Car buyer's guide for a budget of $20,000

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I created a car buyer's guide based on various factors a buyer would consider before owning a vehicle. I have compiled a list of 8 cars listed at about $20,000 at dealerships. I have picked three categories: Cost to Own, Performance, and Convenience and Comfort; and scored the cars giving equal importance to all of the three categories.


I have picked a car from each major brand: Kia, Subaru, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Mazda, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. For the budget of $20,000, I picked the best variants of the cars for the year 2020, a buyer can buy, that fall under the budget.

  1. Kia Forte (LXS 4dr Sedan 2.0L)
  2. Subaru Impreza (4dr AWD Sedan)
  3. Volkswagen Jetta (S SULEV 4dr Sedan 4 cyl Turbo 6M)
  4. Hyundai Elantra (SE 4dr)
  5. Mazda 3 (4dr Sedan 2.5L 4 cyl)
  6. Honda Civic (LX 4dr)
  7. Toyota Corolla (LE FWD) 
  8. Nissan Sentra (SV 4dr Sedan 1.8L 4cyl CVT)

Cost of Ownership

For the above cars, I have considered the following factors as a cost to own a vehicle:

  • Total Cash Price: The Total Cash Price given below is the vehicle's True Market Value® (TMV® assessed by Edmunds) price plus typically equipped options, destination charge, base tax, and fees averaged across the United States.

  • Insurance: This is the estimated average annual insurance premium averaged across the United States.

  • Maintenance: This is the estimated expense of the two types of maintenance: scheduled and unscheduled. 

  • Repairs: This is the estimated expense for repairs not covered by the vehicle manufacturer's warranties over the five years from the date of purchase, assuming 15,000 miles are driven annually. 

  • Taxes and Fees: This consists of the base sales (or use) taxes, license, and registration fees averaged across the United States.

  • Financing: This is the interest expense on loan in the Total Cash Price, assuming a 10% down payment and a loan term of 60 months. The interest rate used is the prevailing bank rate.

  • Depreciation: This is the amount by which the value of a vehicle declines from its purchase price to its estimated resale value.

  • Fuel: This expense is based on the revised EPA mileage ratings, assuming consumption consists of 45% highway and 55% city driving. The fuel costs considered are averaged across the United States.

I have scored each car based on how it fares based on 5-year ownership of the vehicle. I gave the highest score to the car that has the lowest ownership cost. This category also considers the reliability of the vehicle monetized into the recurring cost.


No.CarCash PriceCost to OwnScore
1.Kia Forte$19,504$27,7296
2.Subaru Impreza$19,955$28,9792
3.Volkswagen Jetta$19,664$28,4714
4.Hyundai Elantra$19,720$26,7583
5.Mazda 3$20,935$28,2665
6.Honda Civic$20,398$26,1177
7.Toyota Corolla$20,682$25,9178
8.Nissan Sentra$19,856$30,5751


In this category, I'm comparing the horsepower and torque numbers of each of the cars. I'm also adding the 0 to 60 times to measure the straight-line acceleration of the cars. I, also, considered reviews of top car reviewers like CarAndDriver, Edmunds, and others.


No.CarHorsepower (in hp)Torque (in lb-ft)0 to 60 times (in sec)Score
1.Kia Forte1471328.13
2.Subaru Impreza1521458.5-9.02
3.Volkswagen Jetta1471847.68
4.Hyundai Elantra1471327.56
5.Mazda 31551508.15
6.Honda Civic1581388.27
7.Toyota Corolla1691518.04
8.Nissan Sentra1491469.21


Considering horsepower, torque, acceleration times, and handling, the Volkswagen Jetta seems to be the zippiest car having mid-7s time. It has a turbocharged engine providing great acceleration. CarAndDriver rates the car being zippy, having good acceleration in the urban areas, but lethargic on the highways. The cars listed for this analysis are mostly commuter cars, and I expect the user to drive them in urban areas most of the time.

CarAndDriver, Edmunds, and Autoblog rate the Honda Civic having better performance, balanced ride, and better handling than rivals. The Hyundai Elantra comes next in this segment.

The Mazda 3 comes next in the comparison. Here,  I'm considering the base engine for Mazda 3, which doesn't pack much power. However, the Turbocharged version of Mazda 3 is considered as best in this segment.

The Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, and the Subaru Impreza have good gas mileage but provide sluggish and mediocre performance as compared to rivals. CarAndDriver rated the Nissan Sentra as having a lethargic engine and a poor suspension, giving a choppy ride.

Convenience and Comfort

Convenience and comfort play an important role in this highly competitive segment. Few luxury features in commuter cars make a difference in buying decisions. I have compiled a few features which are available in some of the cars and not in others.


No.CarAdaptive Cruise ControlKeyless StartKeyless EntryAnti-theft systemRemote Trunk ReleaseScore
1.Kia Forte1
2.Subaru Impreza2
3.Volkswagen Jetta4
4.Hyundai Elantra3
5.Mazda 37
6.Honda Civic6
7.Toyota Corolla5
8.Nissan Sentra     8


I gave the scores based on the importance of features given in the above table from left to right.

The Nissan Sentra has poor Cost of Ownership and Performance Specifications but has got the best Convenience and Comfort features in the segment. Mazda 3 comes next with a plush interior. Mazda provides features in Mazda-3 that other car manufacturers offer in the premium cars. Moreover, Mazda provides the same infotainment system across all its cars. Mazda has used premium materials in the interior rather than cheap plastic.

The Honda Civic comes next, offering Keyless entry in the base model of the Honda Civic. The keyless start feature is important in starting the car in cold weather. The keyless start feature helps start the car remotely and heat it in cold weather before climbing in. The Keyless entry feature offers the convenience of not taking out a key to enter the car.

The Toyota Corolla does not have a Keyless entry and start system but does have Adaptive Cruise Control, which is useful in highway driving and bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The Anti-theft system can provide extra safety to the car. The remote trunk release feature can provide another convenient way to open the trunk.


I'm giving twice the importance to Cost of Ownership and Performance, as to Convenience and Comfort. Summarizing the above tables.


No. CarCost to OwnPerformanceInterior and ComfortFinal Score
1.Kia Forte63119
2.Subaru Impreza22210
3.Volkswagen Jetta48428
4.Hyundai Elantra36321
5.Mazda 355727
6.Honda Civic77634
7.Toyota Corolla84529
8.Nissan Sentra11812


My choice would be Honda Civic as it is one of the leading contenders in all categories.

However, I'm not considering factors like styling, deals, availability, service quality, personal preferences, and other factors in this analysis, as they can be subjective to each buyer. The buyer can also choose different variants, add optional features, or add aftermarket accessories also. All of these factors can be a make-or-break buying decision.