PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- When it comes to auto sales, “affordable” is a debatable term.
The U.S. auto industry reached 15.6 million vehicle sales last year after bottoming out at 10.4 million in 2009. While the industry is on pace for 15.9 million sales this year, the average price of a new car in this country sits at $32,000, according to Kelley Blue Book. That's more than half of the U.S. median household income of $51,000, which is technically affordable but not realistic for many folks looking to buy a new vehicle outright.
Sales of new cars have increased 4.3% year to date, but used cars have continued to be hot commodities as inventory recovers from the economic downturn and buyers seek deals. Publicly traded used car dealers have watched vehicle sales rise for 19 consecutive quarters and by double-digit percentages in three of the past four quarters alone. Prices for used vehicles are up across the board, with cars that were selling for $8,000 to $10,000 less popular this year than models going for $11,000 to $14,000.
As a result, automotive data service Polk found that the average age of cars and light trucks on U.S. roads to be 11.4 years. That's up from 8.9 years a decade ago and 9.8 as recently as 2007. The average U.S. driver not only isn't in the market for another car -- new or used -- but will have to be pried away from his or her vehicle by force before heading to a dealership.
“Shoppers face legitimate sticker shock when shopping for a new car,” said Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor of new and used car pricing site Cars.com. “While advertisements often lead shoppers to believe that cars are quite affordable, the reality is that the price of entry for even a modestly equipped new car is well above what many shoppers expect.”
The sticker isn't the only shock drivers are in for when buying a new vehicle. A base model at the lowest price will typically be stripped down to nothing, while the cost of putting fuel into that car can add significant costs to the vehicle's purchase price. Cars.com recently went looking for the most affordable vehicles on the road and considered the cost of each car, the destination fee and the five-year cost of fueling each vehicle. Minimum amenities included power windows and door locks as well as Bluetooth capability and a USB port.
With that in mind, they were able to find the following 10 vehicles, with starting prices below $18,000 that will cost their buyers less than $27,000 to own over the next five years:
10. 2014 Ford Fiesta SE Sedan
Purchase price: $17,500
Five-year fuel cost: $9,000
Total cost: $26,500
There's always somebody out there who's going to buy the sedan version of the subcompact that was meant to be a hatchback.
That's who this car is made for: People who like small cars and their mileage but don't care about looking cool or having a little extra space. The Fiesta sedan may not be as sexy as the hatchback version, but it still has Bluetooth and digital media player compatibility through Microsoft's SYNC system, ambient lighting, tons of available apps and its 28 miles per gallon city in the city and 36 on the highway. You have to make do without available playthings such as a power moonroof, heated leather-trimmed seats and capless fuel intake, but there's a price to be paid for frugality.
9. 2014 Mazda2 Sport with automatic transmission
Purchase price: $16,630
Five-year fuel cost: $9,250
Total cost: $25,880
This little hatchback will get you from Point A to Point B, but it will take a while. Its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine puts out a sled-dog-ish 100 horsepower and only features an automatic transmission as an option.
None of that helps it conserve fuel. That $9,250 worth of fuel costs over five years makes the Mazda2 the gas guzzler of this list, with fuel economy that sits at a combined 31 miles per gallon. That's kind of disappointing for a car with a fairly small seating area and only 13.3 cubic feet of space in the trunk that only expands to 27.8 cubic feet with the seats somewhat down (they don't really fold all the way down).
At the Sport level, you don't even get simple features such as alloy wheels, foglights, a leather-wrapped wheel, cruise control, six-speaker stereo and wheel-mounted audio controls. You also don't get any motivation to buy this car, beyond its low starting price.
8. 2014 Toyota Yaris LE 3-door
Purchase price: $16,825
Five-year fuel cost: $8,750
Total cost: $25,575
Really like Toyota's hybrids but aren't a big fan of the upfront costs?
Meet the Yaris, Toyota's upgraded subcompact hatchback that improves upon the tiny bare-bones Toyota Echo and adds a bit more fun to a Yaris brand once pigeonholed as the cheap option on the rental lot.
The 1.5-liter, 106 horsepower engine isn't great, but the LE's combined 33 miles per gallon easily trumps rote features such as remote keyless entry, cruise control, 60/40 folding rear seats and a tight 15.6 cubic feet of cargo room.
7. 2014 Toyota Prius c One
Purchase price: $19,890
Five-year fuel cost: $5,500
Total cost: $25,390
Ever see a Toyota Yaris and wonder what kind of mileage it would get if Toyota dropped a hybrid engine into it?
Read More: 10 Best Used Luxury Cars Under $30,000
Meet the Prius c, which Toyota claims is for “city” but we assure you means “compact.” With just 87 cubic feet of seating capacity and 17 cubic feet of cargo room, the Prius c is an efficient and relatively inexpensive little urban grocery getter. It gets a combined 50 miles to the gallon, but the 53 miles per gallon it gets on the highway begs for a long, cozy ride on the open road.
