Corrected on 7/31/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the Mazda3 lacks an MP3 jack.
Welcome to the new age of thrift. Thanks to $4 gas, those big, comfortable rides that were hits back in the olden days (like three years ago) cost too much to fuel. A sagging economy makes big purchases iffy, forcing people to hold on to aging cars longer. And now, with General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler drastically cutting back on leases, getting into a fancy new car every couple of years could end up being prohibitively expensive.
In other words, the party's over. We have to learn to live within our means.
Done crying? Good. Because it's really not that bad. A lot of car buyers end up paying way more than they should for gizmos they don't need. A few constraints on the pocketbook tend to produce much more disciplined shoppers. And automakers these days offer plenty of great cars in every price range, which means you don't need a loaded car to enjoy a luxuriant ride. Here's how to get the best car for the least amount of money:
Start with a strong set of standard features. Virtually every car these days comes standard with amenities like power windows and a CD player. The best vehicles—even economy cars—raise the bar higher than that. Here are some standard features you should insist on, no matter what the price range:
Electronic keyless entry should be a given. There should be an auxiliary audio jack for an iPod or MP3 player, so you don't need to worry about carting CDs around. Satellite radio compatibility should be built in, in case you decide you want to subscribe. In a hatchback or SUV, the rear seat should fold flat with one or two easy maneuvers, and in larger SUVs the rear seats should slide forward and back, to optimize legroom and cargo space. As for safety, look for vehicles that have antilock brakes, stability control, and side-curtain air bags standard.
As a rule of thumb, the freshest models have the most up to date features, because the latest gizmos are usually designed into the model at the beginning of its lifespan, typically five or six years. The newly designed Toyota Corolla, for instance, comes with an MP3 jack, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, curtain air bags, and many other standard features that used to be considered luxuries—for a starting price of less than $18,000. There's no MP3 jack on the Pontiac Grand Prix, by contrast, because it's an older design. A good way to figure out which standard features you should expect is to research the newest model in the category you're interested in, then make sure the car you end up buying measures up.
Buy a smaller engine. Obviously this will help save gas, but there are other advantages. On most models that offer a choice of engines, you can downgrade under the hood while still splurging in the cabin. The savings can be big. The top-of-the-line Honda Accord, for example, comes standard with leather upholstery, heated seats, dual climate control, and loads of other comforts, for just under $29,000. The V-6 engine averages about 22 miles per gallon. For about $3,000 less you can get the same interior features with a four-cylinder engine that averages about 24 mpg. That's a smart move for thrifty times.
Order options a la carte. The catch with some of the most popular options, like heated seats or a sunroof, is that they're often bundled into megapackages that include lots of stuff you may not necessarily want to pay for. To get heated seats on the Ford Fusion, for instance, you also have to pay up for the leather package and the sport appearance package, which aren't even available on the entry-level trim line. So if you're determined to have a warm butt, it will cost you at least $24,000—a hefty boost up from the base price of $19,000 or so. There's a similar premium for heated seats on the Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, and Honda Accord. The Kia Optima is one car with a more reasonable option—a $700 package that bundles heated and power-adjustable seats along with a couple of other doodads.
It pays to shop around, but buyers should also be careful about buying a car that may not be one of their first choices just to get features configured the way they want. The best move may be doing without a few niceties that come with a high price tag and treating yourself to others that come cheaper. On many cars, a one-step upgrade from the base model to the next trim line adds lots of small extras that will make road trips easier, without too much extra cost.
Skip the most expensive options. The features that really drive up the price of a car are navigation and entertainment systems. Each can easily add $2,000 to the cost, and you often have to buy the most expensive trim line just to be eligible for these options. The GMC Acadia crossover, for instance, starts at about $31,000. But if you want a nav system, you have to upgrade automatically to a model that costs about $38,000—then pay for the option on top of that. Toss in the DVD player and the total cost is over $42,000.
For less than $500 combined, you could buy a portable navigation system and a DVD player and stick with the entry-level Acadia, saving more than $10,000. Or you could just tell your kids to read a book instead of watching a movie, like kids used to do back when gas cost $1 a gallon or so. The glory days needn't disappear totally.