- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

While fuel prices have skyrocketed the cost of a new car still remains affordable. A lengthy list of models priced under $20,000 come with the added bonus of being thrifty with gas. Many include the creature comforts we have come to expect in larger, more expensive cars, such as leather seats, keyless entry, audio system with MP3 capability, and optional navigation systems. I’ve selected some desirable under 20k models to put on your radar screen.

The Hyundai Elantra is top-rated by Consumer Reports for its performance, safety and reliability. It’s a good-looking small car with styling you would expect from luxury sedans. It has Euro-style sporty handling, plus a roomy backseat and trunk for its size. Hyundai offers an industry-leading warranty - 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper protection, plus 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain protection and five-year roadside assistance. For 2009, Hyundai is introducing a five-door “Touring” (which is what station wagons are called in Europe), arriving in showrooms by the end of this year. Prices for the Elantra are $13,625 to $17,325.

Odd, but Volkswagen still calls it the New Beetle, even though the re-design of the iconic bug is 10 years old, and most of us just call it the Beetle. It’s fun to look at and fun to drive. Although it has sparkling acceleration, the bug doesn’t share the zippy handling of sportier low-cost models, including its own sibling, the Rabbit. The Beetle is smooth and comfortable for long trips - a surprisingly good highway cruiser, with an impressive 28-mpg highway rating. Unless you crave the nostalgia of your former Hippie self or you’re buying this for a grandkid who could do it for you, my advice is to go for the VW Jetta. It’s around the same price as a Beetle, but you’ll get more room, more power, more safety features, and the same city/highway mileage. Prices: $17,475 to $20,525.

The Nissan Versa is available as a four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback, both with six airbags as standard equipment, more than other models in this price range (ditto for the optional cruise control). Versa is roomy for its small size and the six-speed manual tells you this has some performance creds, too. But let’s be honest, a 1.8-liter, 122-hp engine is no rocket ship. Versa is a gas sipper with miles per gallon ratings of 27 city and 33 highway when equipped with Nissan’s continuously variable transmission. Sales are up nearly 20 percent over 2007, so Nissan obviously is doing something right with the Versa. Suggested retail: $12,880 to $15,980

The Saturn Astra has been popular in Europe for several years, under GM’s Opel brand. Introduced to North America this year, it replaces the unpopular Saturn Ion. The Astra has smart styling inside and out, with an interior that feels more upscale than other vehicles in this price range, including contoured seats with real side bolsters that feel solid. Maybe it’s the European heritage. There’s also an option for heated leather seats, which I like even in warm weather to soothe my aching back instead of taking a yoga class. The five-door model has more trunk space than the three-door, and in both models the rear seats fold down for additional cargo space. Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price: $15,875 to $18,375.

The Patriot has the boxy, rugged looks of a classic Jeep, before the brand went sleek and stylish, such as with the Compass, which is more car-like than Jeep-like. If you’re looking for off-road capabilities, then it’s the Patriot. The Compass is more like a Dodge Caliber in Jeep clothing, even with its 4WD package. However, both models offer impressive fuel efficiency for their size and power - 23/28 mpg put the Patriot and Compass in the best-of-class range for small SUVs, and both offer lots of legroom for driver and passengers. Inside, these Jeeps are nothing fancy, just functional. Patriot pricing: $16,485 to $22,855; Compass pricing: $17,475 to $23,205.

Ford’s longtime best-selling F-150 truck has been losing market share to the Toyota Tacoma, a pickup with an array of cab and bed combinations, including a double-cab that seats five in sedan-like space. Tacoma gets high safety ratings in crash testing, which makes sense, since it was built to passenger-car safety standards. But don’t expect a car-like ride. This is a truck, after all, and it feels like one, whether you’re bumping over a city pothole or a rutted dirt road in the woods or the farm. If most of your trucking is hauling equipment heavier than your family, the V-6 engine will do a better job than the 4-cylinder. The trade-off? The smaller I-4 engine gets an impressive 20/25 mpg. Pricing: $14,280 to $26,115.

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