One of the challenges of being an automotive journalist is that manufacturers always want you to drive and evaluate their top-of-the-line products. Quite understandably, they hope you go away with the best possible impression of their design and engineering skills and usually, this is easier to do with a vehicle from the high end of the range. Consequently, luxury models I could never afford
myself are regular visitors to my garage and driveway.

Feature: Cars under $15,000  auto brands
2004 Chevrolet Aveo

Feature: Cars under $15,000  auto brands
2004 Hyundai Accent

Feature: Cars under $15,000  auto brands
2004 Kia Rio

Feature: Cars under $15,000  auto brands
2004 Saturn Ion

Feature: Cars under $15,000  auto brands
2004 Suzuki Swift+

Feature: Cars under $15,000  auto brands
2004 Toyota Echo Hatchback
Click images to enlarge

Be this as it may, I’ve recently been concentrating on vehicles at the entry-level end of the auto market – products that are generally built down to a price, but nonetheless, offer surprising levels of technical sophistication. The target for automakers anxious to snare a piece of the entry-level segment seems to be $15,000 base, though there are limited numbers of vehicles sneaking under that price point right now. Those that do can be considered real bargains, because they offer many of the same safety, convenience and comfort items common to cars three times that price. And compared to a few years ago, there are no “dogs” in the market now however low the price.

Auto buyers are more savvy than they’ve ever been, partly thanks to the availability of vast amounts of automotive information on the internet. Cars that once sold quite well at the low price points would probably never make it to first base now. Your $15,000 sedan or hatchback is likely to be as much fun to drive and as durable and reliable as a model costing $30,000 or more. It’s a pity there aren’t a few more products under that 15-grand benchmark, but we’ll look at the possibilities later in this column.

My most recent research dug out nine cars that stickered out at less than $15,000 – a surprising number given that many automakers have been concentrating on more expensive products like upper end SUVs in recent times. Bear in mind, of course, that the prices I quote are MSRPs or manufacturers’ suggested retail prices. They do not include taxes, dealer prep, shipping or other costs that may be added on. Mind you, some of these models may well be available at discounted prices or at the very low loan interest rates which characterize the industry at the moment. The major source of inexpensive cars seems to be Korea, but that’s not always the case, as we’ll see.

Chevrolet offers its Daewoo-built Aveo models in sedan and hatchback form at $13,480 and $13,820 respectively. It’s a fascinating aspect of the entry-level car segment that in some cases the hatchback version of the model is less expensive than its sedan sibling and in others, the pricing is reversed. I guess that some automakers find it cheaper to build a hatchback while others find it a more expensive way of configuring a car. Hyundai also offers sedan and hatchback versions of its Accent model at $14,195 and $12,895.

Hyundai’s associate company Kia markets its little Rio sedan at $12,650, but the hatchback version of this model falls outside our $15,000 price point. Kia’s superseded 2004 Spectra, a little bigger than the Rio and more powerful, sold for under $15,000, but the 2005 model now arriving is a little higher, so it isn’t counted among our nine “bargain buys.” Of course, add another thousand or two to our price limit and you’ll bring in all kinds of models worthy of consideration.

It was a surprise to me that the Saturn Ion I tried recently sold for just $14,625 – proving that North American manufacturers can market low-priced models if they put their minds to it. Suzuki’s Swift hatchback is new for 2004 and sells for $13,495. The one I tested recently was surprisingly peppy and offered roominess and practicality for its size – a welcome characteristic of several
models in this market slot. Also a bit of a shock was the discovery that both Toyota’s Echo models – hatchback and sedan – are priced at under $15,000. The hatch costs $12,995 and the sedan, $14,080. It’s impressive that Toyota, with its almost legendary reputation for durability and reliability, can offer products at these prices. It’d be good to see Nissan and Honda following suit and giving Toyota a fight at that end of the market.

All the models I’ve mentioned have one thing in common – they offer more refinement than you’d expect at the price. It’s true that none of them will outdo a Honda Accord, Ford Taurus or Toyota Camry in sophistication, but for their prices they give you a quiet, smooth highway ride, decent handling on winding roads and power levels that are certainly adequate for cars in this class. They all have comfortable seats and most come with a decent stereo system as standard. Several of the little hatchbacks are as much fun to drive on backroads as sporty coupes.

Although several domestic automakers have shown concept entry-level cars at auto shows, only the Saturn Ion makes our list as true sub-$15,000 domestic product (the Chevrolet Aveo being Korean in origin). DaimlerChrysler and Ford have played around with concept low-priced models aimed at the youth market in North America and wider spheres in developing countries. Admittedly, there isn’t much
profit for manufacturers in the entry-level segment, but high volumes could make the exercise worthwhile. Perhaps a simple hatchback design featuring composite bodywork for lightness, an economical and responsive powerplant, a roomy and practical interior and imaginative styling could sell in large numbers here if Ford or DaimlerChrysler took a run at this end of the market. With luck, something like that may be just around the corner.

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