“Cool.” It is hard to define, but most of us know it when we see it. Or at least we think we do. We spend most of our days here ferreting out the vehicles that are the best all-around choices in their segments, but this assignment is different. The prime attribute we judged here is our subjective — but we think accurate — view of coolness. What goes into that? Style, timeliness and newness are among the top attributes on the list. If a vehicle is nearly invisible in plain sight, it might be a great value but it is definitely uncool. These vehicles are the opposite. They are way cool and made all the cooler by the fact that you don’t need to auction body parts to buy one.
Here is the definitive look at the 10 Coolest Cars under $20,000.
1. Ford EcoSport
Small but tall — that describes the all-new Ford EcoSport crossover utility for 2018, and the combination of small, tall and new lands it at the top of our 10 Coolest Cars under $20,000. In keeping with the trend to “make it your own,” the five-passenger EcoSport offers 10 exterior colors plus six interior choices and ambient lighting options. A rearview camera is standard, but opting for the available SYNC 3 with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility might push you over the $20K mark. Standard safety features include AdvanceTrac with roll stability control, side-air curtain technology, side thorax airbags for rear passengers and SOS post-crash alert system. An engine is also standard, but it’s not very big — 1.0-liter EcoBoost 3-cylinder with auto start-stop teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission.
2. Honda Civic Coupe
When other brands are zigging by dropping their two-door cars as if they were a red-hot frying pan, Honda is zagging by doubling down on its attractive Civic coupe. We freely admit that it is only comfortable for two adults, but if they are the right two adults, what’s cooler than that? Also cool is the overall styling and the sheer amount of stuff you get — LED running lights, LED tail lights, climate control, parking camera system and five-inch touchscreen, among others. Under the sleek hood is a 158-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that will provide more-than-ample oomph. Other Civics are even faster but this one is a very cool choice at under $20K.
3. Mazda Mazda3
You really don’t grasp how cool the Mazda3 is until you look at all the lesser cars that cost more. Fun-to-drive plus great value — we think that’s very cool. Off the top the car looks great, and it also offers plenty of room for four adult passengers…or five if the three in the rear are close. Standard stuff includes remote entry/start, split-folding rear seats, parking camera system, a sizable seven-inch display and Euro-style infotainment controls. In keeping with its sporty theme, the 155-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine moves the Mazda3 with alacrity…and that’s very cool.
4. Kia Soul
One of the coolest things about the Kia Soul is it is bigger than it looks. That translates into superior versatility, one of the reasons the car has been such a hit in its five years on the market. You might not think of Kia when someone mentions the term “product quality,” but the Soul has been numero uno in the J.D Power Initial Quality Study in its category for the last three years. A big plus for 2018 is the expanded availability of the UVO3 infotainment interface across the model range, and the Soul is one vehicle on this list that isn’t bumping into the $20,000 figure in base trim, so you can afford a goodie or two.
5. Volkswagen Jetta
European style and a hint of continental handling in a sedan under $20,000? We think that’s cool, and that is exactly what the Volkswagen Jetta brings to the table. Even the base engine is turbocharged, and it produces 150 horsepower from just 1.4-liters of displacement, so it’s an overachiever. We like the 2018 Jetta’s looks both inside and out, and its back seat is one of the roomiest in the class. Standards include LED running lights, fog lamps, keyless entry, split-folding rear seats, heated power-operated side mirrors, parking camera system and five-inch touchscreen. One thing to keep in mind — the 2019 version is soon to be introduced as we write this, but the 2018 should age well. The all-new Jetta will also be worth a look.
6. Chevrolet Sonic
You can forgive yourself if Chevrolet isn’t on your mind when it comes to small sedans, but the internationally designed Sonic is more than worthy of mention. One marquee item is the fact the car can function as a wifi hotspot. Other features on the standards list are keyless entry, LED running lights, parking camera system and split-folding rear seats. The touchscreen is a meaty seven-inches big, and you can probably squeeze some options in and still stay below $20,000. While it might be overkill to call the car sporty, but it certainly looks the part, and the 138-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine won’t leave you hanging.
7. Toyota Corolla iM
If you think you’ve seen the iM’s face before, you have. In prior years it was the Scion iM, but then Toyota decided to call a halt to its Scion sub-brand. But a lot of Scion’s cheekiness remains in the iM, making it a cooler choice than the stolid Toyota Corolla. While the 137-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine might not be the coolest engine on the planet, the stuff that comes with it — alloy wheels, LED running lights, automatic headlamp control, automatic climate control, and remote start and entry — add significantly to the cool factor. Tilt-telescoping steering wheel, parking camera system and well-executed Bluetooth integration are bonus points.
8. Jeep Renegade
For less than $20,000 you’re not going to get a Jeep Renegade with serious off-road credentials, but you will get a distinctively styled vehicle that will let you get at least a taste of what it’s like to own a Jeep. The exterior could be mistaken for nothing else, and the interior is well-thought-out and well-finished. It is accompanied by a rich selection of goodies, including a standard five-inch-screen Uconnect 5.0 radio, six speakers and integrated voice command with both Bluetooth and handsfree calling. A rear backup camera system is also a standard item on the Renegade. Built in Italy on the same chassis as the Fiat 500X, the Renegade is powered by a 160-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine.
9. Subaru Impreza
Available in four-door and five-door (hatchback) trims, the Subaru Impreza makes its mark with standard all-wheel-drive and an emphasis on safety and, of course, love. The fact is while we love love, we also love “Symmetrical AWD” that continuously powers all four wheels and can transfer more torque to the wheels with the best grip. The all-wheel-drive system is accompanied by Vehicle Dynamics Control to enhance all-weather stability and traction. While previous Subaru models had rather primitive interiors with tiny radio buttons and hard-to-use controls, the new Impreza has improved upon that markedly. And the “boxer” 152-horsepower 4-cylinder engine is noted for ruggedness.
10. Hyundai Elantra GT
The Elantra GT takes the stalwart Hyundai compact car in a sporty direction while retaining the practicality of the sizable five-passenger interior. While the 161-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder won’t make you an odds-on favorite to win at Drag City, it does offer more power than many competitive engines. And sporty touches include attractive 17-inch alloy wheels and push-button ignition. Other niceties aren’t precisely sporty, but they are appreciated — parking camera system, eight-inch touchscreen infotainment, power-adjustable driver’s seat and heated front seats. And the lengthy warranty is also very cool.