There's some spiffy new vehicles for less than $20,000 out there

| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The average price paid for a new car or truck in the United States this year is $30,748, according to

Sound spendy?

It is. Especially if your new car budget is smaller — say, $20,000 or less. This doesn't mean that you can't drive a vehicle that meets your needs and makes you smile every time you climb behind the wheel. Consider this sampling of cheap fun.

• Chevrolet Sonic: $14,765. Opt for the five-door over the four-door notchback, and you get more than style; you'll have an extra five cubic feet of cargo space. The Sonic's quick steering, poised suspension and athletic feel are a kick. For a real hot hatch, choose the turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine.

• Dodge Dart: $15,995. Dodge's first small car in seven years revives a name that many will remember, affixed to a stylish new car that's based on the platform of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. The new Dart is roomy enough to be classified as a midsize car, yet returns as much as 41 mpg, depending on engine.

• Fiat 500 Turbo: $19,500. Like the Mini Cooper, the Fiat 500 reinvents an iconic car for the 21st century. This is a little slice of la dolce vita — slathered in style as only Italians could muster.

• Ford Focus: $16,200. No matter which Focus grabs your eye — the four-door or five-door — the Focus has the solid feel one expects of a small European car, and that's because it is one. Its behavior is almost unheard-of in small cars with American nameplates.

• Honda CR-Z hybrid: $19,695. The cheaper Honda Insight has more space, while the Toyota Prius C returns higher mileage. But the CR-Z hybrid looks better than either of them, channeling the classic look of the Honda CRX. No, the CR-Z is not as sporty to drive, but no one will notice.

• Kia Soul: $14,400. The Soul received a new one for 2012: upgraded engines. Base models get a 138-hp four-cylinder, while others got a new 164-hp four-cylinder — up 22 hp from 2011. Both powerplants are now available with a six-speed transmission.

• Mazda3: $15,200. At just over 15 big ones, you'll get the four-door sedan, not the five-door hatch, but the latter costs almost $20K. Regardless, all Mazda3s have quick reflexes and precise steering. They're amazingly fun to drive, even in base form, despite being somewhat noisy and delivering a very firm ride.

• Nissan Frontier: $19,010. Ordering the base model of a compact pickup means a standard cab with little space behind the front seat, aside from the pickup bed. That's where the Frontier stands apart from its competitors: rear jump seats are standard on the base model. And it tows 3,500 pounds. Nice.

• Nissan Juke: $19,990. The Juke, a word that means “to deceptively outmaneuver something or someone,” is aptly named. Once behind the wheel, you'll discover that its perfect size, raised-ground height, practical shape, all-wheel drive and rowdy turbo engine are a riot.

• Volkswagen Beetle: $19,795. It's hard to reinterpret a classic, but VW managed by injecting a dash of Porsche into the Beetle's new design. Now lacking a bud vase on its dashboard, the car is safe for those with y-chromosomes. Base models get the Jetta's five-cylinder engine, but turbo and diesel options are offered.

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at

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