BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Buying a cheap car used to mean settling for bland looks, shaky reliability and an AM radio, but no more. Some of 2014's lowest-priced vehicles offer decent designs, upscale amenities, 10-year warranties -- or even all three.
"They used to call [low-priced] cars 'econoboxes' because you had to make certain compromises in terms of handling, feature content and interior quality, but things have really changed in recent years," says Warren Clarke of Edmunds.com, which analyzed all models on the U.S. market to determine this year's lowest-priced cars.
Clarke says automakers are packing more and more features into budget buggies these days partly because they realize today's entry-level buyer can become tomorrow's lifetime customer.
The expert adds that the Internet has made it so easy to compare cars that even entry-level models need a decent amount of standard equipment.
"Buyers these days are more savvy than in days gone by, and manufacturers realize the way to win over this audience is to give them high-quality products with the feature content that they've come to expect," he says.
Look below for a rundown of the U.S. auto market's five lowest-priced autos of 2014 (or click here for a look at this year's least-expensive sport utility vehicles). All dollar figures refer to manufacturers' suggested retail prices for each model's base version, with destination charges included.
2014's fifth-lowest-priced car: Kia Rio sedan
Base price: $14,700
The Rio offers a grand design for such a low-priced model.
"One of the things we like the most about the Rio is just how good it looks," Clarke says. "In days gone by, you really couldn't expect a low-cost car to look so stylish."
Base Rios also come with decent standard features, from a four-speaker stereo to a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. Under the hood, entry-level models have a 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. (You can upgrade to automatic transmission for around $1,100.)
On the downside, cruise control, power windows and other amenities standard on many cars are either optional on the base Rio or available only on higher trim lines. And surprisingly, the car comes with a tire-patching kit, but no spare tire.
2014's fourth-lowest-priced car: Smart Fortwo Coupe
Base price: $14,020
Brainy car buyers will like the Smart Fortwo.
That's because the tiny car has the smallest dimensions of any 2014 on the U.S. market, meaning it gets great gas mileage and can fit into parking spaces other drivers can only dream of squeezing into.
"If you live in an urban environment and want something that's easy to park, then the Smart Fortwo is a great choice," Clarke says.
He adds that occupants will find the tiny two-seater's interior "fairly roomy," but says the model's ride "can be a little rough -- and the cabin isn't nearly as impressive as those of other [low-priced] cars."
After all, entry-level Fortwos have an odd list of standard equipment that includes upscale items such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel while omitting common items such as cruise control. That costs extra, as do power steering, power windows and even a radio.
In fact, air conditioning wasn't a standard feature until the current model year, and a spare tire still isn't available even as an option (you just get a tire-patching kit). All non-electric Fortwos -- even those in the model's upper trim level -- also come with an underwhelming three-cylinder, 70-horsepower engine.
2014's third-lowest-priced car: Mitsubishi Mirage
Base price: $13,790
The Mirage's sub-$14,000 starting price is no figment of your imagination.
A new model for 2014, the subcompact hatchback combines a low price with great fuel economy and a decent list of standard features.
For instance, entry-level Mirages come with a rear spoiler, keyless entry and other amenities, while automatic-transmission models (which cost around $1,000 more) boast 37 miles per gallon in the city and 44 mpg/highway.
"The Mirage is a great choice if fuel economy is important to you," Clarke says.
Unfortunately, the car gets its great gas mileage from a 74-horsepower three-cylinder engine that offers less-than-stellar performance.
"The sacrifices you make with a Mirage are ride quality and acceleration, which aren't as strong as they are with other [low-cost] models," Clarke says. "But when you consider the entire package, the car offers a lot for the money."
2014's second-lowest-priced car: Chevrolet Spark
Base price: $12,995
"The Spark is one of those cars that have a low price tag, but never feel cheap," Clarke says. "It's a small car, but the interior is surprisingly roomy and you get lots of features for the money."
Base versions of the tiny four-door hatchback have few frills, but among them are power windows and a four-speaker stereo. The model comes standard with an 84-horsepower four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. (Automatic transmission costs an additional $1,300 or so.)
Clarke concedes that the Spark's small engine means the car's acceleration "isn't quite as spirited as that of some competitors, but it's a great car for people on a budget -- or for any buyer, really."
2014's lowest-priced car: Nissan Versa
Base price: $12,800
It's no vice to drive a Versa, the lowest-priced car on the U.S. market for some two years running.
Although entry-level Versas come standard with few features other than air conditioning and a stereo, Clarke says the subcompact sedan boasts a surprisingly well-designed interior.
"It's built really tall, which provides lots of headroom and makes the cabin feel really airy and spacious," he says. "The Versa also offers a really roomy rear seat, so it's a good choice if you frequently carry people in the back."
Base Versas come standard with 109-horsepower four-cylinder engines and manual transmission, but you can upgrade to automatic transmission for around $1,000 extra.