With gas prices staying low, now is a good time to invest in a small car and reap the savings. If you’re not sure where to start, these top options — and helpful tips — can help you choose your next ride.
How did we choose these vehicles?
We selected models based on their safety and reliability ratings, spaciousness, technology features, manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) and fuel economy. We only looked at the base models of each vehicle, so keep in mind that selecting a different trim may affect the fuel efficiency and overall price of the car.
7 best small cars of 2020
These small cars rank well for price, fuel efficiency and other standard features.
2019 Nissan Versa
City/highway MPG: 31/39
The Nissan Versa is known to have more cargo space than many other cars in its class, as well as a great reliability rating. But its low price means it lacks some of the features many similar cars have. In fact, the low-grade materials mean it has fewer safety features overall. But what it lacks in design and technology, it makes up for in price: It’s hard to beat a starting MSRP below $13,000.
The Honda Fit is one of the highest-ranked cars of 2019 thanks to its excellent fuel economy, spacious interior, sleek design and advanced technology available. However, the higher starting price may make some shy away, especially if you’re not looking for the fancier bells and whistles that come with its infotainment system.
With a relatively competitive price and class-standard fuel efficiency, the Hyundai Accent may be a good choice if you’re looking for good handling and a roomy interior. It can be a bargain, but some reviews state that its slow acceleration and low-power USB ports may not be to everyone’s standard.
The Hyundai Elantra is one of the pricier small-car options, but it makes up for it in fuel efficiency — earning a 35 combined MPG. Like many small cars, it has a good reliability rating and offers plenty of tech features. But for the price, it may not be the best car for performance: Many of its competitors handle better.
The Kia Forte is best known for its roomy interior and large trunk, but its easy-to-use tech features, good reliability ratings and multiple safety features don’t hurt either. With a midrange price, it’s also a good deal for the more budget-conscious buyer. However, some reviews state that the ride quality isn’t the best. If that’s important to you, you may want to consider one of its upgraded trims that come with enhanced performance.
The Honda Civic’s reasonable sticker price, classy interior and good-quality craftsmanship make it a practical car for just about anyone. However, its touch screen has received a few negative reviews, and it doesn’t have the best reliability ratings.
As the most expensive car on this list, a Mazda3 is ideal for drivers looking for elegant design, quick acceleration and good handling. While it’s made with premium materials to ensure an upscale look, it isn’t the roomiest car around. However, it scores high safety ratings and crash test scores.
Buying a small car comes with several benefits, especially when you take your budget into consideration:
Less money spent at the pump. When gas prices are low, it may be tempting to get a gas-guzzling truck or SUV. But you’ll save hundreds of dollars a year by opting for a smaller car, even when gas prices are affordable. And when the price of gas eventually increases, you’ll thank yourself for going small and avoiding that huge bill every time you visit the pump.
Lower lifetime costs. Using Kelley Blue Book’s five-year cost-to-own estimates, drivers who opt for a basic sedan spend a little over $9,000 over the course of five years to insure and maintain their vehicle. Compared to around $23,500 for SUVs and $22,000 for trucks, you’ll save thousands when you buy a smaller car.
Fewer greenhouse gas emissions. You can check your car’s emissions on FuelEconomy.gov, but the math is simple: The smaller your engine, the less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases you’ll produce. This makes driving a small car a good choice for your wallet and your conscience.
Easier to drive and park. If you live in a crowded city or take frequent road trips, a small car — especially a compact car — makes it that much easier to navigate and find parking. You can check out our list of the easiest cars to park to compare your options.
Test drive a car near you
Get connected with dealerships in your area that offer upfront pricing.
Check manufacturer incentives. If you decided to buy or lease a new car, check the manufacturer’s website to see if it has any special deals or incentives available. This may include 0% APR financing, no money down or cash back to help offset the price of the car.
Schedule multiple test-drives. Once you’ve narrowed it down to two or three models, schedule test-drives for each one. This is especially important if you’re buying used, since it gives you a chance to check for any damages or potential issues.
Prepare to negotiate. When you’re ready to buy, remember to negotiate the price of the car — not the monthly payment. Bring along your most competitive preapproval offer to see if the salesperson is willing to offer a lower rate if you finance through the dealership. You can find more tips for negotiating with a car dealer with our guide.
If you’re thinking about buying a small car, you have plenty of options to choose from that come with spacious interiors, good fuel economy and high safety ratings. And when you’re ready to hit the dealership, our guide to car loans can help you find competitive financing that fits your needs.
Frequently asked questions
Yes. As compact and other small cars have increased in popularity, so too have their safety features. There are more airbags, better crumple points and modern collision-avoidance systems that can help you stay out of danger. You can check SaferCar.gov for crash test ratings on any car you’re interested in.
It depends on your needs. Used cars come with lower prices, making them ideal for shoppers on a budget. But if you want the latest tech features and best fuel economy, you might want to opt for a new car. Or to get the best of both worlds, consider buying a certified preowned car (CPO).
Yes, but you’ll likely have to shop used. New cars typically have a price point above $15,000 — with a few exceptions like the Hyundai Accent and Nissan Versa. Check out our list of the 10 cheapest cars of 2019 to find an option that fits your budget.
Most car manufacturers use the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classification system when determining a car’s class. According to this system, compact and subcompact cars with cargo volume between 85 and 109 cubic feet are typically considered to be small cars.
Kellye Guinan is a seasoned financial writer with over 500 articles under her belt spanning all things loans from auto to personal to business and everything in between. With four years in the field and five years of research experience, she's able to make complex personal finance decisions easier for anyone to tackle. When she's not up to her knees learning about the latest trends in lending, she spends her time improving her own financial literacy and expertise — and maintaining a Duolingo streak of over 1,300 days.
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