Cars cost a lot of money.
With 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.
The 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 charges.
In 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.
These are the cars, in other words, for people who don't like cars.
There's no shortage of these consumers in this post-recession age, buyers who increasingly prize frugality and efficiency over performance or amenities.
Mitsubishi 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.
But 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 to first.
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.
But the three-cylinder in the Mirage is neither refined nor powerful.
When 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.
Previously, 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.
The 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.
The 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.
But 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.
Healthy 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.
The Versa is the bestselling 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.
The 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.
But 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.
A 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 as if someone stitched together a classroom's worth of chalkboard erasers.
Except 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.
For 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 Toyota Corolla.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
But 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.
Still, 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.
Fuel 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 highway use.
Although 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 Southern California's grooved, washboard freeways.
There's a temptation to purchase a car such as these as a third vehicle, especially for a teen driver. Resist that urge.
At 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 pounds.
In 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 miles.
All 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 worth it.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times