Best Cars Under $35k 2021

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A blend of outstanding cargo and passenger space, available family-friendly features, and positive press from automotive journalists helped the Toyota RAV4 be named our 2021 Best Compact SUV for Families award winner. Its abundance of standard safety and technology features, as well as its comfortable and durable cabin, is also worth noting. 

Furthermore, this Toyota gets great fuel ratings for a small non-hybrid SUV. Powering the RAV4 is a 203-horsepower engine. It’s strong, but it can be noisy under hard acceleration. Handling isn’t sporty, but it is confident, and the ride remains smooth on pavement. Note that, unlike most of the cars on this list, the RAV4 is not available with a power-adjustable front passenger seat.

Volkswagen of America, Inc.


For at the best price and quality.

2021 Volkswagen Tiguan

$25,245 | U.S. News Overall Score: 7.9/10

The Volkswagen Tiguan is one of the few compact SUVs that can seat up to seven passengers, although the available third row is tight and best left for kids. However, the first two rows have plenty of head- and legroom. The two-row Tiguan has up to 37.6-cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and up to 73.5-cubic feet behind the front seats, which are well above-average figures for a vehicle of this size. 

This SUV has a comfortable ride and straightforward infotainment controls too. However, the Tiguan’s turbocharged four-cylinder engine can feel strained at higher speeds, and its numb steering hampers driving enjoyment. Fuel economy is disappointing by class standards too.

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

$28,650 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.0/10

The Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is a small SUV with big value. At nearly 70-cubic feet, its overall cargo volume outshines many of its classmates. This Toyota also has a gentle ride and earns good gas mileage, despite coming standard with all-wheel drive. Its peppy powertrain consists of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and a pair of electric motors for a total of 203 horsepower. 

The cabin has good fit and finish, as well as some soft-touch surfaces, and Toyota’s Entune infotainment system is easy to use. 

Some road and wind noise may penetrate the cabin while you’re driving, but that’s a minor gripe. For its combination of quality and value, we named the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid our Best Hybrid and Electric SUV for the Money award winner.

Subaru of America, Inc.

2022 Subaru Outback

$26,795 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.0/10

The Subaru Outback is the only wagon (and the only Subaru) on this list. It’s something of an all-rounder, with an expansive cargo capacity, adult-friendly rear seats, composed handling, a cushioned ride, and even some light off-road capabilities, thanks to all-wheel drive, hill descent control, and 8.7-inches of ground clearance. 

The Subaru comes with a good amount of standard safety features too, such as adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and a pre-collision warning and braking system. The standard four-cylinder engine holds its own in city driving, but its 182 horsepower can feel lackluster on the highway, and some critics report that the base four-speaker stereo has so-so sound quality.

John M. Vincent / U.S. News & World Report

2021 Toyota RAV4

$26,150 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.0/10

A blend of outstanding cargo and passenger space, available family-friendly features, and positive press from automotive journalists helped the Toyota RAV4 be named our 2021 Best Compact SUV for Families award winner. Its abundance of standard safety and technology features, as well as its comfortable and durable cabin, is also worth noting. 

Furthermore, this Toyota gets great fuel ratings for a small non-hybrid SUV. Powering the RAV4 is a 203-horsepower engine. It’s strong, but it can be noisy under hard acceleration. Handling isn’t sporty, but it is confident, and the ride remains smooth on pavement. Note that, unlike most of the cars on this list, the RAV4 is not available with a power-adjustable front passenger seat.

Volkswagen of America, Inc.

2021 Volkswagen Golf

$23,195 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.0/10

The Volkswagen Golf is an engaging compact car. It may not be the lithest vehicle in its class, but its light steering and controlled body lean help it tackle corners confidently. The Golf is also one of the few cars on this list with a manual transmission, although you can get an eight-speed automatic and still keep its base price below $30,000. 

This Volkswagen also has a sleek cabin and roomy seats, and its hatchback body style helps it reach a whopping 52.7-cubic feet of total cargo space. For the Golf’s even sportier counterpart, the Golf GTI, see the rest of this list. However, the Golf does have a few shortcomings. For example, its 6.5-inch touch screen can be slow to recognize input. It’s also smaller than the screens in most rivals.

American Honda Motor Co., Inc.

2022 Honda Insight

$25,210 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.0/10

There’s a lot to like about the Honda Insight. It comes standard with lots of safety technology, including a driver condition monitor and road departure mitigation. Its fuel economy estimates of 55 mpg in the city and 49 mpg on the highway are also among the best of any new car on the market. Together, the Insight’s gasoline engine and electric motor supply enough power for it to feel capable in most driving scenarios. 

Unlike other hybrids, the Insight’s battery pack doesn’t intrude on cargo capacity, leaving this Honda with a 15.1-cubic-foot trunk. Although this car comes with few standard tech features, you can move to a higher trim – including the top-of-the-line Touring – and still spend less than $30,000.

