By on April 9, 2019

Image: Toyota

The first quarter of 2019 reflected a long-predicted cooling off of U.S. auto sales, with volume falling 2 percent. A few automakers bucked the trend, but the news was generally unpleasant. Of course, rising average transaction prices and a bevy of high-margin trucks, SUVs, and crossovers softened the blow for those who got their lineups in order ahead of time.

One segment that gets very little attention — for many reasons — is the lowest rung of all: subcompact cars, which traditionally provide a stepping stone for buyers just entering the market. Many journos bemoan the loss of low-priced cars, claiming relatively cash-strapped Millennials stand to be priced out of the new vehicle market by rising MSRPs and interest rates. It’s true — the herd is thinning, with the last quarter bringing about the death of the Chevrolet Cruze. (This writer actually bought one; the jury’s out if anyone else out there did.)

Still, despite the industry flux, some nameplates continue to earn the love of buyers who choose to spend as little as possible on a new car.

One vehicle we’ve watched with bemused interest for years is arguably the lowliest “normal” car (read: non-Smart Fortwo) on the market: Mitsubishi’s three-cylinder Mirage hatch and G4 sedan, which carries a pre-destination starting price of $13,795. Cheap wheels indeed.

Mirage sales have climbed every year since its late-2013 U.S. return, topping 24,000 units in 2018. In the first quarter of 2019, Mirage sales climbed 12.9 percent.

It helps that Mitsu is adding new dealerships all the time — a factor that lurks behind the brand’s steady overall sales climb. March was Mitsubishi’s best U.S. sales month since March 2004.

A car that meets its end next month (U.S.-bound production ceases in May) is Ford’s little Fiesta, a subcompact sedan and hatch that once offered a three-cylinder of its own. Starting at $14,240 before destination, the Fiesta doesn’t carry the stigma of being a Mitsubishi Mirage. It also saw sales rise 29.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, no doubt helped along by an automaker eager to avoid having discontinued, low-margin cars loitering on dealer lots.

March was the Fiesta’s sixth consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains. The model also holds the distinction of being the only Ford-badged passenger car to end 2018 with a year-to-date sales gain (up 11.8 percent). Still, its looming death means the time is short to add one to your driveway.

2018 Kia Rio

Toyota’s sales sank 5 percent last quarter, but the brand gained buyers for its Yaris sedan, a Mazda-based subcompact soon to be joined by a new hatch sibling. As the old Yaris hatch bled from lots, the straightforward sedan (you won’t lose track of trims and option packages, that’s for sure) saw Q1 sales rise 2.7 percent. Starting price for a Yaris is $15,450 before destination. Guppy face aside, Mazda engineering and a six-speed manual awaits the penny pinching buyer who considers this car. It’s easy to imagine the new hatch model bumping up volume considerably.

Elsewhere in the low-cost field, Kia’s revamped-for-2018 Rio ($15,390 to start) recorded a 16.3 percent sales climb, which is something its cousin, the Hyundai Accent, can’t claim. Accent sales fell 8.6 percent in Q1 2019. Chevrolet’s Spark ($14,095 after destination) saw a similar volume loss, dropping 7.5 percent over the first three months of 2019. Nissan’s Versa, which gains a full makeover later this year (coinciding with the already-announced discontinuation of the hatchback Note model), posted a Q1 sales loss of just 1.5 percent. The Versa sedan starts at $12,360 before destination.

Honda’s Fit ($16,190 to start) took a dive in the first three months of 2019, sinking 43.4 percent, year over year. Redesigned for the 2015 model year, the dustbuster-shaped subcompact saw a mild styling refresh for 2018.

Yes, options still exist for the buyer who holds realistic expectations for a bargain-basement new vehicle. Depending on model, they may even walk away pleasantly surprised.

[Images: Toyota, Mitsubishi, Kia Motors]

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29 Comments on “Not Every Entry-level Car Is Searching for Missing Buyers...”

