When shopping for new car on a budget, you may worry that you have to settle for something not that stylish or fun to drive. But KelleyBlue Book has shown that affordable and cool can co-exist among new cars selling for under $18,000.
And in this price range, you can find a lot more technology and safety features than in the past. "Cool has come a long way," said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "It's incredible to see all of the amazing tech features and amenities you can get on an affordable car these days compared to a decade ago."
Cool, of course, is a subjective judgment. But in picking their list, the Kelley analysts look for vehicles that are stylish and fun to drive. To qualify, the cars also must be reasonable to own -- including purchase price, fuel costs, maintenance and insurance costs, and resale value.
All the cars on the list start at a selling price of $18,000 or less for the base version using Kelley's Fair Market Range, which shows average transaction prices for a particular trim level of each vehicle.
Click here for a closer look at seven of the most interesting entries on the Kelley Blue Book list.
The Mazda3 finishes in the top spot on the cool list for the third year in a row. "Gorgeous and sporty outside as well as inside, the Mazda3 backs it all up with fun-focused driving dynamics and praiseworthy fuel efficiency," said Kelley Blue Book's Nerad.
That MPG rating of 29 in city driving and 40 on the highway puts the Mazda3 ahead of its compact sedan rivals. Reviewers surveyed by U.S. News also praised the Mazda3 for its comfortable, high-quality cabin. The Mazda3 starts at $17,670 with a manual transmission, according to Kelley Blue Book.
With an automatic transmission it's slightly over $18,000. The hatchback version, with more useful cargo space, starts around $18,075.
The Civic has long been a leader among compact cars, but analysts especially praise the redesigned 2016 model. In fact, the Civic finishes No. 1 among compacts among reviewers surveyed by U.S. News.
Those test drivers praise the Civic for an upgraded interior and crisp handling on winding roads. The base sedan LX version with manual transmission starts at about $17,800, according to Kelley's average selling price. However, adding options at higher trim levels can boost the price into the mid-$20s.
The Civic gas mileage is rated for 27 MPG in city driving, 40 on the highway with manual transmission. With continuously variable automatic transmission, those numbers rise to 31 city, 42 highway.
This subcompact SUV lives up to its Jeep heritage, with stylish looks and the ability to handle mud, rocks or any other surface off-road. Of the small SUVs I've test-driven, this is the coolest.
It comes with trade-offs, however. While the Renegade's handling is crisp, the suspension tuned for rough going can result in a bumpy ride at highway speeds. And it uses more gas than some competitors, with a rating of 24 MPG in city driving, 31 on the highway.
The base Sport model starts at about $17,825 in Kelley's market price range in the two-wheel drive version. Equipped with four-wheel drive, that starting price becomes about $19,700. Adding pricey options in higher trim levels pushes the Renegade into the mid-$20s.
The Golf's sharp handling and easy acceleration at highway speeds win praise from the test drivers surveyed by U.S. News. They also like the stylish interior and the ample cargo area that comes with the hatchback style.
The Golf's 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine is rated for 25 MPG in city driving, 36 on the highway with an automatic transmission, and 25 city, 37 highway with a manual.
Golf starts at $17,550, according to Kelley, with a manual transmission and $18,549 when equipped with an automatic.
The hip-hop hamster TV ads for the Soul were very cool, and so is the car itself. The Soul has a nicely equipped cabin and good interior space.
U.S. News named it the best compact car for families. Test drivers praised its nimble handling and smooth, quiet highway ride. Like the Jeep Renegade, however, the Soul has MPG ratings worse than some competitors, at 24 in city driving and 31 on the highway.
The Soul starts at about $15,650 with a manual transmission, according to Kelley Blue Book. With an automatic transmission, it starts at $17,050.
The Fit has long been the coolest affordable car for students or others who need to haul stuff. Test drivers praise its interior roominess and versatility with rear seats that turn into a flexible cargo hold. With passengers, the rear seats provide plenty of leg room.
With U.S. News reviewers it ranked No. 1 among subcompact vehicles. The Fit is rated for 33 MPG in the city and 41 on the highway with a continuously variable transmission.
With manual or automatic transmission, the Fit's LX version starts at about $15,825, according to Kelley Blue Book.
The Ford Fiesta, originally modified from a European model, was one of the first stylish small cars to be sold in the U.S. Test drivers praise its nimble handling and smooth ride.
The four-cylinder engine is rated for 27 MPG in city driving and 37 on the highway. If you're really into fuel economy, the Fiesta offers an unusual three-cylinder engine rated for 31 MPG city, 43 highway.
The least expensive car on this list, Fiesta starts at about $14,400 for the base S version and $15,500 for the better-equipped SE in either sedan or hatchback style.