What's the Best Cheap, Safe and Reliable Car?




Hi John,

I'm looking for an affordable car to drive two hours a day round trip to work, through the CBD. Lots of freeway driving, and the occasional long road trip. I was thinking about Mazda2 >>. Some key features would have to be five seats, four-door, automatic with cruise control.


Hello Amelia,

"A Mazda3-sized car is probably more at home on freeways outside the city"

I’d suggest that Mazda2 can do all that, and is cheap, safe and reliable. A Mazda3-sized car is probably more at home on freeways outside the city, so the decision as to what car to buy might be based in part on an accurate assessment of the differing proportions of the actual driving you do. Another alternative is the Mazda CX-3, which is built on the Mazda2 platform but has a bigger, more powerful engine, and might be a better compromise for the freeway component of your intended driving. Having said that, the Mazda2 Genki is a very nice small car. Best car available in that size.

Sincerely, John Cadogan

See also: Top 20 ways to beat a car dealer >>

Mazda CX-3

Mazda CX-3

Amelia's next question:

Hi John,

Thank you very much for your response. 

My partner & I test drove the Mazda2 and Mazda CX-3 over the weekend and decided they were not right for us. The ride was a bit bumpy and the pillars on the front windscreen restricted visibility. We also looked at Kia and Honda, none of those were right either. 

"the pillars on the front windscreen restricted visibility"

What other small cars would you recommend? These are the most important criteria for us: Affordable (under $20k), Bluetooth, comfortable (fabric seats and air-con), reliable and safe with good warranty and service. We don't need anything fancy. We just want a practical car that will last and get us from A to B without any trouble. 

Any thoughts on the Toyota Yaris or Corolla, Hyundai Accent or Suzuki Swift? We need a car ASAP and there's too many to choose from, so your reviews and assistance has been invaluable. 

Cheers, Amelia 

See also: Top six things car buyers don't check, but should >>

Above: Hyundai i30 and Kia Cerato (right)

Hello Amelia,

Complex issue, but my sense of it is: you’re both not being entirely rational. I’m going to give it to you straight here, to reboot this process after a firmware upgrade. Unfortunately, after installing this software, you might not like me all that much.

It looks to me like your evaluation procedure is flawed. You are shopping for the cheapest new cars available. $20k is a lot of cash, but not much for a new car. Therefore, they are built down to this price. Mazda2 and CX-3 are among the best of this kind of car available. (They’ll never be $100k BMWs.) Also, any $20k CX-3 is going to be the cheapest, nastiest CX-3 available. (Rec. drive-away prices for new CX-3 in Vic: $23,205-$41,468.)

You appear to have a mental bookmark for ride quality, against which the cars you have evaluated seem to have failed. I wonder what the benchmark is. If it is a substantially different car (like a Camry or an SUV) then of course the ride quality of a small car will be different. (Different wheelbase, different age, different size, etc.)

My preference is to walk away from a severe crash and compensate for the very minor inconvenience of slightly wider pillars by acknowledging that my head is thankfully on a swivel.

What I can tell you is that there is nothing objectively wrong with the ride quality of the cars you have evaluated. Therefore your assessment of this is very likely based upon flawed criteria.

The A-pillars: As an engineer I can tell you there are two options. Namely, (1) - the car can have nice cosmetically slim pillars and as a consequence fail to protect you in a side-on crash level with your head, and the roof can crush down to the sills in the event of a rollover. (2) - vice-versa.

Me? I’ll happily go with ‘vice-versa’, just in case. That five-star safety rating, which all those cars have, involves firing the car sideways down a runway at 29km/h, directly into a 250mm steel pole level with the driver’s head. (A very severe impact.) The effect of the impact, as measured by the hominid dummy, must be survivable in oder to achieve the five-star rating. (There are other severe tests which must be passed as well.)

My preference is to walk away from a severe crash and compensate for the very minor inconvenience of slightly wider pillars by acknowledging that my head is thankfully on a swivel, thus making it easy to look past the pillars by moving slightly. The key to coping with this is adaptation. This is a very serious consideration, because I would do everything possible to avoid suffering a brain injury - having met several people who have suffered them.

A lot of people do what you are doing. (Evaluate cars based on rather subjective, random, made-up criteria.) This is of course allowed, but not the best way to get a good result.

It may be that a late-model used car suits you better. (Like an i30 SR that’s 2yo. Some really good local suspension tuning on that car.) Not a huge fan of Corolla or Yaris. Swift is a bit old, Accent is OK (i30 is better). Elantra is fine, as is Kia Cerato.

See also:

Take a moment to watch this report before you proceed further: How To Test Drive A New Car >>

Don’t hate me too much - I’m all about the objectivity here. It’s the only way to approach the happiness event horizon on a new car.

Sincerely, JC