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I’m not an economist , but this probably an indicator of the general cooling off our economy and tightening of credit.But it’s also a good sign that millenials are able to find employment enough to trade in their tired J bodies, 250k altimas for a newer ,reliable ride with Car Play

  • avatar

    I’m one of those people who feel like they are being priced out. At the very least, there’s not much on the market that makes me want to pay more than is absolutely necessary for a car. Nothing really seems worth the money. That said…

    I’ve been debating downsizing into a Cruze this summer. All I really need in a car is comfortable seats, good highway cruising ability, remote start, and an infotainment system that doesn’t make me angry. Factor in the large trunk and the Cruze looks pretty good.

    • 0 avatar

      The Cruze is a decent car saddled by a wholly indecent start-stop engine system that can’t be disengaged. I had one as a rental last summer, and that alone would have been a no-sale for me.

      Check out an Elantra – it drives nice, and Hyundai usually deals on them. I believe most are also American-made.

      • 0 avatar

        I had a Malibu for a rental a few weeks ago and it has that same start stop system. It was…weird. But I would probably be able to get used to it.

        The Elantra is a really nice looking car. I like the GT too. Both worth a look if I decide to downsize.

        • 0 avatar
          Kyree S. Williams

          I don’t think it’s quite the same. My second-gen Cruze’s start/stop would only engage once per rest. If you took your foot off of the brake, it would start up and not switch the engine off again until the next rest.

          By contrast, the 2018 Malibu I rented would engage the start/stop multiple times per rest. So you could rest at a light, have the engine cut off, release the brake to creep up a bit, rest, and experience the engine shutting off again.

          Neither vehicle was anywhere near as aggressive with the start/stop system if the cabin was adjusting to a comfortable temperature, or if you were in max heat/max AC mode.

      • 0 avatar

        For a few years now I’ve been thinking the Elantra “Value Edition” package is a pretty nice deal. I don’t like the recent restyling, but I’m growing to tolerate it. I like that the Elantra has a nice implementation of an in-dash screen, rather than looking like a tablet is merely tacked-on to the dash. I also like that the Elantra is mechanically “conservative”. Normally aspirated engine, no turbos, and a 6spd conventional automatic transmission rather than a CVT, DCT, or a dozen speeds.

      • 0 avatar

        I have no idea why I have such a visceral reaction to start-stop systems, but I do. Like you, it’d be a deal-breaker for me.

        • 0 avatar
          Good ole dayz

          I’ve yet to drive a vehicle with start-stop, but viscerally know I would hate it.

          Also, I would NEVER buy a vehicle with it — or if the carbon cultists make it mandatory across all fleets — a vehicle in which I couldn’t disable it (ideally as the default).

          Why? Glad you asked.

          1) Once the vehicle gets older and out of warranty you can bet that it’ll start having issues, such as slowness in restarting from stop. Rear ended collisions, here we come. Insurance rate increases, here we come.

          2) That constant drive-offs from stop without full oil pressure and transmission pressure has got to wreak havoc with the longevity of the engine and transmission. Expensive repairs and/or having to replace the vehicle with an even more expensive vehicle (given the tuition-like rise of vehicle prices), here we come.

          NO THANKS!

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t get the hate for stop/start systems. Why have the motor running unnecessarily?

        About the only thing about my GTI that irks me is that it doesn’t have one, especially at endless FL traffic light.

      • 0 avatar

        Elantra looks nice, drives nice, lots of room. Stiff ride for such a long-wheelbase car though.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Bet you’ll get a good deal on one. I’m sure GM wants the supply of Cruzes cleared out before the earnest start of the 2020 model year.

  • avatar
    CKNSLS Sierra SLT

    “Honda’s Fit ($16,190 to start) took a dive in the first three months of 2019, sinking 43.4 percent, year over year. Redesigned for the 2015 model year, the dustbuster-shaped subcompact saw a mild styling refresh for 2018.”

    I said on another thread the “Honda Fit” is a terrible car-well the sales numbers speak for themselves.

    I’m going drive away in my 2- 1/2 ton Chevy Silverado Crew Cab (4WD) pickup now……..

    • 0 avatar

      The problem with Fit is that Honda would not discount them. Fit IS better than other subcompact cars(Versa Note, Fiesta, Rio etc) but not for the price. 25% price difference($16K Fit vs $12K Versa, Fiesta etc) is important in this price sensitive segment. $4K may not be much for the 911 crowd(that’s the cost of “pinstripe package”) but super important to penny pinchers.

