The average price Americans are paying for new cars this year is right around $35,000, so we at Driving Today decided to examine what you can get for less than that magic figure. We know from having helped people get good value for their car dollars over the course of more than two decades that there are a lot of good choices for less than $35K — solid, reliable cars that will provide stalwart service for years. But you want something more than that. We know that you don’t simply want a solid car. You want something that expresses your personality. You want Driving Today’s look at the 10 Coolest Cars under $35,000.
So we know you want a cool car. We also know there are no empirical rules that define what a cool car is. Some are fast; some are stylish; some are cute; some are technologically forward-looking. This list of the 10 Coolest Cars under $35,000 includes examples of all of these. You might not agree that all of them are cool, because what’s cool to one person might not be cool to another. But if you’re looking for a cool car, and you have less than $35,000 to spend, this list will give you some cars to think about.
For fun, this time we’re going to count them down from number 10 to number one. Here’s the Driving Today list of the 10 Coolest Cars under $35,000.
Number 10 Chevrolet Volt
The Chevrolet Volt might have saved General Motors from the wrecking ball when all hell broke loose in the economy in 2008. Surviving bankruptcy, the Volt never became the dominant seller some thought it would be, but it continues to feel like a vehicle that is advancing the pace of auto technology. It is a good-looking, five-passenger plug-in that offers almost 50 miles of electric range before its on-board 149-horsepower internal combustion engine kicks in to recharge the battery pack. Depending on your duty cycle, your trips to gas stations could be very rare. Inside, the Volt is filled with consumer-friendly touches. The base model, priced right around $35K, includes LED exterior lighting, remote entry and start and an eight-inch touchscreen-operated info center. OnStar and mobile Wi-Fi hotspot functionality are also included.
Number 9 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The Mazda MX-5 Miata feels so good to drive that you can’t avoid believing it is cool…and you are cool to be driving it. With its 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the Miata doesn’t accelerate like a demon (or a Demon), but it is so well-balanced and responsive to your touch on the steering wheel, that becomes meaningless. If you need 300-horsepower, there are other vehicles for you on this list. The Miata was introduced to channel the European two-seat sports cars of the Sixties, but it also has modern amenities. For instance all Miatas have keyless entry with push-button start this year, and the Sport trim includes Mazda Connect infotainment system with seven-inch display screen and Euro-type controller. We like the quick shifting of the six-speed manual transmission, but we won’t tell others if you buy the automatic.
Number 8 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible
The fact is we at Driving Today just love the look of the current-edition Volkswagen Beetle. Somehow it manages to be snarky and bold while not throwing away all its classic cuteness. If you want to draw a crowd, pull up in a VW Beetle convertible — any year, it doesn’t matter. The pleasant fact about the current car, though, is that under its retro-molded skin it is thoroughly modern and utterly competent. Power comes courtesy of a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that offers 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Even the base model has remote entry, parking camera system, alloy wheels, and automatic headlights. The fabric top is power-operated, and the leatherette upholstery can deal with a lot of direct sunlight. The eight-speaker audio system is controlled via a five-inch touchscreen, and niceties like collision mitigation system and premium Fender audio are among the available options.
Number 7 Ford Mustang
The Ford Mustang invented the pony car segment, and it has rolled with the punches of high fuel prices, emissions controls and changing consumer tastes for 50 years now. The current Mustang is a reflection of today’s realities. It is offered in a full-on, high-horsepower V-8-powered version or a more modern turbocharged four-cylinder edition that delivers surprising all-around performance and handling. No, the four-cylinder won’t provide the forceful acceleration of the 460-horsepower V-8, but its 310-horsepower and significant (350 pound-feet) peak torque results in a very satisfying vehicle. Part of the good news is the Mustang’s chassis has transitioned from buckboard-rudimentary to very sophisticated, so the well-balanced blown four-cylinder car is a blast to drive. Plus, with the intelligent update of iconic Mustang styling it is a blast to be seen in, too.
