Ask car fans to name the "best" new cars available, and answers will likely include 200-mph exotics from Ferrari and Lamborghini, or ultra-luxury machines like the Rolls-Royce Phantom and Bentley Mulsanne. Yet our nation's median household income hovers just below $53,000, meaning the vast majority of car shoppers can't afford those luxury models. So what are the best vehicles that the average person can actually afford? To help us narrow down our list, we set a price barrier and picked the ten best new cars under $35,000. The list represents cars that we enjoy driving and would consider owning, within the aforementioned price constraint.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Base Price (including destination): $24,515
The Mazda MX-5 Miata was the first car we ever named our Automobile of the Year, way back in 1990, and 23 years later it's still one of our favorites. The reasons we love Japan's small roadster haven't changed since 1990. With lithe reflexes, simple design, sporty rear-wheel-drive dynamics, and an affordable entry price, the Miata appeals to everyone from weekend racers to weekend vacationers.
"It is so light and so graced with helpful suspension attitudes, that it flicks into bends in instant response to the wheel. If ever the virtues of low mass and its intelligent distribution need reviewing, the Miata willingly demonstrates them," we said on naming the Miata our 1990 Automobile of the Year. Today, we still appreciate the simple, fun driving dynamics of the Mazda roadster. It's equally at home bombing down a twisty road or pounding a track day, as it is ferrying couples on summertime dates. And a base price of just $24,515 (including destination) makes the car affordable to almost anyone. Upper models can be equipped with a power-folding hardtop or goodies like leather seats, sating buyers who need a modicum of luxury.
Want more proof we love the Miata? Four members of our staff own one.
Subaru BRZ / Scion FR-S
Base Price: Subaru $26,265 / Scion $25,255
The Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S may not be the fastest or flashiest new cars, but their stated goal appeals directly to our collective hearts. Subaru and Toyota designed the rear-wheel-drive coupes to offer top-notch driving fun at modest prices -- and succeeded so well that the pair of sports cars is among our favorites in any price range.
Though the cars' 2.0-liter flat-four engine produces just 200 hp, tepid in terms of today's sports cars, we have no qualms about the power output. "Anyone who says the car should have a turbo is missing the point," we opined in a December 2011 First Drive. "The BRZ is fun because of handling, not because of a sledgehammer that hits when you mash the gas pedal."
Allowing staffers to pilot a Subaru BRZ on a track during Automobile of the Year testing further cemented its performance credentials. "I have no qualms in saying this was the best driver's car we brought to AOY testing. Heck, it may even be the best driver's car on the market," said copy editor Rusty Blackwell. Bear in mind we also had a Porsche 911 and Boxster S on hand, and it's clear how much we enjoy driving the BRZ/FR-S twins.
Ford Mustang V-6 / GT
Base Price: $22,995
The Ford Mustang is an American icon, but that's not the only reason we love the car: the latest version is great to drive and provides bundles of style for a reasonable price. The Mustang oozes retro American design and offers lots of straight-line performance for only a little money. The standard V-6-powered model is the cheapest 300-hp car you can buy today; the GT and its 5.0-liter V-8 is America's cheapest 400-hp car. And the Mustang is equally at home on a road course or boulevard.
"This car is great," wrote Blackwell on testing the 2013 Mustang. "I've known that since I first drove the fully redesigned 2005 Mustang, and Ford has continued to build upon that car's greatness since then."
The beauty of the Mustang lies not only in the 1970s soundtrack and heroic acceleration from the 420-hp GT model, but also from the way it caters to all buyers. There are automatic transmissions, V-6 engines, and power soft tops for those making a style statement; six-speed manuals, throaty engines, and coupes with spoilers for those who want to drive fast. Ford has even expanded availability of its upgrade parts and packages to all Mustang variants, so now even the lowliest convertible with an automatic transmission could conceivably get the aggressive Brembo brakes and tougher sports suspension of more expensive Mustangs. That pleases speed freaks like us.
For even more fun, we prefer the 444-hp Mustang Boss 302 (which was discontinued after the 2013 model year) or 662-hp Shelby GT500 versions -- but both are out of this list's price range.
Base Price: Golf $18,890 / GTI $24,995
The Volkswagen GTI won our Automobile of the Year award twice, in 2007 and 2010, two testaments to our decades-long love affair with the hot hatchback. Yet we're also fans of its base, the Golf hatchback, because the dependable model has been stylish, satisfying for the driver, and (in TDI diesel form) remarkably efficient ever since it arrived on American shores in 1975 (as the Rabbit).
