2014 Nissan Versa is the lowest-priced vehicle in
the U.S. market, with a starting price below
cost a lot of money.
an average sales price of about $32,000, we know a new
car is out of reach for many. The automakers know this
too, which is why they continue to roll out bottom-rung
cars for buyers on way-below-average budgets.
three least expensive cars on the market are the Nissan
Versa at $12,800, the Chevrolet Spark at $12,995 and the
Mitsubishi Mirage at $13,790. Prices are for the most
basic cars with no options but do include destination
that lowly range, their chief competition is a reliable
used car — say, a 3-year-old Honda Civic or Mazda3,
with low miles. But some buyers get more peace of mind
from buying new. These are the cars for people who want
nothing more than the cheapest possible transportation,
who view driving as a chore. They would take the train
if they could.
are the cars, in other words, for people who don’t
no shortage of these consumers in this post-recession
age, buyers who increasingly prize frugality and
efficiency over performance or amenities.
brought out its Mirage late last year and it has sold at
a decent clip, well over 1,000 vehicles a month.
Meanwhile, the Chevy Spark sold more than 34,000 copies
in 2013, while the Nissan Versa sedan and Note hatchback
sold a total of 117,000 cars in the same year.
cheapness doesn’t necessarily equate to good value, as
we found out in a week of testing these three
budget-mobiles. Here’s how they stacked up, from worst
MIRAGE: Engines are getting smaller and smaller. This is
good thing. And a wave of new three-cylinder motors is
showing just how good automakers have gotten at wringing
more power and refinement out of tiny engines.
the three-cylinder in the Mirage is neither refined nor
you hear this thing coming down the street, you expect
to see an aging dump truck rather than a shiny new
hatchback. It’s that loud, and it sounds like
something is about to break. Inside, the motor vibrates
the floorboard and pedals, giving the driver the
sensation of a foot massage.
we have driven the European version of the Volkswagen Up
— with its slow but smooth three-cylinder — and the
Ford Fiesta equipped with a sprightly turbo-charged
three. Both are more refined than the 74-horsepower
engine Mitsubishi packed into this econobox.
CVT transmission, a $1,000 option, is the better of the
two transmissions (the base offering is a five-speed
manual). But the automatic still has its issues, and it
acts more like early examples of CVTs, producing an
irritating hum as the clattering engine wanders through
the rev range.
Mirage is not without its merits. It came nicely
equipped for the low sticker price, including climate
control, power windows and locks, keyless entry, power
side mirrors, floor mats and a USB port. The styling is
functional, if uninspired.
the car has another problem — Mitsubishi itself. The
struggling brand has only a tiny slice of the U.S. auto
market. It doesn’t have the support of a large dealer
network, and its cars typically lose value at a faster
rate than other brands. This car will take a huge hit in
its value the minute it leaves a dealer lot.
early sales show that the Mirage does have some appeal.
But this could be the type of car that does well during
its first year because it’s new, and then drops off as
buyers get wise.
VERSA: The Versa is the best-selling car in this group
as well as the lowest priced vehicle in the U.S. auto
market. And though the base model brings new meaning to
the term "stripped," it’s a better value
than the Mirage.
highlight of this car is its size. Four adults can slide
into the Versa with legroom and headroom to spare. You
can sardine a fifth in a pinch, but make sure everyone
showered recently. The Versa’s 102.4-inch wheelbase,
compared with 96.5 inches for the Mirage and 93.5 inches
for the Spark, also helped the car track better at high
speeds and over rough roads.
you give up a lot for the interior space and slightly
better drive. Nissan doesn’t hide the budget nature of
this car. It has crank windows — we didn’t think
those still existed in new cars sold in the U.S. —
manual locks and an entertainment system with all the
fidelity of a 1960s transistor radio. The knobs on the
dashboard would have looked cheap and basic 20 years
ago; now they look as if they’re going to melt during
the next heat wave.
sixth gear on the manual transmission would have been
nice during freeway cruising to keep the engine from
droning on. And the carpeting at your feet looks and
feels like a classroom’s worth of chalkboard erasers
for noise, the drivetrain on the Versa is adequate for
an extreme economy car. The transmission ranked second
of these three in terms of feel and refinement. Its
biggest drawback was the clutch pedal, which seemed to
engage unpredictably. The four-cylinder engine has the
most horsepower of our cheapo trio, though it also has
the most mass to move around.
many budget buyers, the Versa will get the job done. But
we’d still suggest considering a nicer used car for
the same money or spending a few thousand dollars more
on, for instance, a new base model Honda Fit, Mazda3 or
SPARK: Chevrolet’s Spark is the pick of this litter.