      • 0 avatar

        I actually agree with OP – Fit is not a good car to drive unless you’re petite woman with nice set of ear plugs.

      • 0 avatar
        Liam Gray

        Fit’s are great, but you’re totally right – they’re over priced. I cross shopped them when I bought a Soul. They were well north of $16k for a base manual and I got the Soul for just over $13k. Thats a huge difference at this price point. The Honda is a better built car, but the Soul is super functional and perfectly pleasant to drive. 85k miles and I’ve never been back to the dealer or done anything besides maintenance.

  • avatar

    I don’t quite get the disparity between Mirage, Fiesta, and Spark sales. The Fiesta might be increasing sales simply because Ford is ladling on the incentives to clear them out.

    Unless Mitsubishi is doing that same thing with the Mirage, the Spark should be selling better than either of them, based on price, alone.

    Another one I’m curious about is the ‘Ace of Base’ Kia Soul. They seem to be every bit as dirt cheap (street price) as the other bottom-feeders. But the 1.6L engine of those strippo Souls make them s-l-o-w.

    • 0 avatar

      Fact: they are ALL slow.

    • 0 avatar

      I guess if somebody walks into a Mitsu dealer, a salesperson has to actually make an effort to sell you something. Whereas the slower selling cars are generally offered by makers with a full stable of trucks. If you go to those dealers, they probably won’t even have any of the subcompacts in stock if you wanted one.

    • 0 avatar
      Liam Gray

      I’ve got the 1.6L in a 1st Gen Soul with the 6spd manual. It’s not winning any races, but its not painfully slow either. If you compare it something TRULY slow (I’m thinking Prius C) it feels like a rocketship.

  • avatar

    “G4 sedan”

    You still can buy Pontiac?

  • avatar

    Idk where this narrative about millennials comes from. Most of the male millennials I see drive fairly new pickup trucks or 4Runners, and the females drive BMW 3-Series or an Acura crossover.

    Usually the FWD subcompacts I see (the majority are Nissan Versas) are driven by old ladies with Ellen degeneres haircuts with a giant dog stuffed into the back seat.

  • avatar

    It’s not really rocket science here, the models that have great warranties (Mitsubishi, Kia) or are fun to drive like cheap cars should be (Toyazda, Fiesta) are doing well, the others aren’t.

    I mostly just can’t believe the ridiculous prices on Mirages and Sparks in the US. Up here they both start at about 8k USD before destination, as they should.

    I’m very interested in a Toyazda Yaris, but the dealers here absolutely will not stock them under any circumstance. I have seen a grand total of 3 on the road since they’ve been on sale, and how is anyone supposed to purchase one if they can’t test drive one? The old Yaris hatches were always well represented on dealer lots. I’m also going to check out the Accent Hatch which isn’t available south of the border but looks great.

  • avatar

    My wife drives our Yaris iA sedan- it’s a terrific car for her. Parking is tight where she works and she does a lot of city driving. It’s big enough to be a real highway car, has nimble steering, gets excellent mileage, has adequate real-world power, and has a Toyota warranty. What’s not to love? We’re both over 60 and can afford a bigger car- the salesman at the dealership kept steering us towards a Camry- but the Yaris fits her driving profile perfectly.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m actually intrigued by the forthcoming Yaris iA hatchback. I like the dash design and most of the exterior design better than the Corolla hatchback.

  • avatar
    formula m

    We have not had any supply of Honda Fit/HRV because of the plant in Mexico had flood issues and a train wreck demolished 2018-early 2019 supply. We have received 6 Fits so far this year. With no supply there are also no incentives. An automatic equipped Fit LX is $25 more bi-weekly CDN to lease or purchase than a Honda Civic LX sedan w/auto

  • avatar

    iA does at least seem like a decent value…

    If I wanted to give my kid a NEW car and have them learn stick. iA would be high on the list.

  • avatar

    I’ll keep beating the drum for the outgoing Mazda3- is still showing 2018s in stock- there’s one near me, a sedan, for about 14K. I bought my hatch last August, and have put about 11,000 miles on it since then, averaging 38 mpg. It’s a great car, especially for that kind of money.

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