Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the best cars for under $30,000 (and SUVs and a truck!) aren’t so different from those you can pick up for $5,000 less. No question, they’ll be coming with a greater amount of equipment and possibly power, but their place as an excellent choice remains. Actually, they should only get better. As such, you’ll be seeing many of the same cars, SUVs and truck from our under $25,000 list making appearances here as well, but the field of possibilities really expands when talking about a ceiling of $30,000.
That’s still well under the average new car price in the United States, but it does open the door to the country’s most popular new vehicle segment: compact SUVs. There’s also their predecessor as America’s sweetheart, the midsize family sedan, plus some electrified choices and those that mostly exist just to bring you joy behind the wheel. The end result is a compelling collection of some of the best cars and SUVs out there and proof you don’t have to spend all of the money to get a great car.
All choices are available at prices that include the mandatory destination charge that’s omitted from MSRP. We also took into consideration equipment levels and whether you’d actually want that bargain-basement trim level that just sneaks under the $30,000 line. Oh, and if you’re wondering where all the American cars are, there are so few choices for less than $30,000 since the Big 3 effectively stopped making cars in favor of pricier SUVs and trucks. Those that do come under the line, just aren’t as strong within their segments as those chosen here. There is an exception, however, and we see it right off the bat since this list is in alphabetical order …
Why it stands out: It’s a pickup; it’s cheaper than all other pickups; distinctive interior design; exceptional hybrid fuel economy
Could be better: Some cheap interior materials; basically unavailable until 2022
Read our 2022 Ford Maverick Review
There would not have been a desirable truck available at this price point a year ago, but thanks to the new Ford Maverick there is! Not only does it slide under our $30,000 price threshold, but you can get one that’s not a bargain-basement base model. The mid-level XLT with options will easily slide below $25,000 with the standard hybrid powertrain or optional 2.0-liter turbo that opens the door to all-wheel drive. With either you’re getting an intriguing new entry in the automotive landscape: a pickup at a price that competes with a Honda Civic or Kia Seltos. Yes, it has crossover architecture and therefore can’t lug that stump out of grandma’s front yard or tow a small house. Its interior, although interesting to look at, also isn’t as well-equipped or well made as most of the other vehicles on this list (specifically in terms of materials quality). Nevertheless, you’re getting a pickup for less than $30,000 that isn’t extremely used or a stripped-down work truck with all the creature comforts of an ox cart. Really, the main problem with the Maverick is availability: It’s already sold out for 2022. You may be able to find one on a dealer lot, but it’s likely to have a hefty markup. Ordering opens again in summer 2022 for the 2023 model.
Why it stands out: Class-leading back seat and trunk space; class-leading ride and handling; efficient engines; hybrid’s electric-like power delivery
Could be better: Antiquated tech interface; few trim levels available under $30,000
Read our 2022 Honda Accord Review
The Accord is our top choice among midsize family sedans. It stands out thanks to superior handling and a well-balanced ride, a well-made cabin, unmatched back seat and trunk space, and an extra-efficient powertrain lineup. In particular, the Accord Hybrid is our choice as it boasts 47-mpg fuel economy and more-than-sufficient performance. Unfortunately, you can only net the base Hybrid for less than $30,000, and only the LX and Sport with the base 1.5-liter turbo engine. That’s not the end of the world as you’re still getting a whole lot of car for the money, but you’ll definitely be getting more feature content by going one rung down the ladder with the still-big Civic. It also means the Accords in question won’t be as fancy as those pictured above, which are top-of-the-line Touring trim level cars.
Why it stands out: Attractive and well-made cabin; sharp driving manners; excellent engines; ample space; sedan and hatchback body styles
Could be better: It’s really hard to think of anything
Read our 2022 Honda Civic Review
The Civic was completely redesigned for 2022, taking everything that worked so well for its revolutionary predecessor (ample interior space, sharp driving dynamics, efficient engines) and amplifying with a more grown-up appearance, a slick new cabin, superior technology and general refinements everywhere you look. The Civic is just a terrific car. That’s the case when we were talking about it for under $25,000, and it gets even better at this price point as it opens the door to the exceptional 1.5-liter turbocharged engine offered by the upper trims AND! the exceptional new Honda Civic Si.
