Best Family Cars Under $20,000

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Best Family Cars Under $20,000

VW Jetta - Best Family Cars Under $20k
VW Jetta - Best Family Cars Under $20k. Photo © Aaron Gold

Last year, the average price paid for a new car was over $32,000 -- but if you have a family to cart around, there's no reason to spend anywhere near that much. I set out to find ten good family cars that sticker for $20,000 or less with an automatic transmission. Here, in alphabetical order, are my ten choices.

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Chevrolet Cruze

Chevrolet Cruze
Chevrolet Cruze. Photo © Aaron Gold

If you want to buy American, the Cruze is a solid choice -- though its citizenship is not the only reason to buy it. The Cruze is a roomy car with a generous trunk, and it's well protected with ten airbags (more than any other car on this list) and OnStar, a subscription-based system that will automatically call for help if the Cruze is in a crash. Cruze pricing starts under $17k, but a $20,000 budget will get you the nicely-equipped LS model with an automatic transmission. The Cruze is a dated design, but it's a solid family car -- my family and I spent six months with one and thought it was a fantastic set of wheels.

Read more: Chevrolet Cruze review - Chevrolet Cruze Eco six-month test

 

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Honda Civic

Honda Civic
Hodna Civic. Photo © Aaron Gold

The Civic sedan is about as close as you can get to a sure thing. Though technically a compact car, it's as roomy inside as mid-size Accords from a few years ago and being a Honda, it'll run until the sun falls out of the sky if you take care of it. Now, technically, the Civic is a bit of a budget-buster; the entry-level LX model (which includes power windows, locks and mirrors, Bluetooth, and cruise control) starts at $19,310 and adding an automatic transmission pushes the list price up to $20,110. Given its reliability, the Civic is a smart long-term purchase, and I think it's worth the money.

Read more: Honda Civic review

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Honda Fit

Honda Fit
Honda Fit. Photo © Aaron Gold

This is one of my favorite cars on this list. At first glance, the Fit might seem too small to be a family car, but this is one of the most space-efficient vehicles on the market. The Fit has a big cargo bay with a low floor, perfect for the tons of baby gear that first-time parents like to haul, and the back seat has more head- and leg-room than many compact SUVs, which means it will accommodate all but the tallest kids right through high school (and given Honda's reputation for solid build quality, your Fit is likely to last that long). Though the Fit is a bit pricey by subcompact standards, it fits easily into our $20k budget: The base price is $16,470, and $19,180 gets you the EX model with alloy wheels, a touch-screen Pandora- and Bluetooth-compatible stereo, and a nifty blind-spot camera. 

Read more: Honda Fit review

 

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Jeep Patriot

Jeep Patriot
Jeep Patriot. Photo © Chrysler

Finding an SUV priced under $20,000 isn't easy, but Jeep provides us a helping hand with the Patriot. Now, I must caution you, $20k doesn't get you a lot of features -- you'll be looking at the basic Sport model, which lacks air conditioning, and staying under $20k means picking either an automatic transmission or four-wheel-drive, but not both (if you want the two together, the list price is $21,195). But the Patriot has the rugged looks that make the Jeep brand so appealing, and Jason, our Guide to SUVs, found a lot to like in the base-model Patriot when he tested one a few years back. The Patriot is about to be replaced by the 2015 Renegade; it's a significantly better vehicle with a lot of interior space, but automatic front-wheel-drive models are priced at $21,685, well past our budget.

Read more: Jeep Patriot review

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Kia Soul

Kia Soul
Kia Soul. Photo © Kia

The Kia Soul's boxy body is intended as a design statement, but it also turns the Soul into an outstanding family car. The back seat features plenty of legs- and head-room, the latter useful not just for growing kids, but for parents who have to lean in to strap their kiddies into car seats. And the boxy cargo bay provides lots of space for strollers, baby bags, bulky art projects, or whatever it is your kids need to take with them. Kia redesigned the Soul last year, and they endowed it with interior quality and driving characteristics befitting a much more expensive car. $20,000 buys you the mid-level Soul Plus, with Bluetooth, alloy wheels, an automatic transmission, and an epic warranty -- 5 years or 60,000 miles on the whole car and 10 years/100,000 miles on the engine, transmission, and driveline. The Soul is a stylish and cost-effective way to cart your family around.

