As a member of the automotive media, I’ve driven a lot of cars. From Lamborghinis to minivans, I’ve piloted just about every car on sale — some for thousands of miles.
At the end of the day, the cars that impress me the most aren’t the six-figure, alcantara-filled race cars. They’re the budget-friendly cars that do more with less.
I adore cars that are fun, safe, comfortable, climate-friendly, and easy to live with — all for a price that makes you say, “How do they make money on these?”
And with gas approaching $5 a gallon, there’s never been a better time to invest in a climate-friendly econobox.
So here’s a list of the cars I wouldn’t hesitate to buy tomorrow if I wanted the best of everything for under $30k.
1. Best All-Rounder: Mazda3 Hatchback
It’s rather appropriate that the Mazda3 Hatchback looks best in red, the color of a Swiss Army Knife. Because this car does everything: it’s comfortable, fun to drive, nice to look at, eco-friendly, and boasts the cargo space of a small crossover.
Perhaps best of all, Mazdas are extremely cheap to own; they’re so well-made and dependable that in 2020, Mazda actually dethroned Toyota and Lexus as the world’s most reliable car brand.
With prices starting at $23,100, up to 36 MPG highway, and the exceedingly rare option for a stick shift, the Mazda3 Hatchback easily takes pole position as the best small, budget- and eco-friendly car of 2022.
Read more: Will Owning a Manual Transmission Save You Money?
2. For Eco-Friendly Fun: Mazda MX-5 “Miata”
“A two-seater sports car in my 20s? You must be nuts, Chris.”
Hear me out.
For starters, the Mazda MX-5 “Miata” is the single most fun car you can buy at any price point. I’ve driven the Astons, the Ferraris, and more — but nothing can touch the Miata’s simple formula of featherlight, top-down, stick shift driving. It’s bread, cheese, and marinara sauce — perfected.
Miatas are also surprisingly easy to live with, boasting heated seats, beaucoup safety features, and a big enough trunk for two suitcases. Insurance is incredibly cheap on Miatas, and although the “official” MPG rating is 37 highway, you can easily hypermile it to 40.
And sure, Miatas are a little small — but how often do you really need a backseat?
Read more: 5 Reasons the Mazda MX-5 Could Be Your Daily Driver
3. For Cargo Space: Kia Soul
A few years back I drove a totally base, no-frills Kia Soul ($19,790) from Atlanta to Rhode Island on a road trip with my cousin. And over the course of those 1,030 miles I fell dearly in love with the likable little Hamster-mobile.
The Soul has superb outward visibility, excellent legroom for all five occupants, and can haul an SUV-like 62 cubic feet of cargo space. By comparison, that’s four times the space in the trunk of a Camry. And while Kia discontinued the Soul EV in 2019, the regular, gas-sipping Soul gets an impressive 35 MPG highway.
All things considered, if I wanted to lease a climate- and budget-friendly crossover for under $250 a month, the Soul is a shoo-in.
4. For Maximum MPG: Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
Wait, not a Prius??
Look, I like the Prius and its Transformers-sounding cousin, the Prius Prime. But the underappreciated Sonata Hybrid is better-equipped, more engaging to drive, and vastly more comfortable than its Japanese rival. Perhaps best of all, the Sonata Hybrid also looks and feels about $15,000 more expensive than its $27,350 base price.
It’s also wildly efficient, with up to 54 MPG highway and an optional solar panel roof that can harvest an extra two miles of range per day. And since Sonata Hybrids aren’t nearly as popular as Priuses, you can find deep discounts on the used market.
Read more: The Cost of Driving a Hybrid
5. For Reliability: Honda Civic
I’m a huge, huge proponent of buying the right car once and simply taking care of it until the wheels fall off. As long as you change the oil once a year and keep up with regular maintenance, some cars will easily last 20 years or 300,000 miles.
A prime example of this is the Honda Civic. Built to last like a Roman aqueduct, the Civic has everything you could possibly want in 2022 (comfort, features, 42 MPG) and will keep doing what you need it to do until 2042. Or, whenever you choose to take advantage of its high resale value.
And while you have it, the Civic costs a mere $368 per year on average to maintain — around 40% less than the average car, according to RepairPal.
Personally, I’d get the sporty and practical Civic Si hatchback, which adds a turbocharger and replaces the drony CVT with a six-speed manual. Overall, it’s a stellar 20-year investment for just $25k.
6. For Electrified Driving: Hyundai Kona Electric
Ever since Chevy Bolts started exploding and GM started urging owners to park away from their homes, the throne for “Best Cheap EV” has remained vacant.
My contender would be the Hyundai Kona Electric, a car you may not have heard about until this sentence. The Kona is the Kia Soul’s cousin, still sold as an electric and a superb one at that. It offers 258 miles of range on a single charge, peppy acceleration, and genuinely sporty driving behavior. As a crossover it also boasts a nice high driving position and ~46 cubic feet of cargo space when you need it.
Best of all, if you qualify for the $7,500 federal tax credit you can score a Kona Electric for as little as $26,500 — less than half the price of a Tesla Model Y.
7. For the Lowest Possible Price: Kia Rio
They say that if you’re ordering wine on a budget, you should get the second cheapest bottle on the menu. Sure, you’ll pay a little more — but the leap in quality will be worth it.
The same could be said about the Kia Rio. Even with a bargain starting price of just $16,450, it’s not actually the least expensive new model on the market — the Chevy Spark and Mitsubishi Mirage are even cheaper.
But trust me. If you’re budgeting $17k, you want the Rio. Not only is it nicer to drive and better equipped as standard, but it’s also safer. The Spark doesn’t offer automatic emergency braking and the Mirage is dangerously slow.
Plus, the Rio is just a dang good car at any price point. It’s so well-rounded and efficient (38 combined MPG) that it earned an Editor’s Choice award at Car & Driver.
That covers my seven strongest recommendations for cheap, eco-friendly cars. So, which cars almost made the list?
Tesla Model 3
Love it or hate it, the Model 3 just isn’t that affordable anymore with a starting price of $46,990. Sure, you could buy an older Model S for under $40,000, but many older Teslas will need a battery change soon — a procedure costing between $16,000 and $20,000.
Corollas are still reliable, cheap, and efficient like they’ve always been — and they’ve come a long way in the looks department — but the Corolla’s drony, sluggish CVT (continuously variable transmission) saps too much fun from the driving experience. If you can afford it, a Camry is a significant step up.
Hyundai Veloster N
The quirky, three-door Hyundai Veloster N is 97% as fun to drive as a Miata while offering two more seats and nine times the cargo space. Sadly, I couldn’t include it on the list because it’s just a bit too thirsty with 28 highway MPG.
The Bottom Line
All seven cars on this list are safe, reliable, climate-friendly, fun to drive, and most importantly, affordable.
For a step-by-step walkthrough on how to get an amazing deal on one — in spite of the crazy used car market — check out our guide, How To Buy a Used Car (and Get a Good Deal) in 2022.
Featured image: Ihor Bulyhin/Shutterstock.com