Why it stands out: Tons of class-leading space for the money; strong-yet-efficient base engine;
Could be better: Antiquated and glitchy tech interface; not many trim levels available under $30,000 including the Hybrid
Read our 2022 Honda CR-V Review
Consider the CR-V the baseline for any compact SUV search. Objectively speaking, it’s tough to beat due to its massive cargo capacity, voluminous back seat, strong-yet-efficient engine, well-balanced driving dynamics, competitive pricing and features, strong safety ratings and well-regarded reliability. It’s easy to see why it continues to be such a best-seller: for the vast majority of compact SUV buyers, and especially families, it checks every box. Of course, people don’t make buying decisions based solely on objective criteria, so you may find it dull to look at or drive, be frustrated by its tech interface, or some other reason only you can think of. There’s also the matter of price. Yes, you can get one for less than $30,000 and it’ll still be reasonably equipped and boast all the goodness described above. It just won’t be as fancy as the Touring trim pictured above left, and the excellent CR-V Hybrid, which would normally be our top CR-V choice, is off the table completely. You can still get a RAV4 Hybrid at this price point.
Why it stands out: Exceptional fuel economy (it’s a hybrid!); high-quality cabin for a hybrid; handsome looks; electric-like power delivery
Could be better: Antiquated tech interface
Read our most recent Honda Insight Review
You’ll be forgiven for not realizing the Insight is a hybrid. Its conventional compact sedan body shape and general lack of weirdness stand in sharp contrast to the hybrid expectations established by the Toyota Prius. Again, you’ll note that car is not found on this list or the one devoted specifically to the best hybrids. That’s because the Insight effectively gets the same fuel economy as Toyota’s definitive hybrid, but betters it substantially in terms of interior quality and design, overall comfort and noise, driving response, and quite honestly, it’s not extremely ugly. Quite the opposite, actually. At the same time, if you divorce the Insight from its hybrid powertrain, it’s still one of the best compact sedans, sharing many of the same positive attributes as the Honda Civic.
Why it stands out: Distinctive style inside and out; exceptional infotainment and safety technology; abundant space; available hybrid
Could be better: Not as sharp to drive as Accord and others in the segment
Read our most recent Hyundai Sonata Review
The Sonata’s bold design won’t be for everyone, but we say that’s better than past midsize family sedans that were deadly dull in order to appeal (or not offend) the largest group of people as possible. Fortune favors the bold, and indeed, Hyundai’s boldly styled midsize sedan has all the ingredients to be a success: its infotainment and safety technology are best in class, its back seat and trunk space are basically second to only the Accord, and its engine lineup is fully competitive, highlighted by the agreeable hybrid powertrain available for well under our $30,000 threshold. Being interesting very much puts it over the top. If there’s one thing holding its fortunes back is the public moving away from midsize sedans and toward small SUVs as go-to family transport, but that’s no fault of the car itself.
Kia Niro and Niro PHEV
Why it stands out: Lower price than other hybrid SUVs; obviously better fuel economy than similarly size SUVs; user-friendly tech; available PHEV
Could be better: AWD is not available; it’s a smaller SUV and therefore it has less space; looking a little stale
Read our most recent Niro PHEV review
The Niro is different than the other compact SUVs (Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, etc) because it’s smaller and cheaper. There are pros and cons to its unique positioning. A price tag that starts between $3,000 and $6,000 less than the others is the most significant pro (and allows it to be on this list whereas only the RAV4 makes the cut and just barely). It also basically gets 10 mpg better than those other hybrid SUVs, and it’s even better than non-hybrid subcompact and midcompact SUVs. Indeed, its fuel economy is more akin to a Prius. The downside is that although it’s still reasonably spacious, there’s no denying how much passenger and cargo room the Niro gives up to the far more family-friendly CR-V, RAV4 and its Kia sibling, the Seltos. Is this the most compelling choice? Of course not, but it offers so much value on paper, especially for those seeking a hybrid, that it can’t be ignored. Oh, and you can also get the Niro as a plug-in hybrid, making it the only such choice on this list. Yes, it’s technically $765 over $30,000 when you factor in the destination charge, but it’s eligible for a $4,543 federal tax credit.
Why it stands out: Surprising space; user-friendly tech; distinct design details; shockingly strong turbo engine
Could be better: Some cheap interior bits
Read our most recent Kia Seltos Review
Like most choices on this list, the surprisingly good Seltos proves you don’t have to spend a lot of money for both function and fashion. Its price and exterior dimensions fall in between the subcompact and compact SUV segments (we call it the midcompact segment), yet it boasts more interior volume than is expected and an abundance of special design details throughout that successfully counter some of the cheaper bits applied to keep the price down. Basically, it provides even more value beyond Kia’s usual extra-long features list and warranty. Like the Mazda CX-30 and VW Taos, we’d actually consider the Seltos before many of the compact SUVs that didn’t make the cut on this list or that of our best small SUV list. Also keep in mind that every single Seltos trim level starts under $30,000, including the fully-loaded SX Turbo model that boasts shocking acceleration for an SUV under $30,000. Bang for your buck? This has it.