Number 6 Fiat 500e
The Fiat 500e isn’t available everywhere. Instead it is only for sale in California and Oregon. And isn’t limited availability cool? Also cool is the fact that the 500e is both fun-to-drive in the Fiat 500 idiom and zero-emissions. Its pure-electric powertrain produces 111 horsepower with instant torque, while also offering 84 miles of range on a charge. Obviously, it is not designed for long Interstate runs, but its battery pack can be fully recharged in just four hours with its on-board charging module connected to a 220-volt outlet. Within its uniquely Fiat “Cinquecento” body, the 500e offers a new-as-tomorrow interior. You push buttons to choose forward or reverse. An attractive seven-inch TFT instrument cluster displays full-color graphics showing valuable info like vehicle functions, charge levels and trip summary. Sound system is Uconnect 5.0 with a five-inch touchscreen.
Number 5 Chevrolet Camaro
Back in the day a Camaro or a Mustang with a six-cylinder engine was thought as a “poser” car. Though it looked cool, it had no real performance to back it up. These days, though, six-cylinder and even four-cylinder-powered Camaros and Mustangs can deliver serious driving involvement. Take, for example, the six-cylinder version of the Camaro here on our list. This car is no poser. It offers 335 horsepower from its all-aluminum 3.6-liter dual overhead cam V-6. The result is a vehicle that looks terrific and, at the same time, is a well-balanced, sharp-handling road car. Equipped with alloy wheels, limited-slip differential, remote entry and start, power seating, seven-inch touchscreen with parking camera, six-speaker audio, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi hotspot, the Camaro is exceptionally well-equipped. Now more than ever, it’s designed for just two occupants, but that’s cool, too.
Number 4 MINI Cooper S Convertible
Some cars just have a sunny disposition, and the MINI Cooper S convertible is just one of those cars. Simply looking at it makes you smile. For well less than $35,000 you can purchase a Cooper S convertible, which is heartily recommended for its significantly stronger 189-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four-cylinder engine. You have your choice of the six-speed manual transmission or, if you’re too busy posing for selfies to shift gears yourself, you can opt for the six-speed automatic. The power-operated fabric top folds in less than18 seconds at the touch of a button. With alloy wheels, limited slip differential, remote entry, push button start and automatic windshield wipers, the MINI convertible offers a nice list of standard stuff. The six-speaker audio with 6.5-inch touchscreen can keep the party rockin’.
Number 3 Dodge Challenger R/T
When you can obtain a great-looking sports coupe that happens to have a legendary 375-horsepower V-8 engine under its long, snarky hood, we stand up and say cool. And that is just what you get with the Dodge Challenger R/T. Its competitors in the pony car segment have priced their V-8-powered cars north of the $35,000 mark. But Challenger is right there in MSRP, and discounts can help you keep yours right at the $35K level. If you think the Challenger is the last vestige of the American muscle car era, you’re not far off the mark. Both interior and exterior bear obvious touches inspired by the 1971 Dodge Challenger. But the new Challenger handles better than any ’71 Mopar ever dreamed of handing. Modern features include standard seven-inch touchscreen with Uconnect 4 system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Number 2 Fiat 124 Elaborazione Abarth
Fiat 124 Elaborazione Abarth…the name sounds expensive, exotic, foreign and, yes, cool. Happily, this two-seat sports car lives up to its name. Okay, it isn’t precisely Italian; it is actually the product of an alliance between Italian-American Fiat Chrysler and Japanese Mazda. How exotic is that? And if you want to know why we think it is cooler than the closely related Mazda MX-5 Miata also on this list, we’d cite the stronger 164-horsepower turbocharged engine, Fiat-heritage-inspired exterior styling and the Italian-influenced interior. The up-level Elaboazione Abarth brings with it backup camera, Bilstein sport suspension, mechanical limited-slip differential, front strut tower bar, sport mode selector and sport-tuned chrome quad-tip exhaust. You’ll love snicking through the six forward gears with the short-throw shifter, and handling is so direct that some might be offended. Even the exhaust note is cool.
Number 1 Nissan LEAF SV
There is something very cool about not having to pay for gasoline — ever. And that is just one of the cool things about the new-as-tomorrow Nissan Leaf. Right off the top it is a pure electric vehicle with a manufacturer’s suggested list price under $35,000. (With federal and state tax credits your net cost might be much lower.) Some critics have knocked the Leaf because it only offers 150 miles of range on a full charge of its 40-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. But you have to ask yourself how often do you drive more than 150 miles per day? And on those days you do, will another 50-75 miles of range make any difference? We think the Leaf is a good compromise of range and cost. Plus it is fun-to-drive with advanced features that include one-pedal driving. There’s no need to ever touch the brake pedal. Cool!