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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Testing America's three cheapest new cars to crown the bargain king

Motoramic

@ YAHOO AUTOS
 
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Mitsubishi Mirage vs. Nissan Versa vs. Chevy Sonic

           
 
My life is cheap cars, and cheap cars are my life, especially those with character. So when I was asked to figure out what new car in today's market is truly the best of the three cheapest new cars available, I decided to focus less on market segments, and more on the long-term qualities of the vehicle.
 
This presented a unique problem; availability. It took weeks to organize this comparison primarily because nearly every inexpensive vehicle available to the media is an automatic, and typically loaded with every option.
 
 I contacted the manufacturers, visited enthusiast forums for the specific models, and talked up dealers in order to find that good, cheap car that is truly worth your pennies.
 
I also held firm to one important belief: Manual transmissions always sell for less than automatics these days in everything short of all-out sports cars and off-road vehicles. Fewer folks can drive a stick these days, so, if you want to find the best cheap car in today's market, you're gonna have to hit ‘em where they ain't.
 
To figure out which car would be the best deal for a true tightwad, I also made an extreme assumption. I surmised that a typical cheapskate owner will try to keep his or her car for 15 years and 225,000 miles.
 
 This sounds a little crazy, but the average car on the road is now nearly 12 years old. The long-term keepers among us who see cars as a rolling spreadsheet will value the gas-sippers mightily, especially if these high-milers have to endure the miseries of a daily commute
This is what I found:
 
 

The Pretender: 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage
 
The Mitsubishi Mirage is not a bad car. Let me rephrase that. The Mitsubishi Mirage is not that bad of a car.
The exterior is, as you would expect, a love-it or hate-it affair. Some women thought the Mirage was cheerful and cute. Most men thought the Kiwi Green subcompact looked like something between a frog and an insectozoid. I liked the smallness of the package and, after bestowing the name Kermit to my driving companion, I started driving it throughout the small towns of North Georgia.
 
 
 
The Mirage does have a few strong pluses, the most surprising of which is space. One of my mechanics who is 6-foot-8 was able to sit comfortably in the back seat. I quickly found that the Mirage's tall roofline offered the opportunity to fit a lot of items that larger-sized competition would never be able to swallow.

The Mirage is also a class leader when it comes to fuel economy. The stick-shift has a slightly notchy feel to it, but this could be an advantage – if you are interested in learning to drive a stick, it would be the easiest of the three. Although the Mirage's 1.2-liter, three-cylinder engine, at 72 hp, trails every new model on the road save the Smart, the Mirage is a good fit for customers who never test a vehicle's full capability. Just expect to rev the Mirage's engine a lot more than others.
 
Unfortunately, the Mirage is also not so much of a car as a generic form of wheeled transportation, like those isles of white boxes that every supermarket once offered in favor of fancy goods with brand names.
 
The accommodations are scant to the point of weirdness. The higher-end ES model that I sampled offered all sorts of once-exciting "options" such as alloy wheels, traction control and power mirrors.
 
 But it didn't have features that were in economy cars 20 years ago, such as a center dome light on the headliner or a center armrest. Everywhere you looked, there was evidence of cost containment, from the one tiny cupholder for the entire rear seat, to roll-down windows that you just had to keep applying varying levels of force to get down.
 
The engine was also downright terrible on an upward incline. Forget mountains: the Mirage could get beaten up a hill by kudzu. The fourth gear in most other economy cars was replaced by the aural screaming of a third gear trying to help a little engine that barely could.
 
All that said, city dwellers will have different needs from country folk. If all you truly need is to get from Boring Point A to Boring Point B in the most economical new vehicle possible, the Mirage may truly be your 21st-century Geo Metro.
 
It averaged an impressive 44 miles per gallon during my time with it, and even squeezed out a near-hybrid 50+ miles per gallon while driving through the winding, mostly-flattish roads of small-town America.
 
Was the Mirage the cheapest? No, and this is why: Its miserly fuel consumption comes at a hidden cost, and that cost is maintenance.
Buried deep within the maintenance schedule is an unfortunate reality that all three-cylinder car owners must endure: valve adjustments.
 
 In the Mirage's case, this procedure is recommended roughly every 30,000 miles. The owner’s manual asks you to listen for a ticking noise and adjust when needed, "if valve noise increases adjust valve clearance," which is legal shorthand for, "if you don't do it and it breaks, too bad."
 
 The cost of this service at the dealership is $299 which, over the course of seven visits, would come to well over $2,000. As a guy who deals with dealers every single day, I don't see any of them not recommending this service. Sorry.
 
Is the Mirage the cheapest car to own then? It depends on whether you are willing to do your own valve adjustments. At a TrueCar price of $13,345, this entry level Mitsubishi rang up as the second cheapest when it came to purchase price, but it’s just not quite there when it comes to real-world, long-term ownership.


The Contender: Nissan Versa S
 
Loss leaders are both a blessing and a curse in the car business.
The good news is that they help make the lower-end of a market segment more competitive. Whether it is Lexus selling the first LS for only $35,000 back when it first came out in 1989, or Nissan shocking the industry with a Versa that sold for only $9,995 five years ago, these cars often times redefine the expectations of car buyers who are looking for an outstanding deal.
 
The problem comes with age. Eventually, the prices for these vehicles move up quickly, to the point when they no longer represent the best deal in the marketplace. That's what happened with the Nissan Versa. First off, this car has become so rare where I live that I had to drive a near-new, 5,000-mile unit at Carmax before finally getting my hands on a new one that had just arrived at a new car dealership. Apparently, base Versas are an endangered species these days.
 