Read more: Kia Soul review

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Nissan Versa

2015 Nissan Versa front-right view
2015 Nissan Versa. Photo © Aaron Gold

No question, the Versa is the best family-car value on the market. The base model is the least expensive new car sold in America -- and yet it has as much interior and trunk space as many mid-size cars, plus it's built like the proverbial brick outhouse. Pricing for the base model starts below $13,000, and for $20k you can get a top-of-the-line SL model complete with alloy wheels, push-button ignition, and navigation -- and still get almost $1,500 back in change! For families on a budget, I recommend the $16,355 Versa SV I recently tested; it has all the family car must-haves (A/C, power locks, keyless entry) and an automatic transmission, all for about half the price of the average new car.

Read more: Nissan Versa review

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Scion xB

2013 Scion xB front view
2013 Scion xB. Photo © Aaron Gold

Scion hasn't done much to update the xB since they introduced it in 2008, and I can't for the life of me imagine why, because it's an incredibly practical car. The xB offers the passenger and cargo space of a small SUV, but in a car-height package -- and that means easier loading of kids and the stuff that always comes with 'em. Instead of factory options, Scion offers the xB in a single well-equipped model, with a plethora of dealer-installed options to customize the car to your liking. You'll need to find a car free of these add-ons if you're hoping to get one for the $18,840 price. (Scion has a no-haggle pricing policy, so the sticker price is what you'll pay.) The xB's dated powertrain means it isn't exactly a fuel-economy champ, but with Toyota mechanicals under the hood, a well-cared-for Scion should return years of trouble-free motoring.

Read more: Scion xB review

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Subaru Impreza

Subaru Impreza
Subaru Impreza. Photo © Subaru

If you live where it snows, all-wheel-drive (AWD -- a system that delivers engine power to all four wheels instead of just one pair) gives you extra grip to keep your family safer. Most people associate AWD with SUVs, but Subaru has spent decades making all-wheel-drive cars that are every bit as competent in the snow. Most affordable of these is the Impreza; equipped with an automatic transmission, the 2.0i model just slips under our price barrier at $19,990 (with a manual transmission, it's a grand cheaper). And if you need the utility of an SUV, Subaru has a hatchback version priced $500 higher. Subarus are well-built and long-lasting cars with an exceptionally loyal buyer base, and the Impreza is a great way to help keep your family safe when the weather tries to get in your way.

Read more: Subaru Impreza review

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Toyota Corolla

Toyota Corolla
Toyota Corolla. Photo © Toyota

The Corolla is an institution: For nearly fifty years, Toyota's little sedan has been synonymous with reliable motoring. The latest iteration has snazzier styling than previous Corollas, and its back seat is even more generous than my favorite stand-by, the Honda Civic. And unlike the Civic, you don't have to stick with the base model to stay under $20,000: The basic Corolla L starts under $18k and a mid-level LE with an automatic transmission lists for $19,340. If I'm going to be 100% honest, I must tell you that the Corolla is a car I have trouble getting excited about; I think the interior design is a little strange and the driving experience a little dull, but I have no doubt that a Corolla will take good care of its owner (and her family) in the long run.

Read more: Toyota Corolla review

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Volkswagen Jetta

Volkswagen Jetta
Volkswagen Jetta. Photo © Aaron Gold

You can't find a true mid-size sedan for under 20 large, but you can get pretty darn close with the Jetta, which is built to a unique "tweener" size that has more interior room than a typical compact but is easier to park than a mid-size. Now, Volkswagen does have a base model that can be had with an automatic transmission for under $20k. It's called the Jetta 2.0 S, and I recommend you steer clear; its engine is noisy and woefully underpowered. The one you want is the Jetta 1.8 SE, which has a slick new turbocharged engine that provides great power and fuel economy. The SE is priced at $19,815 with a manual transmission, which I highly recommend; the stick-shift really makes the most of the Jetta's German road manners and fun-to-drive nature. An automatic trans pushes the SE's price up to $20,915, but if you love to drive, it's worth going a little above budget.

Read more: Volkswagen Jetta review