Economical to run, easy to park and offering a surprising amount of bang for your buck, modern small cars combine high performance with low running costs and a top-quality drive. If 2021 is going to be the year you take the plunge and opt for a compact motor, you're going to be spoiled for choice. When budget is a consideration, discovering cheap cars that are also good cars can be a challenge. That's why we've put together a compilation of premium compact cars on the market that usually retail for less than $20,000 new. If you're looking for small, cheap cars that are also good cars, any of the following five should tick the right boxes.
Mazda 2 Maxx
Mazda has historically sold well in Australia for years - the Mazda 3, for example, was the country's best-selling car in 2011-12. Whilst shifts in price and the emergence of worthy rivals have conspired to topple the "3" from its top spot, but when it comes to a best budget small car, it's hard to think of a more worthy contender than the Mazda 2 Maxx. With a retail value of around $18,000, the Mazda manages to combine competitive pricing with some pretty impressive features and performance.
- Nippy 1.5l 4-cylinder petrol engine (much the same engine as you'll find in an MX5, albeit with less tuning and torque).
- Fuel consumption is 4.9l/100km, which is quite respectable.
- A raft of additional features, including: anti-lock brakes; rain-sensing wipers; apple car play; LED daytime running lights; and LED headlights.
- 5-star safety rating
- 5 doors
There aren't many cons to the Mazda 2, which really is a superb little car for the money. Probably the biggest criticism of the vehicle is that it has a bit of a basic, unrefined feel. Whilst Mazda has addressed "noisy cabin" issues in other models, this continues to be a problem in the Maxx, which some drivers will find difficult to deal with.
Kia Picanto 5
Coming in at less than $18,000, the Kia Picanto 5 is a small car that is refreshingly nippy, with a lively, sporty feel. Whilst earlier versions of the Picanto suffered from safety issues, these have now, largely, been resolved. The result is a budget vehicle that's perfect for urban or local driving.
- A 1.25 4-cylinder, non-turbo petrol engine, coupled with a 5-speed manual (or four-speed torque automatic converter) gives about the right amount of power for the size of the vehicle.
- Apple Carplay
- 4-star safety rating
- Kia 7-year, unlimited distance warranty
This is a small, budget car. This means plenty of interior plastic and very little space. Fuel consumption is adequate (5-6l/100km), but by no means spectacular. Higher speeds are noisy to maintain.
Japanese car manufacturers have a formidable reputation for creating high-quality cars for competitive prices, and Mitsubishi is no exception. Despite the modest price tag (cost is somewhere between $14,000 and $18,000, depending on specification), the Mirage is an energy-efficient, extremely safe car that's a great small car option. Fuel consumption is 4.7l/100,000 km.
- 1.2l, 3-cylinder petrol engine, which provides sufficient torque for the size of the vehicle.
- Large range of safety features, including side curtain airbags, an advanced collision warning system, electronic traction control, and a brake assist system.
- Bluetooth, Apple Car Play.
Like many other vehicles in this class, the Mitsubishi isn't designed for high-speed driving - a loud, intrusive engine noise means this isn't the car for speed freaks! In addition, there are only a limited number of paint colours available, which can be a problem for some motorists.
There is a reason the Fiat 500 has been a consistent best-seller in the Australian car market since its introduction back in 2007. Noted for their style and "fun" ambience, newer versions of the Fiat still retain the basic body shape and many of the original features. Some commentators take this to mean that the Fiat is a somewhat unadventurous option. We say, book a test drive and see what you think!
- 1.2l 4-cylinder petrol engine
- Fuel consumption: 4.9l/100km
- 7 airbags
- Some chic interior styling options and a good range of exterior colour choices
- Apple Car Play and Apple Android
- Daytime running lights with LED technology
- Centre dash touchscreen
- Plenty of cabin room (although the boot is quite small)
There aren't many cons to the Fiat: for its class, the vehicle offers a solid, safe, stable ride. Like many other small cars, it's not designed for high speeds, longer distances or challenging road surfaces. The fuel consumption is good, but not great, so it's not the most economical option for city driving.
Suzuki Swift GL Maxi
If you prefer a sportier drive, the Suzuki Swift could be for you. Recent versions favour a firm suspension and sharp handling, meaning it's stable and nippy around the bends, as well as an easy, responsive drive. The sporty feel extends to the interior, which benefits from little touches such as an analogue tachometer and racy 3-prong steering wheel. Economical to run and with a low carbon footprint for a petrol engine, the Swift is a fun, versatile choice.
- 1.2l 4-cylinder petrol engine, supported by a five-speed manual transmission (upgrades are available).
- Fuel consumption: 4.8l/100km.
- Excellent safety rating! This Swift incorporates numerous safety features, including: side-impact protection beams; front, side and curtain airbags; brake assistance; tyre pressure monitoring system.
- Cool interior with a sporty vibe.
- A decent drive. The Swift punches above its weight, to give a comfortable, engaging driving experience that would normally be associated with a far larger, more expensive car.
Whilst the Swift drives quite well at higher speeds, it suffers from the irritating engine roar which is a common feature of smaller motors being required to work harder! There's also no getting away from the fact that it's never going to dominate the highway, as it simply doesn't have the torque to do so.
For anyone contemplating a fresh small car in 2021, any of these models would be an excellent choice.