Despite being the smallest in this group and one of the
smallest cars on the U.S. market, Chevy manages to pack
a lot of value into this car.
smoothness of the tiny, 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine
is a welcome relief after shuddering around in the
Mitsubishi. Eighty-four horsepower may sound quaint, but
it was more than enough to zip around town. The
five-speed manual transmission allowed quick, crisp
shifts with little drama.
Spark’s interior also impresses with refinement and
relatively quiet ride. This Chevy hides its price tag
and its size well. Yet with space at such a premium,
there are a few ergonomic oversights. Tall drivers will
hit their knees on the climate control knob, and the
shifter brushes their leg in first and second gear.
the benefit of this car’s size is immediately evident
the first time you go to park it. You can squeeze this
thing between two badly parked cars. We also liked the
tight turning radius. The seats were comfortable and
supportive, the best of the bunch here.
the Spark leaves something to be desired. Like the other
cars, its performance suffers at highway speeds. Noise
climbs quickly even if the speed doesn’t. A roaring
truck in the next lane drowns out any conversation. It
bounces on rough roads.
economy was the one area where all three cars shined.
They all topped 40 miles per gallon in highway driving
and climbed into the mid-30s mpg in mixed city and
the Spark was the best of the bunch, these are not great
cars. In part because they are lightweight and have tiny
14- and 15-inch wheels, they don’t track well on the
Southland’s grooved, washboard freeways.
a temptation to buy a car such as these as a third
vehicle, especially for a teen driver. Resist that urge.
just 2,000 pounds the Mirage is among the lightest cars
on the road. Sure, it’s stuffed with air bags, but
physics tells us it will be the big loser in a collision
with a Ford Explorer or Chevrolet Silverado. Don’t put
the least skilled driver in your family in the smallest,
hardest-to-control vehicle in your fleet. The Spark
weighs in at less than 2,300 pounds while the Versa, the
big brother in this group, weighs just under 2,400
the final analysis, the super-cheap segment doesn’t
hold up well against the prospect of a high-quality used
car with a similar price tag. We asked car shopping
company Edmunds.com to look at what’s available in
this range. They found 3- to 5-year old Hyundai Elantras,
Ford Fusions, Honda Civics and Accords and Nissan
Altimas in the $12,000 range, with 40,000 to 80,000
of these vehicles have far better driving
characteristics, more safety features, and good
reliability records and resale value. Shopping for a
used car is more daunting to some buyers — especially
those who don’t like cars in the first place. But it’s
Angeles Times take: Clunky drivetrain ruins otherwise
Has features others don’t at this price point
Three-cylinder engine sounds like a dump truck; vague
type: 4-door subcompact hatchback
as tested: $13,790
1.2-liter, inline three-cylinder engine,
fuel economy rating: 34 mpg city, 42 mpg highway
Angeles Times take: The cheapest car on the market isn’t
Plenty of space for adults in back seat, horsepower
leader for this trio
Unabashedly cheap, with DIY windows and locks
type: 4-door compact sedan
as tested: $12,800
1.6-liter, inline four-cylinder engine,
fuel economy rating: 27 mpg city, 36 mpg highway
Angeles Times take: big value in a tiny car
Parks anywhere, quiet and refined drivetrain, adults fit
in rear seats
Oddball styling outside, some ergonomic issues inside
type: 4-door mini-car hatchback
as tested: $13,915 (dealer-installed accessories like
fog lights and grille)
1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine, front-wheel-drive
fuel economy rating: 31 mpg city, 39 mpg highway