Modern Cars Cost Too Much. Here Are 5 That Don’t.

The best truck, SUV, EV, sports car and off-roader you can buy for under $35,000

September 18, 2023 7:12 am
A car dealership lot with cars, trucks and SUVs. Modern vehicles are expensive, so we're discussing the best affordable options.
Buying a new car today can feel like a luxury. It doesn't have to be that way.

It’s way too easy to spend way too much money on a modern car. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average transaction price for a new vehicle pushed past $48,000 this summer, fueled in part by rising prices associated with continued supply chain woes, a lack of used inventory pushing more buyers into new showrooms, and the decision to focus on high-dollar models at the expense of building inexpensive automobiles to serve the lower end of the market. 

It was once easy to find a subcompact runabout priced in the teens, but today there’s just a single sub-$20,000 option out there — the lamentable Mitsubishi Mirage — and even that is on the verge of being phased out.

Fortunately, there are still more than a few ways to drive home in a brand new vehicle without having to dredge $50,000 out of your pockets. Here are our picks for the best affordable cars, trucks and SUVs money can buy (taking into account all hidden fees and delivery charges).

Ford Maverick Hybrid XLT, our pick for the best affordable pickup truck
Ford Maverick Hybrid XLT

The Best Affordable Truck: Ford Maverick

There are more than a few mid-size and even full-size pickups that start under our $35,000 price cutoff, but the majority of these are low-spec, task-focused models intended to appeal to commercial buyers more than those seeking a daily driver. Step outside the traditional truck world, however, and the Ford Maverick shines like a beacon. While it’s possible to push the Maverick just beyond $35K when ordered in top-tier Lariat trim, this is one of those rare examples of a vehicle that’s actually better when you aim for the cheaper models.

Review: The 2022 Ford Maverick Is the Rare Truck That’s Actually Better Cheaper 
One of the most compelling vehicles on the market is an affordable, fun-size pickup

Embracing the low-buck, just-the-basics character of the pint-size Ford pickup is the true path to both fiscal and driving happiness. Stick with the mid-range XLT trim and you have a choice between an ultra-efficient, front-wheel drive hybrid setup (just over $30,000), or an all-wheel drive layout backed by a reasonably robust turbocharged four-cylinder engine ($28,500). 

XLT editions include niceties such as cruise control, air conditioning, Bluetooth, automatic emergency braking and power accessories, but keep anything resembling luxuries at bay to help push down the price. You’re buying the Maverick for the versatility of its open truck bed and (if you want to spend another $745 for the 4K Tow Package) its reasonable towing capacity, not to throw down with the bro-dozers parked outside the Tastee-Freez.

Mazda MX-5 Miata, our pick for the best affordable sports car
Mazda MX-5 Miata

The Best Affordable Sports Car: Mazda MX-5 Miata

It might surprise you to find out that the best modern sports car money can buy is also the cheapest. The Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster has checked out of the high horsepower arms race that defines much of the rest of the performance segment in favor of doubling down on a lightweight platform, excellent communication between driver and the road, and the sheer joy associated with top-down motoring.

Review: Why Every Car Enthusiast Should Drive the Mazda MX-5 Miata
Or better yet, buy one before the roadster recedes into memory

To maximize your smiles-per-mile, aim for the Club trim ($33,110), which adds more robust Bilstein shock absorbers, a brace that connects the front shock towers (to improve chassis stiffness), and a limited-slip rear differential (provided you stick with its six-speed manual transmission). 

Paired with the vehicle’s high-revving, 181 horsepower four-cylinder motor and the impressively weighted shifter, this makes for a potent package that truly comes together when the ribbon of road you’re on starts to squiggle like an EKG. That thumping in your chest at the end of a back road run pumps just as much blood in a Miata as it would had you spent three times as much money for twice the power, proof positive that sometimes the spec sheet lies about how much fun you’re about to have.

The Subaru Forester, our pick for the best affordable SUV
Subaru Forester

The Best Affordable SUV: Subaru Forester Limited

SUVs clog parking lots, school pick-up lines, and bumper-to-bumper traffic on your way to work and back each day. They are by far the dominant form of modern-day transportation, which means that there are decent examples available at nearly every price point.

Picking the best affordable sport-utility vehicle meant focusing less on price and more on the overall experience. Yes, there are some strong choices if dollars are what matter the most (with the Subaru Crosstrek, Hyundai Kona and Chevrolet Trailblazer all putting in respectable work in the $24,000 to $28,000 range), but at their core most of these subcompacts are simply traditional hatchbacks with a little extra ride height.

The Subaru Forester Limited, however, checks a lot of boxes that budget-oriented models don’t. Priced at $34,600, it’s got a fairly cavernous cargo area regardless of whether the second row of seating is folded flat, it returns reasonable fuel mileage for its size and it’s got a standard all-wheel drive system that is among the best in the business. Throw in Subaru’s EyeSight active safety system (which includes adaptive cruise control), the Limited’s larger infotainment display (and heated seats and steering wheel), and more ground clearance than most of its rivals, and you have an SUV that touches all the bases without forcing any sacrifices in the process.

Two-door Jeep Wrangler Sport, our pick for the best affordable off-road vehicle
Two-door Jeep Wrangler Sport

The Best Affordable Off-Roader: Jeep Wrangler Sport 

The Forester is fine for the occasional off-asphalt foray, but if you really want to get stuck in the mud as far away from home as possible, you’ll need an SUV that was designed with the trail in mind.

Enter the two-door Jeep Wrangler Sport. Unlike the recent trend of soft-roaders more intent on cosplay than rock crawling, the Wrangler is built from the ground up to handle difficult terrain. With a set of solid axles front and rear, standard low-range four-wheel drive, and a short wheelbase that makes it easy to pick your way around or even over off-road obstacles, the most affordable Wrangler ($33,690) is both the perfect starter kit for newbie explorers as well as a great starting point for seasoned adventure-seekers looking to customize. All that and the top comes off too, making it the second convertible on our list.

The Chevrolet Bolt, our pick for the best affordable EV
Chevrolet Bolt

The Best Affordable Electric Vehicle: Chevrolet Bolt

The Chevrolet Bolt got a bad rap for a battery problem that saw GM issue a stop-sell order and then a recall due to the possibility of a fire developing on affected models. The good news is, all of those power packs have been replaced by a new design, and the price has stayed just as cheap as it was before the hubbub began (with base models starting at $27,495).

No, the Bolt doesn’t come with blazing charge speeds (maxing out at 50 kW), nor does it offer all-wheel drive. What it does deliver is a usable driving range in the neighborhood of 250 miles, respectable levels of power and acceleration, and a not-inconsiderable level of interior storage (thanks to its hatchback body style). Consider, too, that it comes with an available tax credit that can cut its cost even lower than its already affordable MSRP. The current Bolt is on its way out, but there’s still time to snag what is currently the best deal you’ll find on an all-electric vehicle, and one of the most inexpensive models to make our 10 best year-end list

And while we don’t know what it will cost, GM has committed to introducing a next-generation Bolt with their more advanced Ultium EV platform. That is good news for the future of affordability.  

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