatively long wheelbase at 2500mm. Great for cabin space.

Right now, the Magnite misses out on important safety items like AEB and side/curtain airbags, but if Nissan rectifies this, then it will have a handsome, spacious and spritely little crossover on its hands.