6. Nissan Versa Note SV
Purchase price: $17,340
Five-year fuel cost: $8,000
Total cost: $25,340
This is the version of the Versa that Nissan actually cares about.
The hatchback's 34.9 cubic feet of trunk space is a massive improvement over the sedan version. Meanwhile, amenities including upgraded cloth seats, power windows and doors, Bluetooth connectivity, remote keyless entry, wheel-mounted audio controls and a leather steering wheel are luxuries in the Versa's world.
Its 109-horsepower has no pep whatsoever, but combined mileage of 35 miles per gallon and highway mileage of more than 40 miles per gallon is this spare hatchback's main attraction.
5. 2015 Honda Fit LX with continuously variable transmission
Purchase price: $17,115
Five-year fuel cost: $7,750
Total cost: $24,865
One of the subcompacts that started the class' renaissance, the colorful and convenient Fit got by on a whole lot of flexibility and user friendliness. This year, it gets a complete revamp.
Cargo space shrinks from 57.3 cubic feet with the seats down to 52.7, but the seats get a little more modular, to the point that the passenger seat folds back to serve as a footrest for a passenger in the back who wants to sleep for this leg of the trip. Backup cameras, touchscreen audio system and Bluetooth connectivity all make for a pleasant, comfortable ride for driver and passenger.
But it's the mileage that's been jacked up to 33 miles per gallon in the city and a whopping 41 on the highway (a combined 37 mpg) that's the Fit's most impressive new feature. That 97 cubic feet of passenger space isn't huge, but when it's two people hitting the road, it's all you need from a fun and frugal ride.
4. 2014 Nissan Versa SV
Purchase price: $16,340
Five-year fuel cost: $8,000
Total cost: $24,340
This car would be an absolute econobox if you didn't upgrade to the SV package.
Only the Versa makes a hatchback seem luxurious. You get the feeling that Nissan would have included the wheels, body, engine and powertrain as "features" if it thought it could get away with it. There are a scant 14.9 cubic feet of trunk space that actually comes up short of the Note hatchback version's cargo room by 10 cubic feet. It has traction control, ABS brakes, airbags and a whole lot of other safety features that are fairly standard by now.
Its 109-horsepower engine is tiny, its NissanConnect tech offerings are extra and its chrome accents, trip computer, outdoor temperature gauge, four speakers and 60/40 folding rear seats are listed as key amenities. What would draw someone to this car beyond price? Well, the automatic does get combined mileage of more than 35 miles per gallon. To the frugal car buyer, that's the greatest luxury of all.
3. 2014 Chevrolet Spark 1LT Automatic
Purchase price: $15,820
Five-year fuel cost: $8,250
Total cost: $24,070
It's tough to think of this little hatch as a “cool” car, but there are lots of cool elements to it for very little money.
For less than $16,000 upfront, 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 Siri assistant for an “eyes-free” mode that reads scores, takes down text and email messages, sets reminders and make phone calls. Add a the OnStar driver assistance system, a SirusXM satellite radio trial, BringGo navigation, TuneIn radio, 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.
2. 2014 Scion iQ base
Purchase price: $16,420
Five-year fuel cost: $7,500
Total cost: $23,920
This car is small, but since when hasn't that been a cool thing? Baby boomers drove the Volkswagen Beetle into American cultural iconography while Gen Xers took the Mini Cooper from a punch line in an Austin Powers movie to a pint-sized powerhouse that made every trip to the convenience store a chase scene from The Italian Job.
Toyota's Scion IQ is smart and small without that car's big price tag. Sure, you're packed into 74 cubic feet of passenger space and have only 3.5 cubic feet in the trunk when the rear seats are up, but a combined 36.5 miles per gallon, seven-color palate, Pioneer audio system with Bluetooth and HD Radio and myriad safety features make this microcompact more cozy than cramped.
1. 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage DE automatic
Purchase price: $15,015
Five-year fuel cost: $7,000
Total cost: $23,015
No hybrid engine, no plug: Just a light little compact that makes the most of its fuel.
We're going to stress that this is not a big car by any measure. About 12 feet long and little more than five feet wide, the Mirage doesn't even provide the illusion of space. But its 17 cubic feet of trunk space is larger than the Volkswagen Jetta's and increases to 47 cubic feet with the hatchback's seats down.
The standard features are fairly, well, standard: Power windows and locks, keyless entry, USB port, split-folding rear seat, automatic air conditioning. For getting hybrid mileage without having to pay hybrid prices or worry about replacing the battery in a decade or so, this is still a bargain.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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