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First Car Guide

We define First Car material as a car priced right—close to or under $20,000—for someone just starting out. Ideally it’s also compact, fuel efficient, a safety leader, and equally well suited for an empty nester or just about anyone on a serious budget.

Toyota Corolla

Year: Starting at $17,060 MPG 26-34 Yes, it eventually happens to all cars, even the best-selling automobile the world has ever known, the Toyota Corolla. And now, it is undeniable: the Corolla is getting old. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from buying Corollas in droves. And so with an audible sigh, we report that 2013 brings yet another mild update to a car that has been around in its current form seemingly for an eternity. So why do people still buy the Corolla en masse? Simple: it’s simple…as in uncomplicated, plain, or as some might say, dull. And to be fair, one person’s dull is another’s “reliable transportation,” and don’t expect us to argue with that. But don’t expect us to get too excited about it, either, as the only available engine remains a wimpy 132-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder mated to five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. The Corolla LE and S models receive some reconstituted option packages, and a new 6.1-inch screen-based interface for the Display Audio system. Fuel economy is respectable but falls short of newer, fresher, and far more exciting competitors such as the Ford Focus, the Chevrolet Cruze, the Volkswagen Jetta, and the Hyundai Elantra, all of which should be considered by anyone looking at a new Corolla this year. …
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Toyota RAV4

Year: Starting at $23,300 MPG 24-31 An all-new gen-four RAV4 makes its debut for 2013, although at the time of this writing, Toyota’s lips were still sealed on the details. We expect, however, that Toyota dealers may have a few 2012 RAV4s sitting around well into 2013, so what about that model? Well, the gen-three RAV4 has never been a shabby ride, having grown about as large as a compact crossover can get and still be considered “compact.” It even offers a vestigial third-row seat, although that’s a place we only recommend for compact people. The front two rows offer good views and space for four adults, and spendy types can select from a laundry list of options, including leather seats, navigation, and an audio system with EnTune data services and iTunes song tagging. Both of the RAV4’s available engines, a somewhat overburdened 179-horsepower four-cylinder and a 269-horsepower V-6, are available with front- or all-wheel drive. We prefer the V-6 not just for its passing power, but because its highway fuel economy remains close to that of the four-cylinder. California residents may also consider the new, all-electric RAV4, which was introduced in late 2012 for about $50,000, minus a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $2,500 state tax credit. Based on the 2012 model with some cosmetic refinements that make it both more distinct and more aerodynamic, the RAV4 EV is expected to continue unchanged well beyond the introduction of the all-new 2013 RAV4, which is set to make its debut by the end of 2012. …
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Dodge Dart

Year: Starting at $15,995 MPG 25-36 In case you aren’t an ardent car aficionado, Chrysler (and hence, Dodge) is now part of the Fiat family. Why bring this up? Because the 2013 Dodge Dart is the first new vehicle developed under Fiat’s stewardship for any of its new family of American brands, and not only does it fill a gaping hole in the Dodge lineup, it does so with real swagger. Despite being half Italian, the Dart exudes plenty of American style. Its proportions are European, but its unbroken strip of LED taillights spanning the trunk, à la the Charger, as well as the aggressive headlamp and grille treatment, are purely American. A choice of three four-cylinder engines (ranging from 160 to 184 horsepower) and three transmissions (including a conventional manual) furnish the engine bay, any combination of which should help keep one’s fuel bill manageable, though no Dart iteration achieves the magic 40 mpg fuel economy figure that has become the gold standard among compact cars. Inside the Dart, its somewhat 1990s-esque architecture detracts little from its generally pleasant ambience, and its calling cards include its availability in many flavors, each with smart ergonomics, and a huge back seat. Prices for its five available trim levels, which start under $17K and run into above $23K for the performance-oriented R/T model, are competitive compared to other compact cars. Then again, that’s darn cheap compared to most Italian automobiles. …
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Nissan Cube

Year: Starting at $17,760 MPG 27-31 The boxy 2013 Nissan Cube has a polarizing look that buyers either love or hate. Some say it has styling inspired by a bulldog. Quirky touches include a refrigerator-style rear door and an asymmetrical rear window. Regardless of how you look at it, the Cube is a tall hatchback that is remarkably practical and comfortable with a low step-in height. A well behind the rear seats provides decent cargo space and the seats fold forward, but not flat into the floor. The Cube suffers from sluggish acceleration and unsupportive seats, along with numb power steering. The Cube choices are somewhat limited for the new model year, with Nissan deleting the Cube 1.8 base model, Cube 1.8 S Indigo Limited Edition and the Cube Cargo Version. There are now just two models to choose from: the Cube 1.8 S and Cube 1.8 SL. The front-wheel-drive Cube gets a standard 122-horsepower 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine linked to either a six-speed manual transmission or Xtronic continuously variable transmission. The CVT-equipped model returns 27 mpg in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA. The fun quotient in the Cube can be increased with the addition of more than forty accessories, including a custom grille, an exterior graphics package and interior design kit with a shag dash topper. Austin Powers would love it. …
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Nissan Sentra

