(MoneyWatch) Not long ago, buyers of inexpensive cars got just what they paid for. Materials often seemed cheap, especially on the interior, and performance and handling were mediocre at best. But high gas prices and federal rules tightening MPG requirements mean automakers need to sell more compacts and subcompacts. So new models have changed to inexpensive but cool.
Kelley Blue Book and its kbb.com web site polled its editors and reviewers to select the coolest cars available for under an $18,000 transaction price at dealerships. They say these models are fun to drive - and I agree. In addition, most of them have MPG ratings that will let you pass by the gas station more often than with your old car.
The winner, the Dodge Dart, is a 2013 model just going on sale. All the others are 2012 models. Here are more details on five of their top picks:
Dodge Dart Chrysler Group's first fully new car under the control of Fiat, the Dart, is a stylish debut. Handsome inside and out with a spacious cabin, its handling shows off its origins in a Fiat-owned Alfa Romeo model, as my test drive showed. It should be a worthy competitor in the compact class. Kelley data show the base SE model with a four-liter standard engine available at $16,790. But by stepping up in price to just over $18,000, you can get the much more fun 1.4-liter turbocharged engine and added high-tech features in the SXT version. This engine has a rating of 27 MPG in city driving, 39 highway.
Mazda Mazda 3 This car's name may be generic but its performance is anything but. Traditional Mazda focus on cars owners love to drive plus the company's new SkyActiv mileage-boosting technology is a winning combination. The Mazda 3 could be a little roomier, but if that isn't an issue for you, it can look like a bargain at what Kelley says is a $14,766 transaction price. MPG ratings are 25 city, 33 highway.
Chevrolet Sonic Chevrolet's new subcompact is off to a strong start in sales, and with good reason. The Aveo it replaces was a prime example of a lame small car. But the Sonic upgrades to a handsome exterior look, plus a comfortable interior. It uses the same engines as the bigger Chevrolet Cruze, a 1.8-liter standard engine and a 1.4-liter turbocharged choice. Mileage ratings are 26 MPG in the city, 35 highway. Kelley finds the Sonic available in the base model for $14,129.
Ford Fiesta Introduced in 2010, the Fiesta was one of the first subcompacts from U.S. automakers adapted from a popular European model. With an edgy, eye-catching styling, Fiesta stands out in its class. Reviewers surveyed by U.S. News ranked the Fiesta No. 2 among affordable small cars (behind only Honda Fit, which is much less cool looking). Beyond its looks, the Fiesta competes well on crisp handling and a comfortable interior. Fiesta's MPG rating is 28 city, 38 highway. Available in both sedan and hatchback, Kelley finds the Fiesta available starting at $13,382.
Kia Soul Undoubtedly the funkiest-looking entry on the list, the Soul is as cool as the hip-hop hamsters in its television ads. If you want practicality too, its squared-off styling translates to roomy cargo space. And the Soul has standard tech features like Bluetooth connectivity that are essential to young buyers. Available with both 1.6-liter and 2.0-liter engine options, the Soul is rated at 27 MPG city, 35 highway. With automatic transmission, the Kelley purchase price is $15,795.