It's that time of year when adults get into the relatively recent business of horning in on a kids gig called Halloween. It's also time to perform a profound public service: the publication of the annual Inquirer Cheap Car Survey (ICCS).
Since its debut 30 years ago, the ICCS has moved onward and upward - especially upward. They don't sell $3,995 Yugos and $4,995 Chevettes anymore. So, the price ceiling for inclusion in the survey has been rising steadily over the years. This year, I had to raise the ceiling to $15,000 to field a five-pack of cheapies-but-goodies. These 2017 cars are subcompact sedans and hatchbacks - and definitely not the econoboxes of yore. They are typically cute, reasonably quiet, and at least decently equipped. Models mentioned have manual gearboxes. An automatic typically tacks $1,000 to $1,200 on the tab.
Nissan Versa 1.6s Sedan (base price $11,900). Once again, this is the cheapest ride in the marketplace. And not a bad looking ride, at that. This is a reasonably roomy and comfortable subcompact with EPA mileage ratings of 27 city and 36 highway when equipped with the five-speed manual. (With the megalithic four-speed automatic, the mileage goes down and the price goes up.) Power is courtesy of a 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter four, which is sufficient in this lightweight car.
Chevrolet Spark LS five-door hatchback ($13,000). At nearly 143 inches long, the Spark is the munchkin-mobile of this gathering. But it is also the best equipped. Its redesign for 2016 included such standard up-market regalia as alloy wheels, a tilt steering wheel, automated headlights, and a WiFi hotspot. Stronger architecture has helped make the Spark quieter. Weighing in at only 2,246 pounds makes its 1.4-liter, 98-horse engine quite adequate. Obviously, it's diminutive footprint makes it an ideal urban prowler. It has nice EPAs of 31 city and 39 highway, which drop 1 mph in the city when it is fitted with the continuously variable automatic transmission.
Ford Fiesta S sedan ($14,130). The Fiesta has much to recommend it. A surprisingly roomy subcompact, it provides a comfortable ride and gets more than enough motivation from its 1.6-liter, 120-horsepower engine. The base model's EPA numbers are a solid 28 city and 36 highway with the five-speed manual gearbox. When equipped with the six-speed automatic, the EPA takes away 1 mpg in the city and raises it one on the highway. The Fiesta is available as a sedan or hatch, and comes with a hefty litany of standard safety gear and available hedonism.
Kia Rio LX sedan ($14,165). This Kia subcompact benefits from a rarity in inexpensive cars: direct injection. The latter bumps its 1.6-liter engine up to 138 horsepower and contributes to decent EPAs of 27 city and 36 highway when fitted with the six-speed manual. The numbers remain the same when this engine is buttoned to the six-speed automatic.
Fiat 500 Pop three-door hatchback ($14,995). The little 500 is a latter-day evocation of the inexpensive and iconic car that put Italy behind the wheel back in the '50s. It is as terminally cute as it is cramped in the backseat. Its 1.4-liter, 101-horse engine is peppy enough in this light car. (Those with more shekels and more need for speed can opt for the turbocharged 160-horsepower Abarth model.) The Pop gets EPAs of 31 city and 38 highway with either the base five-speed manual or the optional six-speed automatic.
Honorable mention. Here are some worthy subcompacts that barely missed the price ceiling you might want to tack onto your shopping list: Chevy Sonic ($15,145), Toyota Yaris ($15,250), Hyundai Accent (estimated $15,100).