Why it stands out: High-quality and high-fashion interior; beautiful styling; fun to drive; two body styles
Could be better: Back seat space; hatchback rear visibility; some may not like lack of a touchscreen
Read our most recent Mazda 3 Review
For less than $30,000, you can get a car that could easily pass as a Mercedes, BMW or Lexus competitor. Seriously. Even at this price point, the Mazda3 interior could make a play at the entry-level luxury segment with its handsome minimalist design, high-quality switchgear and convincing faux leather that covers the seats, dash and doors (and doesn’t it all look great in red?). Driving the Mazda3 offers a similar high-end experience, as its responses to driver inputs through the steering, throttle and transmission are so exceptional that we once again must roll out the descriptor of “budget Porsche” when referring to driving a Mazda. It really is that good. We’re also quite fond of the two body styles: the stylish sedan that boasts a surprisingly large trunk (it can actually hold more than the mechanically related CX-30 SUV) and the Mazda3 Hatchback that really turns up the style dial, albeit at the expense of rear visibility. This is a great car, regardless of price.
Why it stands out: Luxurious interior; best-in-class driving dynamics
Could be better: Interior space is more hatchback than SUV; those plastic fender flares have to go
Read our most recent Mazda CX-30 Review
Like the Seltos, the CX-30 is a midcompact SUV. It also similarly punches well above its weight class, in this case in regards to driving fun and luxury. If you can live without the muscular turbo engine only available over $30,000, the CX-30 seriously makes for a compelling alternative to a BMW X2 or Audi Q3. You get the same sort of “budget Porsche” driving experience you’d get with the mechanically related Mazda3, and its captivating modern interior design is accented in distinctive blue or brown faux-leather trim, and constructed of high-quality materials. We especially like the sporty steering wheel, and the buttons and knobs that solidly click like a luxury car’s. This is a seriously nice SUV, even for less than $30,000.
Why it stands out: Budget Porsche driving experience; luxurious cabin; powerful turbo engine upgrade
Could be better: Less cargo, passenger and storage space; non-touchscreen infotainment won’t be for everyone
Our most recent Mazda CX-5 Review and check out what’s in store for the updated 2022 CX-5.
Basically, the CX-5 delivers in areas where the CR-V falls short: style and driving fun. However, it can also be considered an alternative to luxury compact SUVs. It all starts with its elegantly sporty styling and carries inside where its handsome design and plush materials are a clear step up from others at its price point. Then, when you’re behind the wheel, the CX-5 impresses with engaging driving manners that we’ve routinely described (including twice already on this list) as being indicative of a “budget Porsche” even if you can’t get the robust turbo engine at this price point. Now, it doesn’t have as much passenger or cargo space as the CR-V or RAV4, but it does offer appreciably more than the CX-30 or Seltos.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Why it stands out: It’s an absolute riot to drive; it’s a convertible; it’s a sports car; still great at lower prices
Could be better: We’d complain about the tiny interior space, but that’s kinda this car’s point
Read our most recent Mazda Miata review
Yay! Now this is more like it. You can not only buy a fun car for less than $30,000, but you can arguably, buy the most fun car. Period. The MX-5 Miata is an absolute riot, a delectable treat of a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive, manual transmission, convertible, shrink-wrapped-around-you barrel of laughs. And here’s the great part for this list: unlike most other fun cars, you don’t need to go beyond the base model to get a desirable one. Oh, the Club has a limited-slip differential and sportier suspension tuning, but we’re talking degrees of “absolute riot” here. You’re unlikely to miss it, and if so, just splurge at bit. It’s not that much more than $30,000. Also, by sticking with the base model, you just get a simpler car free from frills, which lets you focus more intently on the absolute riot at hand. Reach up, flip back the roof, stick that slick shifter into first, do a doughnut, then rocket off toward your favorite road. Yay Miata!
