10 Coolest Cars Under $18,000

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- You have no idea what cool is anymore.

Oh, you think you know, but with every passing day your definition of it becomes more antiquated. Your points of reference get dated, your sources fade and your notions of "cool" are decreasingly based in reality and more often grounded in a waning generation's sentimentality.

Let's put it this way, if Burt Reynolds' character from Smokey and the Bandit wanted to renew his license in Georgia after making the last of his beer-smuggling runs with his '77 Pontiac Trans-Am, he'd have to take vision test to do so. If Susan Sarandon's Louise wanted to grab Geena Davis' Thelma and run off to the Utah desert today, the state of Utah would also require her to read the letters on the wall in front of her before taking the wheel of that '66 Thunderbird.

Cool? Even the military-grade SUVs of the past decade are rusting in used car lots and hoping some college kid will pick them up as high-mileage beaters. Ford's ( F) Mustang and Chevy's ( GM) Camaro are increasingly smitten with V6 engines and 30-miles-per-gallon highway efficiency. "Cool" now has less to do with the sound coming from under the hood and everything to do with the apps on the touchscreen display built into the dash.

That assumes anyone under 35 even equates cars with cool. The New York Times discovered last year that less than half of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998. The fraction of 20-to-24-year-olds with a license has dropped and, according to CNW Research, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 buy just 27% of all new vehicles sold in America. That's down from 38%. When even the lowest-priced new car will run you $12,000 and jobs aren't exactly plentiful, suddenly the $200 smartphone in your pocket that can tell you when the next bus or train is coming or where the nearest Zipcar ( ZIP) is located seems a lot cooler than a rolling mound of debt that just keeps leeching you for gas, insurance and repairs.

Auto pricing site Kelley Blue Book understands this shift and came up with a list of 10 cars with some relatively cool features that start at a base cost of less than $18,000. They don't include European supercars that drivers stuck in arrested development use as laptop and smartphone wallpaper, and they aren't going to grab a role in the next Fast and the Furious sequel anytime soon. They're efficient, they're electronically muscled and they're just elegant enough to distinguish from the everyday commuter shuttle. Talk about horsepower and sex appeal all you want, old timers, but these days "cool" means anything that can converse with a mobile device, conserve fuel and not leave owners crushed by debt:

10. 2013 Chevrolet Spark
MSRP: $12,170

Now that's a great start. For less than $13,000, drivers get 10 airbags, a surprisingly cavernous 31.2 cubic feet of cargo space, an entertainment center with a 7-inch touchscreen and Chevrolet MyLink that hooks up with Apple's ( AAPL) Siri assistant for an "eyes-free" mode that reads scores, takes down text and email messages, sets reminders and makes phone calls. Add a combined 35 miles per gallon of fuel efficiency -- which is only inefficient compared with the Spark's plug-in electric version -- and you've singlehandedly reset the market for cool.

9. 2013 Honda (HMC) Civic
MSRP: $18,165

Too small to be a family midsize and too large to be the cool techie compact, the Civic occupies some lovely middle ground thanks to a recent makeover. It seats five with a surprising amount of space left over, is coated in airbags to keep everyone safe and has a new display that shows fuel efficiency, music info and even photos. That it's basically built to last forever is pretty cool in its own right, but a Civic's combined 33 miles per gallon and nearly 40 miles per gallon on the highway more than make up for its "meh" aesthetics.

8. 2013 Volkswagen Jetta
MSRP: $16,720

The last time the Volkswagen Jetta was a cool car, people were setting adrift on memory bliss and investing in jeans with obnoxious buttons along the fly. Donna Martin graduated almost two full decades ago, but her car made the leap from Beverly Hills 90210 nostalgia to CW 90210 efficiency and reliability. Its nearly 30 combined miles per gallon, 200-horsepower engine, keyless access, push-button start, 15.5 cubic feet of trunk space, heated front seats, three feet of rear legroom, tech-laden steering wheel and touchscreen entertainment and information console with Bluetooth, HD Radio, navigation and MP3 player hookups makes for a much more cushy ride than its Clinton administration predecessor. With stability control, antilock brakes and a crash response system that unlocks the doors, cuts power to the fuel pump and throws on the hazard lights, it's also grown up right along with its Gen X fans. ABC's "TGIF" Friday night lineup wasn't this safe.

