BOSTON (MainStreet) — Low-cost cars are often boxy on the outside, bland on the inside and boring to drive — but here's a look at five inexpensive 2013s that break the mold.
"Consumers are oftentimes resigned to getting something mundane and pretty boring if they buy an inexpensive car, but I think they'll be pleasantly surprised by what's out there," says Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book, which released its 11th annual Coolest New Cars Under $18,000 list Thursday.
Nerad says the rundown, which a panel of KBB staffers and outside experts compiled, recognizes 2013 models that are cool looking, fun to drive and/or "superpractical."
"These are good cars for young people, consumers on a budget or anyone who wants something that's pretty inexpensive but more interesting than the norm," he says.
Nerad says manufacturers are packing more and more features into low-cost cars these days because firms realize cool entry-level vehicles can attract buyers for life.
"Car companies want to get young people into a brand when they are just starting to buy cars," he says.
Here's a look at the five vehicles that top this year's list, presented in order of judges' rankings. All dollar figures refer to KBB's Fair Purchase Price, an analysis of what consumers in the firm's home state of California actually paid in recent weeks to buy base versions of each model (excluding taxes and fees)
Fifth-coolest 2013 under $18,000: Dodge Dart
Fair purchase price: $15,957
Famous during the 1960s and '70s as an inexpensive-but-reliable small car, the Dodge Dart has returned to Chrysler's lineup for the first time in 37 years as a sporty sedan.
Based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (an Italian car built by Chrysler parent Fiat), the Dart combines a modest price with good looks, impressive road performance and up to 27 mpg/city and 39 mpg/highway.
"With its European roots, the Dart is a car that has a significant amount of fun attached to it," Nerad says.
The sedan also offers lots of cool standard and available features. For instance, base Darts comes with a 160-horsepower naturally aspired engine, but both turbocharged and 184-horsepower versions of the model are or will soon be available.
Fourth-coolest 2013 under $18,000: Honda Fit
Fair purchase price: $15,461
This tiny hatchback offers big volumes of passenger and cargo space, not to mention lots of fun on the roadway.
"The Fit is probably the most fun to drive of all the cars in its class," Nerad says.
The 117-horsepower Honda also boasts good fuel efficiency (28 mpg/city and 35 mpg/highway when outfitted with automatic transmission), a cool interior and fold-flat rear seats that give the car a generous 57.3 cubic inches of cargo space. That's more than you'll find in larger rivals such as the Nissan Versa.
"The Fit is very versatile," Nerad says. "The seats fold down in lots of different ways and you can actually get a lot of stuff into it."
Third-coolest 2013 under $18,000: Kia Soul
Fair purchase price: $14,222
The youth-oriented Soul features an uber-boxy look that's popular with Gen Y, coupled with a hip interior that includes special colored lights that pulse in time to whatever you're listening to on the stereo.
"The Kia Soul is one of those cars that has a significant amount of whimsy in it, from the exterior design to the fact that you have a sound system that gives you a little bit of a light show," Nerad says.
The base Soul also comes with a decent 138-horsepower engine that offers 26 mpg/city and 31 mpg/highway when paired with an automatic transmission. Or you can pick a higher-level trim line and enjoy a beefier 164-horsepower engine.
Second-coolest 2013 under $18,000: Ford Focus sedan
Fair purchase price: $15,904
"The Focus has high-quality finishes and a good amount of space for a small family car, but what's really surprising is that it's a blast to drive," Nerad says. "You can really push it."
The sedan features an impressive 160-horsepower engine that offers 28 mpg/city and 38 mpg/highway when outfitted with automatic transmission. Some trim lines even offer an optional "Super Fuel Economy" package of low-rolling-resistance tires and other special equipment that boosts highway mileage to 40 mpg.
Coolest 2013 under $18,000: Hyundai Veloster
Fair purchase price: $17,328
The sporty Veloster shows how far Hyundai has come from the days when it only made boring budget models such as the Excel.
The Veloster features a one-of-a-kind design: two front doors and a rear door on the passenger's side only. There's no rear door on the driver's side.
"The Veloster's exterior styling is certainly an attention grabber," Nerad says. "The fact that it's only got three doors is very unusual."