It's great to look at performance vehicles and luxury cars and imagine what it must be like. To ride in one - even if for only a moment. For most of the world, the economy car is the engine upon which our daily lives run. Not all budget cars are made equally. Over time there have been as many forgettable offerings. However, some of those economy cars have changed the automobile industry. Their legacy lives on in the cars we drive today. Some of the best economy cars have graduated from the fringes of the automobile market to the canon of iconic vehicles.
The ultimate mini car with post-war attitude, the 500 has grown (slightly) in size since it came to define La Dolce Vita but it's always remained the car of the people. The newest versions are no different, and with 160 hp in a turbo 1.4 liter 4 cylinder, it still manages to get you where you're going in the zippiest manner possible, with a dash of European chic thrown in. As Verdi once said, "You can have the world, if I may have Italy."
If the 500 is a cupcake, the Panda is a jelly doughnut: not the cutest or most sophisticated in the world but just the thing in a pinch. Since its first editions in post-war Europe, the Panda was the car that could be fixed with anything and run on anything and never quit. The newest iteration gives rivals like the Kia Picanto, or the Ford Ka a real run for their modest amounts of money, and with a starting price tag under $10,000 that is no small feat.
No list of cheap, cheerful and capable cars is complete without talking about Kia, and the Rio is the one that hits all the boxes with aplomb. The Rio mixes low costs with tons of equipment and considerable power for its size. The three-cylinder engine and lighter weight give the Smart lots of agility on the road with features an indoor cabin space that punches well above its class. With a base price of just over $10.000 and a focus on user-friendly customer features, this is a no-brainer for a smart shopper.
Ford may be one of the most recognizable American brands on the consumer market today, and the bulk of its catalog is tailored towards the wide open spaces of cross-country roads. However, for the rest of the world, Ford means only one thing: the versatile and punchy Fiesta, which comes with a turbocharged three-cylinder engine on base models and kicks up 120 hp to make a riotous drive. It may not be the car that most Americans want to drive when they come visit Europe, but it's the car that they'll see most often on winding cobblestone streets.
Nissan has always led the pack in affordable cars that become iconic in their right (remember the Datsun?), and the Versa is no exception. The latest model S Sedan was the least expensive new car in the US, and with a naturally aspirated 1.6 liter 4 rated 109 hp and 107 lb-ft of torque, it's a steal. Plus, with a fuel rating of 27/36/30 mpg, you'll save even more in the long run.
It's no surprise that Kia shows up twice on a best of list, especially when that list is about value for money. The Soul not only offers one of the cheapest base prices on crossovers in the US market: it's been on the Top 10 Best Cars and Trucks list among much heavier (and costlier) hitters, and it holds its own ably. With a base model 130 hp 1.6 liters four-cylinder model starting below $17,000 that's also awash with cool features, you'll wonder why you ever spent more on a car.
Jeep underwent a bit of a vision quest when designing the new Renegade a few years ago, asking their youngest engineers to design a car that they would like to drive. The result is a sporty masterpiece with easter eggs hidden throughout the design and enough grunt to take on all of your Xtreme adventures. The base model has less in the way of creature comforts than some other models in its class, but its styling and performance will likely make the sacrifice well worth it.