Second, once I was given the keys, it became apparent that the spunky base Versa I drove five years ago has evolved into a very different car. There is a thinness to nearly every physical aspect of the Versa. The hood, the doors, the cheap black interior panels…the cost-cutting and de-contenting of the base model Versa model is stark, to the point where I wondered whether the car would hold up over time.
 
 Consumer Reports recently stated that the customer satisfaction rating for the Versa was the lowest in its price class, and after driving the absolute base model, I understood why.
 
The 1.6-liter, 109-hp engine has an almost guttural sound. And surprisingly, in terms of real-world performance, it offers none of the underpowered, penurious thrust of the 72-horsepower Mirage. You can take on any highway or mountain road with confidence.

 
Nissan Versa interior
 
Nissan Versa interior
 
The Versa is also in dire need of more sound-deadening material at highway speeds, and the five-speed stick shift that's coupled with the anemic 1.6 shaves about 10 percent of the fuel efficiency boasted by the more upscale versions (27 city / 36 mpg highway vs. 30 city and 39 highway). A light foot and the Versa’s low-rolling resistance tires, which are new for 2014, help negate this difference.
 
 The Versa closely matched the Mirage's 44 mpg with a laudable 42 mpg. But the bottom line is that a Versa S makes the trade of pinching pennies up front in exchange for losing more of them as time goes on.

Driving around in the base Versa is almost like riding around in an exoskeleton. All of the outlines of a bigger car are there, and the Versa will definitely help you get there in a far more comfortable manner than the Mirage when it comes to highway driving.
 
However, it just doesn't have any of the upscale touches that would make you want to keep it for the long haul. The audio quality was far worse than the Mirage, the interior carpeting seemed to be painfully thin, and although the amount of interior room is the best in this price class, the inability to fold down the rear seats infringes on the practicality of that design.
 
In person, the Versa S struck me as the engineering for a marketing idea of "the lowest-priced car in America." It is, but it's not. The Versa starts with an $11,990 MSRP and an $810 destination charge.
 
 However, the Nissan dealers in metro Atlanta have some of the highest documentation processing fees in the marketplace and, overall, the cheapest Versa S that I found ended up being $13,018 according to TrueCar.com at Town Center Nissan in Kennesaw, Ga. The Versa is an overall better deal than the Mirage, and is cheaper to own in the long run. But it's not the best deal in the entry level market.
 
 
 
The Cheap Car Winner: 2014 Chevy Sonic
 
If we were solely to compare apples to apples with comparable sticker prices and features, the Chevy Spark would have likely been our final entrant. The sticker price on the base model is only within a few hundred dollars of the Versa, and also within shouting distance of the similarly-equipped Mirage.
 
However, in the real world of car buying, fashions and marketing budgets often trump value. The new, popular car that is heavily advertised is often sold at little-to-no discount, while vehicles that are in the twilight of their model run become the better, quieter alternative.
 
This is what we discovered with the Chevy Sonic. The MSRP of just over $16,018 for the sedan version was whittled down to a TrueCar real-world price of $13,648 at Day’s Chevrolet in Acworth, Ga., while the hatchback version was available for $14,068 at the same dealership.
 
At that price point, the Sonic obliterates the competition by nearly every single measure: interior accommodations, features, safety, fun, and material quality. The 1.8-liter, 138-hp engine powering this sub-$15,000 car is the same exact one that's in a loaded $25,000 Chevy Cruze, as is the five-speed gearbox which offers a sporting feel that neither the Versa nor the Mirage can approach.
 
The interior is adorned in a tasteful two-tone design with surfaces that are eons better than the hard, thin plastics of the competition. You get six speakers instead of four or two, along with a touch-screen radio system surrounded by dual cubbyholes which can hold everything from an iPhone to wallets large and small.
 
 Nearly all the features that were missing in the Versa and Mirage, from the small touch of a comfortable armrest to the big difference of a five-star overall safety rating, were pleasingly standard in the Sonic.
 
There were three areas where the Sonic fell just short of the competition. For one, I recorded a real-world fuel economy number of only 37 mpg for the Sonic. Keep in mind, though, that I have a light foot and live in the ex-urbs. Those with heavier feet and flatter terrain will likely find the Mirage the most forgiving with regard to fuel economy.
 
Secondly, the GM warranty falls short of Mitsubishi in terms of time (five years vs. ten years for the Mirage) while matching it in terms of mileage at 100,000 miles. The Nissan warranty is for five years / 60,000 miles on the powertrain.
 
Finally, the Sonic is simply not the cheapest over the course of 15 years and 225,000 miles, either. Which car was? As it turns out, the Versa was the best with a light foot and for those who live in mountainous or hilly area, while the Mirage would be the likely winner for those who do a lot of in-town driving over terrain that is mostly flat. In either scenario, both have a financial advantage over the Sonic which translates into approximately $1 a day.
 
Is the Sonic worth it? To me, the answer is an emphatic yes, but keep in mind that there are other vehicles out there, such as the Ford Fiesta and the Mazda 2, that offer similar value thanks to those models being in the final year of their model run. The last year for a model tends to offer the highest level of quality, and the most competitive price in today's marketplace.
 
So if you are looking to get a long-term keeper instead of a car that only looks good on a financial spreadsheet, broaden your horizons a bit, and shop for a car with the right combination of a slightly higher price and a lower level of popularity. Just because you're thrifty with your money doesn't mean you have to drive a bad car.