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4. Mazda MX-5 Miata – Just for Fun
Base price range: $24,765-$33,000
Sometimes looking rich means looking carefree. With just two seats and a tiny trunk, the diminutive MX-5 Miata roadster is more or less as a grown-up’s plaything. It’s this very lack of practicality, wrapped in pure-fun styling, that suggests to onlookers a member of the leisure class is at the wheel. If the hidden message is that you have two or three more rational rides garaged back at the homestead, what can you say? That it remains affordable is icing on the proverbial cake. Packing a peppy 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with as much as 167 horsepower (depending on the transmission) and benefitting from a taut suspension with a nearly perfect 50:50 front-to-rear weight balance, the Miata can careen through the curves like a carnival ride. Options are limited to a handful of basics, but include a power retractable hard top in place of the standard cloth roof that helps extend “convertible season.” A redesigned 2016 MX-5 is in the wings, so inventory-clearance deals on the still-delightful outgoing version could leave you feeling rich, too.
5. Mazda 3 – Lithe and Lovely
Base price range: $17,740-$26,340
Sculpted with complex compound curves that extend gracefully from front to rear, the Mazda 3 looks more like a premium-brand European than an affordable compact car. Available in four-door sedan and hatchback body styles, the upscale effect is particularly pleasing with the latter. As a bonus, the hatch might qualify as an expressive-looking alternative to a small SUV thanks to 20.2 cubic feet of stowage behind the back seats and 47.1 with them folded. All 3’s have an interior finished to class-above standards, with extensive use of quality finishes and trim. Power comes from either of two peppy and efficient “SkyActiv” engines, a 2.0-liter four cylinder with 155 horsepower and a torque-happy 2.5-liter four that generates a quicker 184. For model-year 2015, a six-speed manual transmission is available with the 2.5-liter, not just the 2.0. A six-speed automatic returns as an option. The 3 not only looks like a premium European, it handles like one, with agility and response that arguably top the compact class. The optional Mazda Connect infotainment system features a tablet-like screen that sits atop the center of the dashboard; the system can read short messages aloud while the vehicle is in motion using text-to-voice technology. Multiple high-tech safety systems – including a low-speed auto braking function – are included on the top Grand Touring models.
6. Hyundai Elantra – High Style, Low Price
Base price range: $18,060-$22,510
With bodywork that flows in swoops,, Elantra looks like it could have been a concept car produced by some exclusive European design house. Instead, it’s from South Korea’s Hyundai, which calls the styling theme “fluidic sculpture.” It helps Elantra stand out in a crowded field of compact cars and remains fresh five years after its debut. Dropped for model-year 2015 is the two-door coupe body style. The four-door hatchback GT survives and has a sporty air of its own. But it’s the sedan that’ll make you look richest. A no-more-than sufficient 145-horspower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is standard. The 173-horsepower 2.0-liter in the GT and Sport-model sedan adds needed under-hood oomph. Ride and handling are pleasingly balanced in mainstream models. GTs and Sports provide modestly quicker steering response. SE and Limited versions of the sedan include selectable steering modes. That’s a feature usually found on costlier cars, though most buyers will likely leave this set in “normal” mode and forget about it. The sedan has better-than-average passenger room. The GT is tighter in the rear but provides hatchback cargo versatility. Both versions are available with a broad range of amenities, including leather upholstery, Bluetooth smartphone connectivity, and heated front and rear seats. By the way, if you’re wild about the 2015’s style, grab one; the 2016 Elantra gets a facelift that tones down some of its more flamboyant airs.