Yep, we’re about to talk about sticker shock. It’s a well-worn phrase that most Americans have probably been hearing about all their lives. The premise is simple: If you only buy a new car once every 10 years or so — the average age of all cars on roads in the United States currently sits at 12.5 years, the oldest in history — you’re going to be surprised, shocked even, when you look at the window sticker of your intended replacement vehicle.
Thing is, the sticker shock phenomenon is more real today than ever before. The average new-car transaction price in America is over $48,000 in 2023. That’s actually down from where it sat a few months prior and is largely driven by hefty prices on wildly popular full-size pickups, but buyers of all vehicles are still being forced to contend with higher prices. It’s also led to increasingly long loan terms and higher interest rates.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any affordable options for car buyers in America. The Toyota Corolla — the best-selling global nameplate of all time, for what it’s worth — starts around $23,000 in 2023. It’s a good, reliable choice. We happily recommend the Corolla to buyers who don’t really care too much about the driving experience, focusing their vehicular wishlist more in the direction of efficiency, affordability and reliability. There’s nothing wrong with buying a Toyota Corolla for those reasons. There are also Corolla Hybrids aimed at buyers who value efficiency above all else, and sporty-looking SE and XSE models that look and feel a bit less mundane than the base LE model.
But what if you’re unimpressed by the Corolla or any of its new compact sedan competitors? They certainly aren’t your only option for safe, reliable, efficient or even sporty transport. That’s what the used market is for. Here is a variety of options for the same price that are more interesting, sportier and/or luxurious than a perfectly acceptable economy car.
This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of used cars available for the cost of basic, but brand-new, transportation. Rather, it’s a demonstration that a used-car search can be a viable option for buyers who need a new set of wheels but can’t or don’t want to lose an arm and a leg in the process.
Option 1: 2019-2020 Lexus UX 250h
As of the day this was published, there were 62 Lexus UX 250h hybrids available for less than $30,000 and 22 of those are priced less than the $27,945 asking price (including mandatory destination) that Toyota asks for a 2023 Corolla Hybrid XLE. Some of these UX models include the F Sport package, as seen above. The UX is not the sportiest or roomiest subcompact crossover for sale in America, and it’s Lexus’ smallest model. But it’s full of enticing technology, smooth, comfortable, extremely fuel efficient and backed by Lexus’ reputation for a premium ownership experience and strong expected long-term reliability. The UX 250h hybrid gets 43/41/42 with FWD and 41/38/39 with AWD, which is a bit short of the Corolla Hybrid that eeks out 50-plus miles per gallon, but still very good.
Here’s what we said about it in our review:
“The Lexus UX is a boldly-styled small crossover with impressively smooth and quiet road manners though it’s low on power compared with other crossovers, and rear-seat and cargo space is a bit tight. The hybrid offers more power and impressive fuel economy.”
Option 2: 2020-2023 Hyundai Sonata
If the Lexus UX isn’t big enough for your driving needs, consider the Hyundai Sonata, which, as a large midsize sedan, is significantly larger than our compact Toyota Corolla example. In our review of the 2022 Sonata, we said it ‘offers abundant passenger and cargo space, tons of well-executed technology, and a lineup of efficient engines.’
Now, the Sonata’s styling certainly isn’t for everyone, which we addressed in our review. “Maybe it’ll be too out-there for some, but we’ll take bold over anonymous any day. The interior isn’t quite as unusual, but it’s sleek and modern while still providing usable storage, sensible controls and easy-to-use tech. In short, the Sonata delivers function and fashion, and we consider it one of the best cars under $30,000.”
Now that it’s a couple of years old, a low-mileage Sonata covered by Hyundai’s factory-backed certified pre-owned warranty costs exactly the same amount as a new Corolla fresh off the lot. It’s a compelling option.
Option 3: 2021-2022 Kia Seltos
Yes, we know. What most Americans really want is a crossover. The Kia Seltos is a good one. It’s handsome and affordable. In fact, it’s another vehicle that we highlighted on our list of the best vehicles under $30,000. In our writeup, we said, “Its price and exterior dimensions fall in between the subcompact and compact SUV segments (we call it the midcompact segment), yet it boasts more interior volume than is expected and an abundance of special design details throughout that successfully counter some of the cheaper bits applied to keep the price down.”
We found nearly a hundred Seltos models within driving distance of our Midwestern location using Kia’s online certified pre-owned inventory search for around $25,000.
Option 4: 2015-2018 BMW 3 Series
Wait a minute. Are we sure that buyers can actually get a decent BMW 3 Series — the quintessential sport sedan — for the price of a Toyota Corolla? The answer is yes, but with caveats.
The most recent BMW 3 Series debuted in the U.S. as a 2019 model, and by all accounts it is an improvement in every conceivable way to the version it replaced (known internally and to BMW aficionados as the F30). The real question, though, is whether the prior-gen 3 Series is a better car to drive than the Toyota Corolla, which in this case would be either the sportier-looking SE for $26,160 or the step-up XSE for $27,945. And the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.
You’ve got to be careful with the BMW 3 Series (as is the case with many a premium car from Germany). For this exercise, we’d narrow the choice down to a 2015-2018 330i with BMW’s B48 four-cylinder turbocharged engine. It replaced a previous engine in models badged 328i that was known to be troublesome and therefore best avoided on the used market. As of this writing, there are well over 200 such vehicles for sale in our own classifieds for less than $28,000 and with fewer than 40,000 miles.
If you want to spend less than that and still have a BMW 3 Series with its rear-wheel or all-wheel-drive chassis dynamics, lowering the price range to the base price of a Corolla (around $24,000 including destination) leaves us with a healthy selection of 2015-2018 320i sedans powered by a less powerful version of the same turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Option 5: 2016-2018 Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400
Sometimes, depreciation works in a savvy buyer’s favor. This is one of those times. There are several reasons why the Infiniti Q50 depreciates at a fast enough rate that a nice example can be easily located for Toyota Corolla money. A few worth highlighting: First, the Q50 plays in a highly competitive segment where being good just isn’t good enough. Second, Infiniti has let its bread-and-butter sedan wither on the vine without giving it any updates significant enough that it stands out — put simply, new car buyers are tired of looking at its admittedly handsome shape on the showroom floor. Third … well, it’s not a crossover.
None of those things make the Q50 a bad car or one not worth consideration. We were honestly surprised to see that the peak of Q50 performance, the Red Sport 400, had fallen into Toyota Corolla territory. There’s really no sense in comparing the two vehicles; all that puts them into the same conversation are price and the fact that both are four-door sedans. Infiniti’s 400-horsepower twin-turbo V6 engine is way more powerful than Toyota’s 169-hp four-cylinder. It’s a lot thirstier, too. Still, there are currently 17 Red Sport 400s priced between $23,000 and $28,000 in our classifieds with fewer than 60,000 miles. And so we figured, why not throw it into the mix?
Now, don’t get us wrong. Are we seriously suggesting that buyers exit their nearest Toyota dealership and buy a used Lexus, BMW or Infiniti instead? No, not exactly. The Toyota Corolla is a best-seller because it offers exactly what a sizable chunk of buyers are looking for: solid reliability, reasonable room, quiet competence and an attractive price. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options. If we were looking for an efficient small car for daily driving, we’d rather put a hundred thousand miles on a Lexus UX 250h than a Corolla Hybrid. If we were hoping to attract a few admiring glances from casual observers, we’d rather do it in a BMW 3 Series than a Corolla XSE. And if we wanted to blast down a twisty road with notions of fury under our feet, well, the Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400 would be a mighty fine option.