The current version of the Golf continues that trend with German styling and quality that appears far more impressive than the hatchback's modest price tag would suggest. The Golf's driving dynamics, too, are a step above competitors in this segment. Its hot brother, the GTI, adds to that quality and practicality with a Goldilocks dash of performance -- not too fast, not too slow -- that makes it our favorite hot hatchback. And next year the Golf 7 will migrate from Europe to the U.S., bringing a lighter platform, even more efficient engines, and better equipment.
Best of all, there's a Golf for every need. A basic model with 2.5-liter gas engine starts at only $18,890. The TDI returns an impressive 30/42 mpg (city/highway). The 200-hp GTI can accelerate to 60 mph in just 6.8 seconds. And absolute speed freaks can step up to the pricey, all-wheel-drive, 256-hp Golf R.
Base Price: $32,795
We were aware that Volvo had thoroughly redesigned the S60 for 2011, but only on driving it for our annual All-Stars and Automobile of the Year festivities did we really pay attention to the Swedish sedan. "The Volvo S60 was easily the biggest surprise during this year's All-Stars test," wrote contributor Ezra Dyer. "[It] retains its Swedish personality but now challenges the class leaders on refinement and handling."
The S60 seduced us with its modern looks, exceptional interior design and quality, surprisingly deft handling, and torquey turbocharged engines. Top-notch leather, wood trim, and aluminum define the interior; even the entry-level T5 engine offers up 250 hp. So enamored were we that we ordered up a Volvo S60 for a year-long Four Seasons test. We soon found that the S60 was able to wear many hats: comfortable highway cruiser, exciting sports sedan, and beautiful artwork.
When our Four Seasons car departed, we said, "The S60 is a perfect example of how mastering the fundamentals creates a car that feels like so much more than the sum of its parts." Indeed, the Volvo feels as special and rewarding as similar sedans from German luxury brands. No wonder we'd love to get behind the wheel of another one.
Base Price: $22,470
On sale for 38 years and built on U.S. soil for 31, the Honda Accord has repeatedly challenged the idea of what a midsize car should be. Though it has at times lost its way -- the previous generation, for instance, felt too large and bloated -- the Accord remains one of our favorite midsizers for several key reasons. The Accord has always impressed us with peppy engines, sportier chassis tuning than rivals, and strong ergonomics that prioritize visibility and ease-of-use. It's efficient, it's satisfying to drive, it's affordable, and it's well-designed for everyday driving.
The car was recently redesigned, and the 2013 Accord continues to delight with improved fuel economy, tauter, improved handling, and a longer list of optional technologies. It's offered in four basic configurations: coupe or sedan, each with a choice between four- and six-cylinder engines. Safety gadgets like a LaneWatch blind-spot camera and forward collision warning join the equipment roster for 2013; a new continuously variable transmission helps four-cylinder fuel economy leap to 27/36 mpg (city/highway).
"The Accord's ride is still a bit tauter than the segment norm, but the new car is far, far more willing to turn into corners," we wrote. "Owners of the old Accord will feel like they've landed in a luxury hotel the second they slip into the new interior."
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Base Price: $28,690
The Jeep Grand Cherokee arrived after Chrysler stared down bankruptcy with a contemporary design, a high-quality cabin, and great driving performance. It was a huge leap forward from the previous Grand Cherokee that made the Jeep one of our favorites in the segment. We were so impressed, we ordered one for a Four Seasons test -- and that year-long experience only further impressed us. "I drove the very first Grand Cherokee and remember clearly how shockingly civilized it was compared with what had come before," said editor-in-chief Jean Jennings. "This newest Grand Cherokee is at least that big of a step forward."
Keys to our heart include a responsive and more fuel-efficient V-6 engine, a grunty Hemi V-8, and a long list of in-car technology that includes navigation, Bluetooth, forward collision warning, and air suspension. The Grand Cherokee is comfortable enough for road trips, capable of hauling trailers and cargo, and stylish enough that it can command prices approaching those of German SUVs -- our Four Seasons example was $45,805. "Plenty of power from this V-6," wrote one staffer who drove our long-term Jeep; "I'm blown away by the beautiful, comfortable, user-friendly interior," offered another.
