Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

A white 2020 Toyota Prius is shown driving through a city.

7 Great Cars Under $20k for First-Time Buyers

Buying your first car can be both exciting and a little overwhelming, especially if you plan to purchase a vehicle from a used car lot. A lot of buyers who purchase a car for the first time tend to buy used, a decision often driven by budget. If you’re looking for your first car and you aren’t sure what to buy, you don’t need to be overwhelmed. There are a lot of great cars under $20k, and vehicles today last longer due to improved engineering and design. In today’s market, you can expect the average vehicle to provide reliable service for over ten years and should be able to run up to 200,000 miles or more on the odometer. Here is a list of seven used cars for first-time buyers to shop for in 2021.

#1 – Mazda3

Just because it’s your first car doesn’t have to mean you need to make compromises. With a budget of $20k, a Mazda3 is a spry little compact car that is fun to drive, and it has a lot of great features. Despite being a sporty vehicle with a bit more power than the other compact cars in its class, fuel efficiency is excellent. You can find a Mazda3 as a hatchback or sedan, and you will even have the choice between an automatic or manual transmission. Learning to drive your first car will be easier with an automatic, but getting a manual can be a great way to experience driving to its fullest.

You will find plenty of safety features like parking sensors, a rearview camera, and stability control as standard on newer Mazda3 models, with the option of driver-assist features in upper trims. Expect interior features like Bluetooth, keyless entry, push-button start, and voice-activated controls for the audio system for cars from the past few years. More recent vehicles will even offer Mazda’s unique luxury-car style infotainment system that can have navigation added on every trim.

#2 – Toyota Prius

If you’re budget-conscious, you may prefer to buy a vehicle that will save even more on fuel costs. The Toyota Prius was the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, and it’s been on the market for over 20 years. The hybrid system utilizes both an electric motor powered by a battery and a gas-powered engine to propel the Prius without the need to plug it into an outlet to charge. Because it’s a hybrid, the regenerative braking system captures energy from stopping in traffic, which means you get better fuel efficiency in the city – the exact opposite of most cars.

At this point, Toyota has the hybrid system tuned for great fuel efficiency, and you can get well over 50 MPG combined. This is great for younger buyers who may not have a place of their own yet, but want to be environmentally and budget-conscious. The Prius also offers a surprising amount of cargo space thanks to its wedge-shaped aerodynamic design and rear hatch.

#3 – Honda Civic

If you want to buy a car that is going to last, the Honda Civic is a great choice. It’s a comfortable, safe sedan that gets great fuel efficiency and is easy to drive. Civics tend to hold their value over time, and they are rated high for resale value and drivability on JD Power’s website. Like the Mazda3, be sure to ask whether the model you find is a manual or automatic transmission, as both are options for certain model years.

You can expect to find at least five possible trim levels for the Civic. Generally, Honda models don’t offer much in the way of features for entry-level trims, so you will want to avoid the LX trim and search for at least an EX or better. If you are looking for something really sporty, hunt down an Si trim with its more powerful engine and added performance features. The Civic even offers a sleek two-door coupe body style, which may be less practical but still has a rear seat for emergencies.

An orange 2020 Nissan Rogue is driving on an open road.

#4 – Nissan Rogue

In case you want a fun SUV to be your first vehicle, the Nissan Rogue will offer plentiful technology and connectivity options, as well as driver-assist safety and a quality interior. You can’t go wrong with a Nissan in the last several years, as this brand is pricing vehicles affordably and loading them with features even in entry-level trims. Some 2019 Rogue models will land below the $20k mark, and the Rogue will get decent fuel efficiency as well.

With the large rear cargo area, you have plenty of space for luggage, equipment, or groceries, and it expands even further with the rear seats folded. Even entry-level Rogue trims from recent years will have a seven-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto, as well as numerous driver-assist features. Ask the dealer if the model you find has all-wheel or front-wheel drive if you live in a place with snowy weather, and you can even score a hybrid model if you want to save on fuel.

#5 – Chevy Equinox

Another great affordable SUV option is the Chevy Equinox, which has a comfortable and spacious interior and great reliability ratings. This is an SUV made more for road travel with its smooth ride quality and quiet interior, and it offers good handling for a vehicle of its size. Though it comes in several trim levels, you are unlikely to find the least expensive base trim, called the L, because it typically requires a special order to purchase.

Most models will start with the LS trim or higher, and you can expect to find models as new as 2019 in a $20k price range. If you find an LT trim, you may get to enjoy leather seats, but standard features for recent models will include Bluetooth, OnStar capability, and heated exterior mirrors. Any model should be able to tow at least 1,000 pounds, but properly equipped older models can tow up to 3,500 pounds if you have a small trailer.

#6 – GMC Canyon

Sometimes a midsize truck is just a fun vehicle to own, especially for a first vehicle. The GMC Canyon is a capable truck that will get better fuel economy than most midsize trucks if you locate one with the 2.8-liter Duramax diesel engine. You might need to be a careful shopper to find a recent Canyon in the $20k range, but lesser trims like the SL and SLE might be priced right.

SLE models can come equipped with an All-Terrain Package that may include leather seats and will have features like skid plates and an off-road suspension to make driving off-road possible. Features like a corner step in the rear bumper and a two-tier loading system in the truck bed can make the Canyon a very functional truck to use for hauling, especially with the numerous tie-downs in the bed. Depending on the cab size, the Canyon can seat anywhere from two to five passengers.

A black 2020 GMC Canyon is shown parked after leaving a used car lot.

#7 – Mercedes-Benz SLK

When you want to be able to say you own a Mercedes-Benz, you might as well go for the sporty SLK model. While you might not believe that you can buy yourself a sporty two-door convertible with a powerful V6 engine for your first car, an older Mercedes SLK is actually surprisingly affordable. This is a great car if you’re single, but not so good if you have a bunch of friends since it only has two seats.

There are a lot of practical used vehicles out there for under $20k, but nothing says you can’t buy a first car that you will really love. The trick to buying an older luxury car like the SLK is to shop smart and pay close attention to the vehicle history report. When properly maintained, a Mercedes can last forever, but a lot of used luxury vehicles have a bunch of previous owners who put off routine maintenance. Look for a car with one or two owners, and make sure you have it checked over by a mechanic you can trust before you buy.

Your Options Are Limitless

Keep your eyes open for these vehicles at your local used car dealership, and you are likely to find a vehicle that is both affordable and fun. First cars should be memorable, and not because they break down all the time. Have fun with the process, and take an experienced shopper with you to help negotiate.