BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Budget cars don't have to be boring -- if you buy one of these five models.
"There are a lot of very sporty and cool-looking cars that you can get for [modest prices]. You don't have to settle for a 'plain vanilla' car," says Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book, which recently named 2014's Coolest New Cars Under $18,000.
The annual list calls out cars that offer hip styling, sporty performance and other "cool" factors that belie their modest price tags.
Nerad says vehicles on the list are great choices for modest-income consumers, young people just starting out or older folks who need a low-cost extra car to keep around the house or leave at a vacation home.
He says car companies once put little effort into low-cost cars, but now pack them with as many features and as much stylishness as possible.
"The auto market is hotly competitive, and any sale is a sale," the expert says.
He adds that a low-cost vehicle is "very often the first car that someone buys -- and the automakers figure that if they can get you into their brand, they can keep you there for a while."
Look below to check out KBB's top picks for cool cars under $18,000. (Or, click here if you have a little more money to spend and want to check out the firm's recommendations for cool 2014 models under $25,000.)
Dollar figures refer to KBB's Fair Purchase Price, an estimate of what a given model is going for based on actual U.S. sales over the past week.
Fifth-coolest 2014 model under $18,000: Volkswagen Jetta gas-powered sedan
Fair Purchase Price: $16,076
"The Jetta has a European flair that virtually no other car in its segment offers," Nerad says. "What you're getting is German engineering and a European feel."
Jettas (which are European designed but actually built for the U.S. market in Mexico) come standard with a 115-horsepower four-cylinder engine, four-wheel braking and manual transmission.
Automatic transmission is optional, while upper trim levels boast a newly designed 170-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Hybrid and diesel-powered Jetta sedans are also available, as are wagons and sporty Jetta GLIs.
Fourth-coolest 2014 model under $18,000: Honda Civic Coupe
Fair purchase price: $17,291
The Civic Coupe has long been a sporty choice for budget buyers, and Nerad says this year's edition "continues the tradition of being inexpensive but a blast to drive."
Honda refreshed the compact model for 2014 with a stronger base engine, exterior styling improvements and a few other upgrades.
An entry level Civic Coupe comes with a 143-horsepower four-cylinder engine (up from 140 horsepower in 2013) and manual transmission. A newly designed continuously variable automatic transmission is also available, replacing last year's less-efficient five-speed automatics.
If you have more money to spend, you can also buy a sporty Civic Coupe Si or a Civic Sedan (regular or Si). "Green" buyers can even buy a Civic Sedan Hybrid, a special high-fuel-efficiency Civic Sedan HF or a Civic Sedan that runs on compressed natural gas.
Third-coolest 2014 model under $18,000: Kia Soul
Fair purchase price: $14,624
Those hip Kia Soul hamsters sure know how to pick cool inexpensive cars.
The boxy, youth-oriented Soul has become a top-seller for Kia since premiering in the 2010 model year, and the South Korean automaker has unveiled a next-generation version for 2014.
The revamped Soul features more cargo space, a six-speaker sound system and several other upgrades.
Base models have a 130-horsepower four-cylinder engine (surprisingly, down eight horsepower from last year) and come standard with manual transmission. Automatic transmission is optional, while higher trim lines include a stronger, 164-horsepower four-cylinder engine.
Nerad says the Soul's boxy layout gives the car lots of interior space even though the model features the lowest sticker price of any vehicle on KBB's top-five list.
"The squared-off design gives the Soul a sizeable back-seat area and lots of cargo space," he says.
Second-coolest 2014 model under $18,000: Hyundai Veloster
Fair purchase price: $17,650
If you're looking to stand out in a crowd, what better way to do so than to buy a car that's neither a two-door nor four-door but a three-door?
The Veloster has one big door on the driver's side, but a small front and back door on the passenger side -- part of an offbeat layout that Nerad says car shoppers will either love or hate.
"The Veloster's design is kind of a litmus test: you either like it or you don't," he says. "We think it's neat."
Base Velosters offer a 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. Automatic transmission (technically "automated manual transmission") is available for an extra price, while higher trim lines come with a beefier, 201-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
The Veloster also offers an unusually generous list of standard features, from a six-speaker stereo to a seven-inch touchscreen/rearview camera. The model also comes with Hyundai's industry-leading 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Coolest 2014 model under $18,000: Mazda Mazda3 Sedan
Fair purchase price: $16,673
Mazda completely redesigned this sporty small sedan for 2014, making a model KBB has long considered inexpensive and hip even better.
"The Mazda3 has got very cool exterior styling, and it's got a pretty sizeable interior as well," Nerad says.
He adds that the Japanese automaker put a lot of work into giving the Mazda3 exceptional fuel efficiency. Manual-transmission models get an impressive 29 miles per gallon in the city and 41 mpg/highway, while automatics enjoy 1 mpg higher efficiency in the city.
Nerad says Mazda "really had to re-engineer the whole car to get that level of fuel efficiency, and they really did some cool stuff." For example, he says, the model boasts a 13-1 compression ratio that's "almost unheard of in a gas-spark engine."
Entry level Mazda3s come standard with a 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. Automatic transmission is available, while higher trim lines come with a 184-horsepower four-cylinder power plant.