You're ready to transition from teen to teen with wheels, but you're finding the journey from bus rider to car driver bumpier than you'd thought.
Why? Well, you want a new, not a used car. You've made up your mind; it's not open for debate. But you're discovering that the coolest new cars are priced way beyond your budget. The ones that you are able to afford are, well, a lot less cool than you'd hoped.
Or are they? "Affordable" doesn't have to be just another word for "lame." These days, automakers are targeting the youth market (that means you) with accessibly priced vehicles that offer most or all of the things smart young buyers crave: stylish looks, sporty handling, great fuel economy, abundant safety features and a first-rate sound system.
Each of our 10 recommendations may be purchased for under $20,000. And most importantly, you won't be embarrassed to be seen pulling up in any of these rides at school.
1. 2006 Honda Civic — MSRP: $14,360-$21,940.
Best All-Rounder: Available as a sedan or coupe, the Civic is an all-rounder like no other; it's good-looking, fun to drive and reliable, with a lengthy list of standard safety features, including antilock brakes and full-length side curtain airbags. The Civic also offers a range of four-cylinder engines designed to satisfy everyone from the enthusiast (bake some donuts with the 197-horsepower Si) to the tree-hugger (save the planet with the Civic Hybrid).
2. 2006 Mazda 3 — MSRP: $13,710-$19,165.
Best Handling for the Buck: Mazda's 3 looks sporty and it's got the goods to back it up, thanks to nimble handling and two peppy, refined engines — a 150-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a 160-hp, 2.3-liter four (bear in mind that fuel economy suffers with the 2.3). You'll also dig its upscale interior, which offers stellar materials quality and outstanding design. Side-impact and full-length side curtain airbags are available. The 3 may be purchased either as a sedan or as a four-door hatchback offering up to 17.1 cubic feet of storage behind its rear seat.
3. 2006 Scion tC — MSRP: $16,300-$17,100.
Roomiest (Pseudo) Coupe: Scions offer no-haggle pricing and all the reliability you'd expect from a company that's a Toyota spin-off. The tC boasts a roomy cabin, brisk handling, ample power from an eager 160-hp inline four, a standard sunroof and 17-inch alloy wheels and a host of standard safety features. You also get a sweet Pioneer sound system with available iPod connectivity. Side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags are optional. This Scion looks like a coupe, but it's actually a cargo-friendly three-door hatchback; fold down its rear seats and cargo capacity swells to 60 cubic feet.
4. 2006 Scion xB — MSRP: $14,030-$14,830.
Best Ride for You and Four Friends: Want to make a statement? Get yourself an xB; its distinctive styling (it looks sort of like a mini-ambulance — we mean that in a good way) is a real head-turner. Its boxy looks are functional, too; the xB boasts abundant head- and legroom (enough to seat five in total comfort) while offering up to 43 cubic feet of cargo space. Motivated by a 103-hp, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, the xB is light on horsepower, but the upside to that is fuel economy in the 30-mpg range. One negative: Side airbags are not available.
5. 2007 Honda Fit — MSRP: $13,850-$15,970.
Best Value: A five-door hatchback, the Fit offers a long list of standard equipment; included are side curtain airbags, antilock brakes and an audio system that works with iPod players. Its interior allows for an incredible amount of utility, with ample storage nooks and over 21 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the second-row seats. Fuel economy is over 30 mpg; the trade-off is a somewhat slight 109-hp engine.
6. 2006 Ford Mustang — MSRP: $19,115-$26,320.
Best High-Performance Thrill Ride: You want cool? It doesn't get much cooler than the Ford Mustang coupe, a car whose retro styling invites you to slide on in and pretend you're on That '70s Show. In true muscle-car fashion, this rear-wheel-drive coupe is a scream on the road, whether powered by the 210-hp V6 or the 300-hp V8. Oh, and the Mustang earned great scores in both front- and side-impact crash testing, so it'll get you there quickly as well as safely. Side-impact airbags for front occupants are optional, but full-length head curtain airbags are not available.
7. 2006 Volkswagen Jetta — MSRP: $17,900-$24,865.
Most Upscale: The Jetta sedan offers polished lines and premium cabin materials. You also get tons of standard safety features (like full-length head curtain airbags) and the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the Jetta earned top marks in frontal- and side-impact crash testing. Available with a host of engines (including a diesel that gets up to 42 mpg), the Jetta is fun to drive, with crisp handling and brisk acceleration.
8. 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse — MSRP: $19,399-$24,599.
Sexiest Sport Coupe: Sexy little sport coupes don't get much sexier than the Eclipse — not in this price bracket, anyway. Blessed with supple lines and a handsome cabin, it's a blast on twisty roads. Buyers have the choice of two engines: a 162-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 263-hp V6. Side-impact and head curtain airbags are standard. Audiophiles will love this Mitsubishi's available 650-watt Rockford-Fosgate audio system, which offers class-leading sound.
9. 2007 Nissan Versa — MSRP: Approximately $12,000-$16,000.
Best Value, Part Two: The Versa five-door hatchback goes on sale in June 2006; look for a sedan version to hit dealerships six months later. The car boasts a spiffy interior with lots of passenger room, and the hatchback offers 16.9 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats. Sound junkies will crave the crisp sonics of the car's available Rockford-Fosgate stereo system. Motivated by a potent-for-its-class 120-hp engine, the Versa is available with a six-speed manual, a four-speed automatic or a continuously variable transmission (CVT); when equipped with a CVT, mileage is in the high 30s. Front-seat side airbags are standard and full-length side curtain airbags are optional.
10. 2006 Pontiac Vibe — MSRP: $15,260-$19,250.
Most Versatile: Handling is modest on the Vibe, but Pontiac's compact wagon offers a smooth, comfy ride. Side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags are optional, and the Vibe earned solid scores in government crash tests. This Pontiac is available in front-wheel and all-wheel-drive models; front-wheel-drive models may be had with either a 130- or 170-hp engine, while all-wheel-drive versions offer 118 hp. The car's versatile interior offers fold-flat rear seating, which boosts cargo capacity to just over 54 cubic feet. Better yet, the cargo area offers a wipe-clean plastic surface (for muddy stuff) and adjustable cargo tracks (so you can tie down bulky stuff).