Year: Starting at $15,990 MPG 27-36 Nissan isn’t relying on hyperbole when it says that the redesign of the 2013 Sentra is the “most revolutionary” in the nameplate’s thirty-year history. The 2013 Nissan Sentra gets a more sophisticated look courtesy of a redesign that includes upscale touches such as LED-accented headlights and taillights. The high-performance – and thirsty -- Nissan Sentra SE-R and SE-R Spec V have been eliminated from the lineup. The 2013 Sentra gets a new 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 130 horsepower. The engine is linked to a continuously variable transmission or six-speed manual transmission. It is the only engine in the Sentra lineup. The EPA has yet to list official fuel-economy numbers for the redesigned Sentra, but Nissan says the 2013 Sentra FE+ models will deliver 40 mpg on the highway. The base 2013 Sentra returns 30 mpg in city driving and 39 mpg on the highway. Nissan says the changes to the Sentra result in a “13 percent improvement in EPA combined fuel economy.” The Sentra is 150 pounds lighter than the outgoing model. The compact sedan gets a soft-touch instrument panel, optional leather-trimmed seats and maple wood-tone trim. A new version of the Nissan navigation system is an option. With gasoline prices hovering near the $4-a-gallon mark all year, the revisions to the Sentra should be a welcome change to anyone reeling from pump prices. …
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Hyundai Veloster

Year: Starting at $17,450 MPG 27-37 The asymmetrical Hyundai Veloster, with its one door on the left and two on the right, has been a quirky style leader with a coupe-like profile, but speed freaks sometimes griped about its 138-horsepower base engine. That’s all changed for 2013 with the introduction of a new Veloster Turbo model to the line-up. The turbo model’s new 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder GDI engine churns out 201 horsepower, enough to make this model a serious competitor against the Honda Civic Coupe Si and the Volkswagen GTI. The engine is linked to either a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed automatic transmission. Hyundai expects the Veloster Turbo to return an estimated 38 mpg on the highway. There’s even more excitement on tap, since Hyundai has introduced one of the first matte paint treatments in the industry on the Veloster Turbo. The $1,000 optional matte gray paint is a study in high maintenance, however, since the paint comes with an eleven-page owner’s manual, a wash pad, and microfiber towels. Buyers should be prepared to shell out $4,500 more for the Veloster Turbo than they would for the base car. But they can expect extra features, such as standard heated front seats, a unique front fascia and ground effects. Both the Veloster Turbo and base Veloster handle corners with ease and make living easy in the cabin thanks to clever packaging. …
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Kia Rio

Year: Starting at $14,700 MPG 30-40 The 2013 Kia Rio and Kia Rio five-door were all new for the 2012 model year, helping them to stand out from the pack with assertive styling and impressive fuel economy. The base Kia Rio returns 30 mpg in city driving and 40 mpg on the highway – sure to make consumers smile in an era of rising gas prices. But the Rio’s optional Idle Stop and Go, or ISG, technology, which helps to cut fuel consumption, is a $400 option. The technology improves fuel economy by turning the engine off when the vehicle is not in motion – such as at a stoplight or in traffic – and automatically restarting when the driver releases the brake pedal. The ISG technology, which is usually offered on hybrids only, is bundled in an Eco package that also includes an Eco badge. The EPA says the Kia Rio Eco returns 31 mpg in city driving and 40 mpg on the highway. The Rio twins are equipped with a 138-horsepower 1.6-liter gasoline direct-injection four-cylinder engine linked to either a six-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission. The Rios get a few upgrades for the new model year, including standard steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters on the SX model. But the bigger news is that prices on the Korean sedan and hatchback continue to climb. The Rio – once the value leader in the segment – is now more expensive than one of its chief competitors, the 2013 Ford Fiesta. …
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Toyota Matrix

Year: Starting at $20,115 MPG 25-32 Few, if any, car companies have a product family as large as Toyota, which has at least sixteen unique models (and that’s not counting its three recently introduced Prius models or five Scion-branded cars). As anyone from a very large family can likely attest, it’s challenging for each member to stand out. Such is the case with the poor Matrix, essentially a tall Corolla wagon styled like a crossover. Splitting the difference between the bargain-basement Yaris and the big-boned, Camry-based Venza in body style and price point, the Matrix is ideally packaged for the young family and the empty nester. But evidence of willful neglect on the part of the parent company shows up in the general lack of updates Toyota has given the Matrix since its last redesign four years ago. The 2013 changes are mostly limited to audio systems with Bluetooth and USB connectivity (at last!), and a touchscreen interface for the upgrade system. All-wheel drive remains available, as do two four-cylinder engine choices: a 132-horsepower 1.8-liter and a 158-horsepower 2.4-liter—but, thanks in part to subpar transmissions, the Matrix remains less than competitive in fuel economy. Factor in a conspicuously cheap interior and lack of overall pizzazz, and it’s easy to understand why the Matrix has a tough time standing out. …
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Mazda MAZDA3

Year: Starting at $17,550 MPG 24-33 The 2013 Mazda 3 is one of our favorite compact cars, with sporty handling and a wider availability of the efficient Skyactiv drivetrain technology on tap for the new model year. But despite a recent makeover that toned down the Mazda 3’s goofy grille, the styling can be polarizing. On the plus side, some models – the Mazda 3 comes in sedan or hatchback form– get up to 40 mpg on the highway. If you want to save at the pump, check out the 155-horsepower Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. But you’re going to find a bit of a trade-off since the Mazda 3 is relatively expensive. While the base 2013 Mazda 3 starts at just under $16,000, including a $795 destination charge, the top-of-the-line model is priced at $23,695, including shipping. The Mazda 3 is meant for people who don’t think of their car as an appliance and want a sportier look and feel. The compact Mazda doesn’t disappoint in this area, offering five- or six-speed manual transmissions, in addition to a five- or six-speed automatic transmission. The handling is more performance-oriented than you usually find in this class. The interior has good quality materials and there are upscale options, such as a blind spot monitoring system, something that you usually see on luxury cars. …
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