The Grand Cherokee will continue to be appealing thanks to several upgrades for the 2014 model year. An eight-speed automatic replaces the old five-speed and should increase fuel economy significantly, cabin materials are improved, the front end scores a mild facelift, and a new turbodiesel V-6 engine should offer up to 30 mpg and a cruising range of 730 miles.
Base Price: $23,635
In many ways, the 2013 Ram 1500 goes against the pickup-truck grain. It offers segment-leading fuel economy of up to 25 mpg, luxurious quilted leather, and expensive gadgets like self-leveling air suspension. It's more cultivated than the back-to-basics image projected by some other full-size pickups. That amount of sophistication and refinement goes a long way to explaining why we like the Ram so much.
Ram made strides to improve fuel economy not with an expensive twin-turbo engine, but with an eight-speed automatic transmission and tricks like active grille shutters, electric power steering, and lighter materials. The automaker made the truck's interior nicer by adding higher-quality leathers, better plastics, and a longer list of upgrade packages. Still, there's plenty of strength on hand for customers who actually use a truck for work, with neat features like lockable storage boxes in the bed. As a result, you can order everything from a stripped-out basic truck, to a four-door luxury machine that serves as a convincing family hauler, to a supremely capable truck ready for any hauling or towing need.
"They may be indulgences, but we think a load-leveling air suspension, weather-tight storage boxes, and a posh interior make a lot of sense in America where buyers use their trucks for both commuting and weekend home improvement projects," we wrote.
We especially like the Ram Express, which has a 395-hp Hemi V-8 and goes, sounds, and behaves just like a tall muscle car. The great thing about the Ram 1500, however, is that there are so many possible configurations and equipment packages that there is a truck suited to every buyer.
Base Price: $23,190
The Jeep Wrangler is a go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle that has resisted the march of progress and time and clung to its original design brief. Favored by off-roaders for its tough bones, by outdoorsy types for its practical nature, and by sun worshippers who appreciate its easy-to-fold soft top, the Wrangler appeals to us because it hasn't abandoned its roots. The truck-like chassis, blocky design, and old-school suspension are cool precisely because they demonstrate a commitment to honoring function over concerns like form or fuel economy.
Even as the Wrangler has become more road- and consumer-friendly, with additions like electronic stability control and even navigation on some models, the Jeep still speaks to its roots with tough versions like the Rubicon. Yet the Jeep is no longer purely for dedicated mud fans: "Unlike the Wranglers of yore, in which you were forced to compromise comfort and usability for the fun of off-roading prowess and open-air motoring, this new Wrangler is a vehicle you could easily live with every day," said managing editor Amy Skogstrom.
There's a Jeep for every buyer: the standard two-door or the four-door Unlimited; basic and affordable Sport models or trail-ready versions with off-serious off-roading abilities. "Now that Jeep is building hardcore vehicles for its traditional Wrangler fans and also building easier to live with, but no less capable, models that expand the brand's appeal, it's easy to see why Wrangler sales regularly surpass 100,000 units per year," wrote senior web editor Phil Floraday.
Base Price: $31,795
When buyers need to haul six or seven passengers, they typically look either to a minivan or a bloated three-row crossover. There is, however, another option that's frequently overlooked: the Ford Flex. With ruler-straight lines, bold chrome, and a retro wagon-look, the Flex exudes style in a way minivans can only dream of. Though off-putting to some traditionalists, we find the upscale looks of the Flex refreshing in a sea of rounded, bloated three-row vehicles. Moreover, a roomy interior and plentiful options mean the Flex is just as pleasant and accommodating as its three-row rivals.
While most buyers will appreciate that front-wheel-drive models return 25 mpg on the highway, closeted lead-foots will love the way the twin-turbo V-6 in the Flex EcoBoost sends 365-hp to all four wheels. There are also more sensible options: forward collision warning, blind-spot warning, inflatable rear seatbelts that act like airbags, and a giant panoramic sunroof to let in sunlight. No matter how you equip it, the Flex is remarkably good to drive and stands out from the crowd.
We concede that the Ford Flex is a little more expensive than other three-row crossovers, its design is polarizing, and its hinged rear doors are less useful than a minivan's sliding openings, we still love the Flex's blend of utility and style. To our collective eyes, it's the most interesting and desirable three-row vehicle priced below $40,000.