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Top 10 Compact Cars for Under $10,000

Chris Kaiser

From A to B and everywhere in between, compact cars get you there. Here’s our top 10 list of the best compact cars under $10,000.

Just Enough Car for the Job

The humble compact car came into vogue decades ago, largely as a consequence of the Oil Crisis of the late 1970s. But, aside from saving on gas, there have been plenty of added benefits to driving smaller cars. As we’ll see in our list, being smaller allowed cars to be more maneuverable, power to weight ratios were drastically altered, and cars got cheaper while still including the latest automotive technologies. Today, the best value both new and used can often be found in the compact segment. So, as part of our unending quest to identify that Venn diagram sweet spot between price and value, we give you our top 10 compact cars under $10,000.

Kia Forte (2017)

2017 Kia Forte hatchback - carsforsale.com
2017 Kia Forte hatchback - carsforsale.com

While it’s the year the Kia Forte gave up on its coupe version, we’re still recommending the 2017 refresh for your best value. The updated exterior and the addition of a new base engine make it superior to prior model years. That new base engine is a 2.0L I4 making 164hp. If you need something peppier, there’s also the SX trim’s 1.6L turbocharged I4 that increases the horsepower to 201 and adds a sport suspension and new brakes. The Forte offers a roomy and well-trimmed interior. Best of all though is the fact that Kia has been generous with its feature offerings, gracing even the lower trims with plenty of standard features and upgrades. Lower trims start with keyless entry, AC, and options for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Higher trims add things like navigation and a moonroof. The Forte’s forte is bang-for-your-buck value.

Volkswagen Golf (2012-14)

2012 Volkswagen Golf R - vw.com
2012 Volkswagen Golf R - vw.com

Speaking of maximizing your dollar, the Volkswagen Golf sports one of the best interiors of any car on the list. Materials are soft touch and the high-quality design is modern with a nod toward practicality. The Golf is also roomy, especially in the rear, and the seats are comfy and supportive. Of course, the Golf is also one of the best handling compact cars you can find. You’ll choose between the base 5-cylinder with 170hp and 24/31 city/highway mpg or the preferred 4-cylinder diesel that gets an impressive 30/42 mpg. An eight-speaker stereo comes standard and additional options include Bluetooth, navigation, LED daytime running lights, heated front seats, and a sunroof. It’s hard to find a weakness in this well-rounded compact.

Honda Civic (2012-15)

2013 Honda Civic - carsforsale.com
2013 Honda Civic - carsforsale.com

You knew it would make it on the list somewhere, right? The Honda Civic is the prototypical compact car, giving you all you need and nothing you don’t wrapped in an affordable package. If safety and reliability are high priorities for you, the Civic needs to be on your short list of cars to consider. The 2012 Civic received some important updates, including a new suspension, stiffer chassis, and better fuel economy. The standard engine in the Civic is a 1.8L 4-cylinder making 140hp and achieving 28 city and 39 highway mpg. The base DX trim is fairly bare bones, so we recommend the LX trim or higher. There you’ll find AC, keyless entry, cruise control and a five-inch touchscreen. EX and EX-L trims add moonroof, navigation, and leather upholstery to the mix. The Civic had been a best seller for decades for a reason.

Ford Focus (2013-16)

2016 Ford Focus - carsforsale.com
2016 Ford Focus - carsforsale.com

The Ford Focus’s chief attractions are an upscale interior and a sporty driving experience. Both the materials and the overall design of the interior are above the segment average. Engine options include a (new for 2013) 1.0L EcoBoost I3 making 123hp with a six-speed manual transmission, a 2.0L I4 good for 160hp, or, in the ST trim, a 2.0L turbo I4 making 252hp. Whichever you choose the Focus doesn’t disappoint when it comes to handling. Sharp steering and great brakes make this compact a joy to toss around corners. A rearview camera comes standard along with options for blind spot monitoring, cruise control, and leather seats. The Focus is an excellent choice for those seeking some FWD thrills in their next compact.

Kia Soul (2015-17)

2017 Kia Soul - kiamedia.com
2017 Kia Soul - kiamedia.com

Is it a compact car? Is it a subcompact crossover? Is it a hatchback? Or perhaps all three? However you choose to classify the quirky cube car from Kia, the Soul is a marvel of style, personality, and utility. The interior is roomy, especially so due to its high canopy. Cargo impresses with 24.2 cu. ft. behind the rear seats and 61.3 cu. ft. with them folded down. The small wheelbase and optional turbocharged engine make it maneuverable and spritely to drive. Standard features include Bluetooth, a six-speaker stereo, and aluminum alloy wheels. The + (Plus) trim adds a rearview camera, the upgraded 161hp turbocharged engine, and keyless entry. The ! (Exclamation) trim provides Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, leather seats, and an ungraded 201hp engine. The Soul packs personality and practicality in to a charming, angular package.

