Used-car prices are going up, and gas prices remain high.
That makes new small cars with good mileage even more attractive to car shoppers. However, low starting prices under $15,000 don’t really translate to the transaction price most buyers face when you include equipment that’s almost a prerequisite today, such as an automatic transmission and power windows.
Over the 2011 and 2012 model years, more than a dozen new small cars will, or have been, released. They range from the traditional — like the Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent — to the quirky Fiat 500.
We decided to add another factor into this comparison that we haven’t included in the others: the cost of gas. For each model, we also included a year’s worth of gas to the total cost of the car — 15,000 miles’ worth of traveling in a mix of city and highway at $3.96 per gallon.
Each model must come equipped with power windows, locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; air conditioning; an automatic transmission; and electronic stability control. The lack of electronic stability control on the 2011 Chevrolet Aveo and Kia Rio disqualified each model from the comparison.
Adding the cost of gas causes an interesting twist for some models, as cheaper but less fuel-efficient cars get beaten by traditionally more expensive and fuel-efficient ones. Ultimately, the most affordable budget car will be fuel efficient and will offer an array of features for a good price.
For this comparison, we looked at the 2012 Hyundai Accent, 2011 Mazda2, 2011 Ford Fiesta and 2011 Honda Fit while including a cost comparison on the rest of the field.
2011 Honda Fit
The Honda Fit is often regarded as the original premium budget vehicle and the benchmark for which all other new entries are often judged. The model’s base trim comes well-equipped, getting all the interior amenities we required for this comparison. For the 2011 model year, Honda made electronic stability control standard on all models.
The base Fit also gets cruise control, remote entry and a USB interface standard, too, for the model year. The Honda’s five-speed automatic transmission costs only $800, and it increases the vehicle’s gas mileage to 28/35 mpg on the evaluated base trim. (Gas costs $1,919 for a year).
Total cost for a Fit is $18,569, which is more expensive than any other vehicle in this comparison, but only by $400.
Despite the slight price premium compared with the other models, the Fit comes better equipped than the Mazda2, Fiesta or even the new Accent. In a twist, the Fit is cheaper than models like the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Kia Soul – those vehicles are often priced below the Honda, but poor fuel economy and/or feature availability contributes to this about-face.
Notable Features You’ll Get: iPod/USB controls, 10 cupholders, active head restraints, drive-by-wire throttle system, cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel
2011 Ford Fiesta sedan
The Fiesta is Ford’s first foray into the subcompact realm since the Aspire quietly died in 1997. Unlike the Aspire econobox, Ford has given Americans a product equivalent to the same entry car sold in Europe. The Fiesta feels substantial and has engaging handling, and it offers high-end features, such as automatic climate controls and push-button start.
Despite the niceties, the Fiesta has a relatively cheap starting price — it costs less than the Fit and Mazda2. The S trim comes with power mirrors with integrated blind spot mirrors and a 4-inch LCD screen. Unfortunately, you can’t get power windows on the base trim, so you’d need to opt for the SE, which also gets you remote keyless entry and some exterior updates.
An advanced dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission will cost you a relatively expensive $1,095, but it delivers an EPA-rated 29/38 mpg city/highway, making the Fiesta one of the most fuel-efficient offerings in the class. (Gas costs $1,800 a year).
Total Fiesta costs come out to $18,190.
Notable Features You’ll Get: Carpeted floormats, driver's knee airbag, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, capless refueling, integrated blind spot mirrors, 4-inch LCD screen
The Mazda2 is Mazda’s first entry-level subcompact offering in this country since the 323 went away in 1994. New for the 2011 model year, the Mazda2 is based off the Ford Fiesta but offers a less high-tech powertrain and transmission than the Ford. The model is available only as a four-door hatchback.
The Mazda2 starts out well-equipped on the base Sport trim, with power mirrors, locks and windows; remote keyless entry; air conditioning with filter; and electronic stability control. The only add-on is a relatively inexpensive $800 four-speed automatic transmission. At 27/33 mpg city/highway, the Mazda2 isn’t as fuel efficient as some of its competitors and will cost you $2,049 a year for gasoline.
Total cost — including the most expensive destination fee in the class — will net you $17,824.
Notable Features You’ll Get: none
2012 Hyundai Accent sedan
The new Hyundai Accent is the latest entry in the group, and it goes on sale later this summer. The sedan offers a punchy 138-horsepower engine that delivers 30/40 mpg, which is the best fuel economy currently available this side of the Smart ForTwo. The Accent also packs the most powerful engine in this comparison.
Despite being slightly more expensive than its predecessor, in terms of base costs, the model is actually a better value than the old model, starting at $12,445. The Accent sedan comes standard with power door locks and a cabin air filter, electronic stability control and active head restraints.
A six-speed automatic is optional, and it’s paired with cruise control, an Eco mode to optimize fuel economy, air conditioning, six-speaker stereo with USB input, and power windows and locks for an extra $2,750.
Add in destination and $1,757 for a year’s worth of gas (the second-cheapest of any car in the group), and the total cost for the Accent comes to $17,712.
Notable Features You’ll Get: Active front head restraints, six-speaker stereo, iPod/USB controls, Eco mode
Not surprisingly, basic transportation isn’t as cheap as most people think.
New transmissions and engine technology have dramatically increased the gas mileage of newer models, and they give the 2012 Hyundai Accent an advantage over the older models in this comparison. But the aging-yet-well-equipped Fit fares well, too.
The Accent is the most affordable option in the group if you discount the Smart car, which we don’t recommend.
It will be interesting to see how the new Accent does against new competition like the 2012 Kia Rio, Chevrolet Sonic and the redesigned Nissan Versa — models that are more fuel efficient and offer the latest safety equipment.
We’ll have a follow-up post to compare those models to the segment above when pricing becomes available.