If you equate an economy car as synonymous with deprivation, think again. Costing less than $15,000, some of the new models are not only affordable -- they're roomy, peppy and downright hip.
You need to do your homework before buying, though. Selecting the right car for your needs and lifestyle, especially one you can afford, is paramount according to two of the nation's automobile experts: Jack Nerad, executive editorial director of Kelley Blue Book, and George Peterson, president and founder of AutoPacific, an automotive research firm.
"Buying a new car is kind of like going through a cafeteria line. Your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Everybody aspires to more than they can afford," said Nerad. "You have to assess the finances -- the down payment and the monthly payment -- and also decide how long you're going to keep the car. Will it be worth it when you want to sell?"
Peterson concurred. "You should definitely check out major car research sites for consumers, including the Kelley Blue Book at kbb.com and Edmunds.com," he added. He also advised looking at credible automobile awards programs such as those based on consumer surveys conducted by J.D. Power and Associates and AutoPacific.
Regardless of your ultimate choice, when you buy an economy car you can be assured you are basically getting a vehicle that will pass every federal safety and emissions standard, Nerad said.
Asked what they considered a few of the top new economy cars on the road today, the auto experts both included the Nissan Versa and the Toyota Yaris.
Dubbed "the cheapest car in America" by U.S. News & World Report, the most stripped-down Versa 1.6 sedan can retail for less than $10,000. It features a five-speed manual transmission, no air conditioning and no power windows, but it gets 26 miles per gallon in town and 36 mpg on the highway.
For about $3,000 more, the subcompact Yaris sedan gives you air conditioning and 36 mpg on the open road.
The Ford Focus S also was mentioned by the auto gurus, although the price is slightly above $15,000. Basing their rankings on nearly four dozen published reviews and test drives, the U.S. News & World Report's Automotive Rankings & Reviews recently gave the Ford Focus "Good" or "Very Good" ratings for performance, exterior, interior and reliability, and an "Excellent" for safety.
The Honda Fit, at just slightly under $15,000, ranks top in its class in safety features and has been lauded for its spacious interior and cargo capability. It was also rated as the top economy car in a recent consumer opinion survey taken by AutoPacific.
While many economy cars offer little in the way of high-tech gadgetry, Nerad cited the Kia Soul as offering some fun extras generally found only in more expensive vehicles.
Under $13,500, "the KIA Soul is a pretty cool car," he said. The exterior appearance of this "box" car belies a popular high-tech entertainment system within. Here you'll find an iPod compatible USB that allows you to play favorite music with on-voice command, which is standard on the base model. Bluetooth hands-free phone capability and steering wheel audio controls also come standard in the Soul Plus, which still comes in under $15,000.
The diminutive Smart Car also received a mention from Nerad. Built by Mercedes-Benz, the golf cart-sized automobile is noteworthy for its ease of slipping into unbelievably small spaces and for getting 33 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway. The Smart Fortwo Pure listed price is less than $12,000, with keyless entry and a rear window defroster as part of the package. You'll also get a glass roof, sport steering wheel, CD player and power heated side mirrors when you buy the Smart Fortwo Passion, listed at just under $14,000.
While "rakish," "well appointed" and "loaded with high-tech gadgets" may not be the best descriptors for most of the autos in the economy class, many a buyer is content, and maybe a bit smug, with his or her smaller, less opulent choice in this recession-squeezed period. Driving a new car you can afford while getting up to 41 miles per gallon can be extraordinarily satisfying.