Subaru Impreza (2012-14)

2014 Subaru Impreza - carsforsale.com
2014 Subaru Impreza - carsforsale.com

Obviously, as a Subaru, the Impreza’s main attraction will be its standard AWD system. If you live in snowy areas of the country, it’s a major selling point. Safety is another area of emphasis for Subaru, and the Impreza offers a number of valuable safety options and stellar crash test ratings. The Impreza comes in both sedan and hatchback configurations. The standard engine in the Impreza is a 2.0L H-4 making 148hp. You’ll have the option of either a five-speed manual transmission or a CVT with six simulated gears you can row through with optional paddle shifters. The CVT option provides great gas mileage too, with 27 city and 36 highway mpg. The base Impreza is fairly spartan so we suggest at least opting for Premium trim which grants you cruise control and options for navigation, moonroof, rear view camera and more. For a sure-footed compact with an extra bit of panache, the Impreza is a great option.

Mazda3 (2014)

2014 Mazda3 - carsforsale.com
2014 Mazda3 - carsforsale.com

The Mazda3 tops this list in at least three metrics. It’s the best driving, with handling to rival anything from the Focus or Golf. It’s, arguably, the best looking with an updated exterior for 2014. And it’s got a refined and upscale interior featuring high-quality materials and great styling. The pin-point steering and strong brakes make the Mazda3 a breath of fresh air in a segment often thought of as a collection of dull commuter cars. You’ll have your pick between the base 2.0L 4-cylinder (155hp) and a six-speed manual or a 2.5L (184hp) and a six-speed automatic. Both get great gas mileage with the 2.0L achieving 29 city/ 41 highway mpg and the 2.5L getting 28/39 mpg. The base model comes in sedan only with higher trims also offering a hatchback body. Standard options include a four-speaker stereo, USB port and push-button start. The 3i Sport, Touring and Grand Touring add options like cruise control, heated seats and mirrors, blind spot detection, and a HUD. The Mazda3 may not be the most spacious of compacts, but by every other metric, it’s top of the class.

Chevy Cruze (2014-15)

2014 Chevrolet Cruze - chevrolet.com
2014 Chevrolet Cruze - chevrolet.com

The Chevrolet Cruze combines a smooth and comfortable ride with responsive handling for an exceedingly drivable compact car. While it’s not nearly as sporty as the Focus or Mazda3, the Cruze doesn’t feel as awkward as some cars in the segment. The 1.8L I4 isn’t especially powerful and we therefore recommend the optional 2.0L diesel engine that gets a fantastic 27 city/ 46 highway mpg. You’ll also have the option of either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. Upper trims of the LT, Eco, and LTZ also offer a peppier 1.4L turbocharged 4-cylinder. Options in the Cruze include CD player, USB port, Bluetooth, keyless entry and a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Toyota Prius (2011-14)

2013 Toyota Prius - toyota.com
2013 Toyota Prius - toyota.com

The Prius might look a little odd, but it’s been a best-seller for Toyota thanks to its practicality, not its personality. With an impressive 51 city and 48 highway mpg rating, a used Prius will save you money on the back end as well as the front. Combine low fuel costs with high reliability and you’ll find the Prius is one of the cheapest cars to own. The Prius’ practicality extends beyond fuel efficiency. Thanks to a high greenhouse, the Prius is roomy, with ample space even in the rear. Cargo is also excellent with 21.6 cu. ft. behind the back seat and a wowing 67.3 cu. f.t with the back seats folded down. That rivals many crossovers. For the most utilitarian of all compacts, the Prius doesn’t disappoint (that is unless you’re stomping on the accelerator).

Buick Verano (2012-14)

2012 Buick Verano - carsforsale.com
2012 Buick Verano - carsforsale.com

We saved the best of the bunch for last on our list. The Buick Verano combines a near-luxury level interior, smooth ride and sharp handling with unimpeachable safety and reliability ratings. For a quiet and comfortable ride, there’s nothing better in the segment. You can choose between a 4-cylinder engine making 180hp or upgrade to a turbocharged-4 making an impressive 250hp (starting with the 2013 model year). A rearview camera comes standard along with blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alerts on all but the base model. Options include a Bose stereo, leather seats, and heated front seats and heated steering wheel. For the best all-around compact car at $10,000, the Verano is as close as it comes to a sure thing.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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