Kia Motors America

2021 Kia Soul

$17,590 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.0/10

The Kia Soul is one of the most affordable vehicles on this list. It may be a subcompact SUV, but the Soul has loads of passenger and cargo room, with 24.2-cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and 62.1-cubic feet behind the front seats. 

Using the infotainment system is easy, and it comes standard with smartphone connectivity features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. This Kia has a high predicted reliability score too. You can upgrade to the range-topping Turbo trim and still stay within your budget of $30,000. Doing so will gain you a stronger 201-horsepower turbocharged engine, a heated steering wheel, a larger 10.25-inch touch screen, and a head up display.

Nissan North America, Inc.

2021 Nissan Rogue

$25,750 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.1/10

The Nissan Rogue coddles occupants with a high-class interior. Nissan’s “Zero Gravity” seats are highly comfortable, and the rear ones can even recline. At 74.1-cubic feet, overall cargo volume is huge for a compact SUV, and the wide opening makes it easier to load bulky objects. 

There are some plastics in the base trim, but they’re soft and high-quality. This Nissan’s infotainment system is generally easy to use as well, although it can be a touch slow. The engine is slow to accelerate, but the Rogue’s ride and handling are both good, and its fuel economy estimates clock in at an impressive 27 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway.

2 of 35Hyundai Motor America

2021 Hyundai Sonata

$23,700 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.1/10

The Hyundai Sonata is a good midsize car. While it’s neither the most powerful nor the most agile sedan in its class, this Hyundai manages to impress in other areas. Its 16-cubic feet of trunk space is more than capable of hauling a family’s luggage, and generous rear-seat legroom will help keep passengers comfortable. 

The interior is one of the nicest in its segment, with upscale materials and soft plastic surfaces. The standard 8-inch touch screen displays crisp graphics and responds quickly, but there aren’t many physical buttons and knobs. Additionally, the base engine is satisfactory at best, and even the available turbocharged four-cylinder doesn’t feel significantly stronger. Gas mileage estimates are slightly above average, regardless of which engine you choose.

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

2021 Toyota Corolla

$20,025 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.1/10

The Toyota Corolla is a good compact car that comes in two body types: sedan and hatchback. The Corolla has a great safety score, in part because Toyota packs it with features such as forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and traffic sign recognition.

The Corolla has an intuitive infotainment system and well-mannered handling, regardless of body type, but it also has below-average cargo capacity. You could reach the top trim level for both body styles, getting a slightly more powerful engine, a digital driver display, and synthetic leather upholstery, while still keeping the retail price below $28,000. The stronger engine is more fuel-efficient than the base engine, too.

John M. Vincent / U.S. News & World Report

2021 Mazda6

$24,475 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.2/10

The Mazda6 distinguishes itself as one of the most fun-to-drive cars in its class, with thrilling handling and confident brakes. Its base engine is strong enough to back up its agility, but there’s a lot to like inside the Mazda too. 

For instance, the quality of its interior materials rivals what you’ll find in some luxury vehicles. It has a touch screen, but it only functions as one when the car is stopped. While in motion, you have to use a central knob to control most settings. The Mazda has a few shortcomings, though. Trunk space is subpar for the class, and while the rear seats are fine for average-sized adults, some critics express a desire for additional legroom.

Mazda North American Operations

2021 Mazda CX-30

$22,050 | U.S. News Overall Score: 8.2

Like many Mazda vehicles, the CX-30 is a blast behind the wheel. It may be an SUV, but its easy cornering, sharp steering, and controlled body roll help it feel more like a sports sedan. On top of that, the CX-30 supplies a plush ride and a slick-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. 

Inside, this Mazda welcomes occupants with a premium cabin full of high-end materials. However, taller riders may feel a bit cramped in the rear due to a lack of legroom, and the infotainment system takes time to master. Instead of a touch screen, it’s largely operated by a rotary controller, which can be distracting to operate while driving. The CX-30’s base engine, while not bad, can also feel a tad uninspired.

Kia Motors America

2021 Kia Forte

$17,890 | U.S. News Safety Score: 9.8 | U.S. News Overall Score: 7.6

The Kia Forte is a highly affordable compact car, but Kia didn’t take any shortcuts in giving it that bargain price. Inside, the Forte is full of premium materials, with stylish touches like circular air vents. Its 15.3 cubic-foot trunk is among the largest in the class, and there is a decent number of standard features, considering the price. 

Although the base model’s engine is hard-pressed in anything past city driving, you can get the Kia Forte GT trim with a robust turbo-four and still spend less than $25,000. The added horsepower (147 to 201) makes a noticeable difference in regular driving. Also included in that upgrade are enhancements such as paddle shifters and a flat-bottom steering wheel, which help turn the Forte into more of a sporty car.

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