Why it stands out: Well-executed driver assistance features; low price with base battery; multiple range options
Could be better: Dull to drive; not as much range as other EVs
Read our most recent Nissan Leaf Review
Given the move toward electric cars, we felt it important to include your best of very few choices for under $30,000. Basically, between this and the Mini Cooper SE, the Nissan Leaf with its base battery is a more realistic option for more people given its four-door body style with a suitably spacious back seat. With that base battery, we’re talking about a range of 150 miles, which is more than enough for the daily driver of only the most extreme use cases. Keep in mind, though, that the $7,500 federal tax credit that can be applied to every Leaf effectively brings the 226-mile Leaf Plus below $30,000. Beyond the Leaf’s electric powertrain, you can appreciate Nissan’s user-friendly infotainment tech, well-executed driver assistance features and good interior quality for this price range.
Why it stands out: Best-in-class ground clearance; standard all-wheel drive; cargo space and functional roof rails
Could be better: Slow base engine; CVT transmission; roly-poly handling
Read our most recent Subaru Crosstrek Review
The Crosstrek is a bit of an oddball, which is probably a big reason why it’s so appealing and successful. It’s basically just an Impreza hatchback with some styling tweaks and a massive lift (its 8.7 inches of ground clearance is way more than most crossovers), but that’s actually good enough to better many vehicles that were built from scratch to be a small SUV. Besides that ground clearance, the Crosstrek has become a darling of the outdoor adventure set for its manageable size, easy-to-use interior, sturdy and easily reached roof rails and a comfort-oriented driving experience that serves it well on longer drives. That it finally offers a more powerful engine option satisfies a long-held complaint among owners that the base engine was just too darn slow.
Subaru BRZ / Toyota 86
Why it stands out: Agile rear-wheel-drive handling; lots of fun for not much money; fuel efficient for a sporty car
Could be better: Could still use a more powerful engine option; blah automatic transmission
Read our 2022 Toyota 86 / 2022 Subaru BRZ Review
The Toyobaru twins are back for a second round having undergone a substantial overhaul for 2022. They’re not all-new, as they feature a carry-over chassis and sure look similar to the cars they replace, but there’s an abundance of worthwhile upgrades: most notably a modernized and higher quality interior, and a more powerful engine. It’s not the rip-roaring turbocharged affair we’ve always wanted and will probably never get but it does make a big difference in making the 86 and BRZ even more enjoyable to drive. And let’s be clear, that’s exactly why they’re on this list. We love driving, and this pair of lightweight, rear-wheel-drive sport coupes make driving an absolute joy. Not only are they great to drive, they’re easy to drive and decently livable on a daily basis. Oh, and they can be had for less than $30,000. They’re one/two of the few affordable enthusiast cars left.
Why it stands out: Available hybrid powertrain; smart storage; simple controls; spacious back seat and cargo area; reliability
Could be better: Unrefined base engine; antiquated tech interface
Read our full 2022 Toyota RAV4 Review
The RAV4 has more passenger and cargo space than most. It’s comfortable and surprisingly responsive to drive. Its interior is well built with quality materials, and offers user-friendly controls and abundant storage. Its resale value and reliability should be better than almost anything on the road. It can also be had at this price point as a Hybrid, and although that only applies to the base LE model, that’s not a stripped-down unappealing vehicle. It’s also more than can be said for the CR-V Hybrid, which starts at around $32,000. That said, this price point does wipe out one of the RAV4’s most appealing attributes: the wide variety of trim levels that improve performance or off-road capability. As it is, you’re looking at the LE and XLE trim levels at this price point, which are at least more characterful than past RAV4 lower trims. Note the above RAV4 pictured is a 2021 model. The headlight clusters were redesigned for 2022, but the car looks broadly the same.
Why it stands out: Segment-leading back seat space; huge cargo area; strong power and fuel economy
Could be better: Pretty bland to drive; looks more rugged than it is
Our full Volkswagen Taos Review
The Taos is the most family friendly of the midcompact SUVs thanks to a back seat that’s shockingly big enough to fit rear-facing car seats without scrunching those up front into the dash. There’s also a giant cargo area that only falls short of the pricier Bronco Sport, which is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, the Taos has more interior space than quite a few compact SUVs that are larger on the outside. When you can get that while enjoying the benefits of a smaller vehicle (better maneuverability and fuel economy, a lower price), that’s called a win-win. We also like that the Taos isn’t as conservatively styled, inside and out, than other recent made-for-America Volkswagens (Atlas, Passat, Jetta) and has VW’s older, more user-friendly interior controls than the maddening ID.4 and GTI. Even its “could be betters” listed above are hardly what we’d call deal breakers. This is a winner.