Guest Article by The Car Family
A good family vehicle for under $20,000 isn’t difficult to find, especially if you can control your option urges. That isn’t to say that these inexpensive cars aren’t well equipped, especially in the safety category. However, the only three real reasons to buy a new car in this price range rather than purchasing a used vehicle is having it your way with a longer warranty, better financing rates, and that new car smell.
All things being equal, you can probably get a new car for less money than a one or two-year-old used model if you can make the minimum payment and have good credit. On the other hand, your license fee and insurance rates could be higher on the new model. We highly recommend that you don’t fall in love with any car until you have done your homework.
Our list is based on extensive testing. For the purposes of this list we have focused more on the overall usability of the vehicles as opposed to how fast they go or how well they corner.
One important note is that General Motors does not allow us to test any of its vehicles and so we cannot comment on them. All other manufacturers do allow us extended testing time. We have used the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, so keep in mind that you can probably get a better deal locally. Indeed, we have seen the excellent Dodge Caravan offered for under $20,000 and it is one of the very best family vehicles you can buy.
The Kia Rondo is the perfect family vehicle and I really liked it, but the Rondo could use more power — even if it’s at the cost of another mile per gallon. The Rondo is easy to enter and exit, has a nice sized steering wheel for those of us with small hands, has an abundance of storage places and cupholders, and the seats are comfortable. I would have liked a power rear gate, but for well under $20,000 this is plenty of car.
Besides the objective points of excellent fuel mileage, good brakes and handling, and even room for seven, the Kia scores with me on more subjective grounds as it looks unique. I also liked the Mazda 5, which has better handling and is a snap to load and unload, but its looks put me off. Maybe if I were younger I could appreciate it more.
Right now, for the price, the Kia Rondo is the winner.
Ford’s Fusion is my favorite family vehicle, but I would go for the Suzuki SX4 or the MINI Cooper if I were younger. The Ford has a nice ride, enough energy even with the base engine, but I would recommend the V6 optional unit. Fusions are for sale in a variety of trim models for under $19,000. The Fusion was overlooked by most of the major car magazines from the start because it wasn’t fast, but they frequently feel that handling and acceleration are the keys to a good car. We believe that reliability, safety, and usability come first and this Ford has all of them. Indeed, with the promise of a new Ford Focus replacement or supplement, Ford looks like the American car company most likely to do well in the coming years until the other firms catch their breath.
Although I liked the Chevrolet Malibu/Saturn Aura, General Motors no longer allows us to test its products and so I have no comment to make. My second choice is the very fun to drive MINI. It is easy to park, gets gas mileage in the 30 mpg range if you take it easy, and now with larger Clubman version there is enough cargo space to put a week’s worth of fiddles. The MINI is very good car for those flexible enough to get in and out without harming themselves.
Excellent resale, too, but the MINI is really only for a young family due to a lack of interior space.
Young Working Woman’s View:
I find it difficult in these times to select a vehicle other then one made in America such as the Dodge Caliber or the Ford Focus, or the Chevrolet Caliber. But the standout to me is the Mazda 3, which is owned in part by Ford so I’m going with the hatchback version of this dandy as my first choice.
The ride is a bit choppy, and the car sits low, but once inside it just feels fun. There are cubby holes everywhere, the outside visibility is good, and it can easily carry four adults in comfort and still have luggage space in back. The handling and brakes are excellent, but it is the Mazda’s ease of parking and loading that make it a great family vehicle. Gas mileage seldom drops below 23 mpg even with hard driving. It is not particularly babyseat friendly, though.
My second selection would be the Ford Focus. I know it has been around a long time, but it is much larger inside then one would think, has a fairly youthful look to it, and the engine and transmission work well together with fuel economy consistently over 30 mpg. I have seen these advertised for under $15,000 and that is less than a Scion and it is much easier to drive then those Toyota products with more visibility and a less quirky interior treatment.
Young Working Man’s View:
I make computers and open software servers at a low cost firm and find it convenient to have a vehicle that gets good fuel mileage and has plenty of space inside to move components and units. Although I like the look of the Dodge Avenger and its better then expected ride, the three that appeal to me the most are the Volkswagen Jetta wagon, the Ford Escape, and the Nissan Rogue.
The Rogue has a fine feel and always attains over 23 mpg. It is simple to park with a tight turning radius and is priced less than the other Japanese products with similar features.
The tried and proven Ford Escape is priced under $20,000 as well, but what is attractive to me is how inexpensive it is to insure and maintain. If you get the front wheel drive model with the base model you are going to get 24 mpg and be invisible to the authorities, should that be a concern. It is still the best SUV that Ford produces.
But my favorite is the Jetta wagon. Not just because it gets better mileage than the Escape or Rogue, but becomes it is much easier to live with a lower liftover for heavy loads, a more comfortable interior, and less road noise. Women seem to be drawn to its good looks, which is always a good sign for me, but most of all it feels much more expensive then its pricing.
Family shoppers should note that SUVs don’t have to meet the same safety requirements as passenger cars. That is why large passenger car such as the underrated Ford Taurus always are rated the safest. Also keep in mind that the higher the center of gravity of a vehicle, how tall it is, and the more likely it is to rollover.
Sadly, but typically, there is no consensus from The Car Family about the best family oriented vehicle under $20,000.
Perhaps the only unanimous conclusion is that a sharp buyer in today’s market can get a lot of car for under $20,000 and nearly all of them are quite capable of getter over 20 mpg with ease.
No one selected the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe or the gas sipping Honda Fit. Also missed was the Nissan Sentra with its excellent fuel mileage. All of these are excellent vehicles, but when you put a family onboard the handling dynamics change, as does the performance of a vehicle.
That is why it is strongly recommended that you take the entire family with you when road testing to get a family view. That is what we do and that is why our reviews make recommendations often at odds with the major magazines and websites. And please keep in mind that larger SUVs are not safer for families.
For more analysis, broken down by manufacturer, check out the full article on the Car Family’s website.
For more reviews go to Car Family Car Reviews