7. 2013 Fiat 500
MSRP: $16,100

The cinquecento is a tiny car trying to roll back decades of musclebound, near-misogynist Chrysler automaking and marketing. The 500 measures a scant 140 inches long and 64 inches wide, gives parallel parkers a 30.6-inch turning radius for squeezing into tight spots and finds room for 10 cubic feet of trunk space -- nearly double that of the Mini. The retractable, pool-cover-style sunroof, power outlets, five cup holders, cruise control, power windows and 38 miles-per-gallon highway mileage are a whole lot cooler to the post-bailout buyer base than gas-guzzling reincarnations of Dodge Charger and Challenger muscle cars. Maybe that's why the whole line is taking its cues from the 500 while Dodge and Chrysler's missteps fade into automotive history.

6. 2013 Mazda 3
MSRP: $16,700

The Mazda3 makes this KBB list on a regular basis thanks to a striking amount of power in an extremely small space. A 2.5-liter engine gives this little hatchback 167 horsepower, which basically dusts most vehicles in its class while still putting up nearly 30 miles per gallon of fuel efficiency. As for options, it joins the Fit and Versa in offering an engine-immobilizing anti-theft device, along with eight cupholders, six-speaker CD/MP3 player and front and side airbags. The options range from upgrades as simple as fog lights, a rear spoiler and dual exhausts to automatic xenon headlights, heated mirrors, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, leather upholstery and a power driver's seat with driver memory functions. Tacked-on tech toys include sunroofs and Bose 10-speaker sound systems with a six-CD changer, keyless ignition and entry, satellite radio, iPhone interface and a navigation system with steering wheel controls.

5. 2013 Dodge Dart
MSRP: $15,995

This isn't the chromed-out, tail-finned '60s dream boat Dart, but it isn't the mock-muscle car that had a V8 engine only as a costly option. The Dart returned after 36 years away and apparently stopped in italy during its vacation. The folks at Fiat stretched out an Alfa Romeo and shrugged off the big-box muscle for four-cylinder 2.0- and 2.4-liter engines and 160 horsepower. Since "cool" is largely about artifice anyway, Dodge has tricked out the Dart's options with 12 available exterior colors, 14 interior color combinations, three types of wheels, rear LED lighting and dual exhaust. It'll look race-ready, but its combined 31 miles per gallon of efficiency and 13 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk are more suited for weekend traffic than the track.

4. 2013 Honda Fit
MSRP: $15,425

One of the subcompacts that started the class' renaissance, the colorful and convenient Fit gets by on a whole lot of flexibility and user friendliness. The Fit's standard keyless entry, cruise control and CD player with iPod/USB jack are enticing, but modular seating, under-seat storage, 57.3 cubic feet of cargo room, 10 cup holders and combined mileage that exceeds 30 miles per gallon bring some cool perks to that little price tag.

3. 2013 Kia Soul
MSRP: $14,400

This wasn't such a cool ride in its early years, when it basically looked like every other boxy neo surf wagon on the street and became a minivan substitute. That's why why Kia gave the Soul an overdue overhaul in 2012 that streamlined its front and rear body, kicked its output up to 138 horsepower and improved its efficiency to a combined 31 miles per gallon. The nine-color palate, mix-and-match accent plates and audio and sunroof upgrades remain, but it's the Soul's versatile 60/40 rear seating and 23.7 cubic feet of cargo space (53.4 with the rear seats down) that makes it an ideal surf shack, bike shuttle or city shopping companion.

2. 2013 Ford Focus
MSRP: $16,310

There's a whole lot of buzz around the electric model, but the combined 32 miles per gallon that the standard puts up isn't to be scoffed at. Granted, cooler perks including Microsoft's ( MSFT) Sync system, its bevy of available apps, touchscreens, parking assist and other technology are all options. The 13 cubic feet of trunk volume isn't such great shakes either. It's a good thing this sleek little sedan is pretty.

1. 2013 Hyundai Veloster
MSRP: $17,600

Aimed toward the same drivers who loved the Mini's deceptive quickness, the Veloster's a light little speedster whose 1.6-liter engine and 138 horsepower are more than adequate for its needs. Unlike the Mini, however, the Veloster's sleek styling evokes more of a sports car than a retro subcompact. Given the frugal nature of today's car buyer, the Veloster's popularity is likely based more on its combined 34 miles per gallon and 10-year warranty than its alloy wheels, touchscreen entertainment system or Blue Link telematics and roadside assistance. Yet the fact that its driver's side has one door and the other has two gives it just enough character to make a case to bold-thinking bargain buyers.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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