Automotive Research

The AAA Car Guide's top vehicles under $35,000

In the summer of 2021, the average sale price of a new car in the U.S. crossed the $40,000 threshold for the first time ... and kept climbing.

By May 2023, it had reached $48,528, and some industry experts expect it to top $50,000 by the end of 2023.

If you’re in the market for a new car, price increases like those can be discouraging, but don’t lose hope. There are still plenty of quality new cars available for less—in some cases, a lot less.

This is a list of the top 10 vehicles featured in the 2023 AAA Car Guide under $35,000, tested by the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center. They’re listed in rank order and represent almost every vehicle category: several small and midsize cars, a strong showing of SUVs, a few hybrids, and even a pickup. And best of all, their as-tested prices all came in under $35,000.

1. Toyota Camry Hybrid

Price as tested: $32,909

The midsize Camry is the top-selling sedan in the U.S.—and for good reason. First, it’s an excellent value because of its efficient drivetrain, abundant space for passengers and cargo, and smooth, comfortable ride.

Other pluses include improved styling (especially in the Nightshade edition we tested) and Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.5+ suite of advanced safety features (blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic warning costs extra, though).

However, there are a few negatives to contend with: The engine is noisy at full throttle, the infotainment system is outdated, and rear visibility is compromised by a high deck. But the hybrid powertrain’s fuel-sipping nature (up to 52 mpg) more than makes up for any such concerns.

2. Ford Maverick

Price as tested: $24,945

Built on the Ford Escape/Bronco Sport platform, the compact Maverick comes with a standard hybrid drivetrain that provides a quiet ride, seamless gas-electric transitions, and very good fuel economy—37 mpg in combined city/highway driving. Ride quality and seat height are noteworthy, and front-row passengers have plenty of room.

Front-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive isn’t available on the hybrid. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, a multi-position tailgate, and a full-size spare tire are standard across trim levels. Some Maverick flaws include bargain-basement interior materials and subpar fit and finish in the cabin, plus limited available tech.

Even worse is the scarcity of ADAS features—only automatic emergency braking, forward-collision warning, and LED headlights with auto high beams are standard. Other dings include grabby brakes and a cramped backseat that’s hard to get in and out of. 

3. Mitsubishi Outlander

Price as tested: $34,495

Mitsubishi’s compact crossover, the Outlander, was completely redesigned for 2022. Unfortunately, many of its major systems still need improving—an anemic powertrain and sluggish CVT for example. Excessive road, tire, and drivetrain noise and vibration permeate the cabin, and fuel-economy ratings are unexceptional. Front-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive is optional.

The cabin’s first 2 rows provide decent room, and the seats are comfortable. The cargo hold offers a generous 80 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded. The third row is all but unusable, however.

In everyday driving, the Outlander’s handling is competent, although the ride quality is a bit firm. A half-dozen driving modes are available to handle conditions ranging from snow to mud.

Additional useful features include a full suite of standard advanced safety features, LED headlights, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration, and a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.

4. Honda Civic

Price as tested: $24,945

The redesigned-in-2022 Honda Civic comes in sedan and 4-door hatchback body styles. Beneath its sporty new sheet metal, the Civic’s powertrains are carried over from the previous edition. Despite our test car’s lively handling, its 4-cylinder engine and CVT felt sluggish. A turbocharged 4-cylinder (180 hp) is standard on the upper trim levels, however.

The revamped passenger cabin, though spacious, is a bit on the plain side and could benefit from better-quality materials on lower trim levels. The front seats offer good support, the back seat has enough room for 2 average-size adults, and the trunk provides 15 cubic feet of cargo space.

Added pluses include Honda Sensing advanced safety features, LED headlights, and high EPA fuel-economy ratings (up to 36 mpg). But the infotainment system feels outdated, interior noise levels are high, and the ride is unsettled, especially over rough pavement.

5. Hyundai Elantra Hybrid

Price as tested: $30,240

The compact Elantra Hybrid, redesigned in 2021, is an undeniably good value, delivering lots of desirable features and excellent fuel economy (50 mpg) for relatively little cash. Added high-value features include a full suite of ADAS features, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto integration, and LED headlights with auto high beams.

Unfortunately, the Elantra Hybrid’s drivetrain is underpowered and noisy, with a light, disconnected steering feel. The ride quality is decent over smooth roads, but rough pavement sends shudders into the passenger compartment. Transmission shifts lag at low speeds, but gas-electric transitions are smooth.

The Elantra’s roomy cabin offers good legroom all around, but the interior itself feels low-rent, with poor-quality fit and finish. Rear visibility is compromised by the tall rear deck, sloping roofline, large rear roof pillars, and small rearview mirrors. Finally, the HVAC system is underpowered and doesn’t cool the cabin sufficiently.

6. Honda HR-V

Price as tested: $30,590

Now in its second generation, Honda’s small SUV gets you to your destination with proficiency and verve. The cabin is spacious, with plenty of room for passengers and cargo and lots of storage options. The interior fit and finish are quite good, especially on the high-end EX-L trim.

The HR-V also has nimble handling, with good steering and braking feedback—unusual in an entry-level SUV. It also has a nice complement of standard advanced safety features, including traffic-jam assist and traffic-sign recognition. Only blind-spot warning and parking sensors are optional. Wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is standard, as well.

Unfortunately, the HR-V also has a few qualities that mar the driving experience. For example, lots of noise from an underpowered drivetrain, plus road noise, invade the cabin. And although the infotainment is easy to use, it feels outdated. The front seats are easy to get in and out of, but backseat entry and exit are difficult.

7. Subaru Forester Wilderness

Price as tested: $34,165

The Subaru Forester’s Wilderness variant, introduced in 2022, adds hardware upgrades that make it more capable for off-pavement excursions: a beefed-up suspension, 9-plus inches of added ground clearance, and tires with a more aggressive tread. Other notable features include a front skid plate, extensive protective body cladding, a full-size spare tire, and a front-view camera.

The Forester offers good value, with abundant passenger and cargo room, good visibility, an improved EyeSight suite of driver-assistance features, all-wheel drive, LED headlights, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration, and automatic climate control.

That said, the Forester’s 4-cylinder boxer engine and CVT transmission are loud and feel underpowered in everyday driving. The steering and overall handling lack sharpness, and there’s excessive body roll in turns. Finally, the infotainment system could use updating.

8. Volkswagen Taos

Price as tested: $33,885

The new-in-2022 Volkswagen Taos subcompact SUV feels bigger than it is. Only one engine—an inline 4-cylinder—is available. Surprisingly, the engine features variable-geometry turbocharging, a sophisticated setup that enhances both performance and fuel economy, and is found mainly in high-performance sports cars.

Unfortunately, responsive driving isn’t the Taos’ strong suit; it’s characterized by turbo lag, a surging throttle, and loose steering. Other negatives include cheap-looking interior materials and lack of braking feel. Solid fuel-economy numbers (up to 32 mpg) are a Taos strong point, however.

Inside, the Taos is surprisingly spacious, particularly in rear-passenger legroom. Folding the rear seat backs down opens up 70 cubic feet of cargo space. And a long list of standard advanced safety features, including reverse automatic emergency braking and LED headlights with auto high beams, make the Taos a good overall value.

9. Toyota Corolla Cross

Price as tested: $28,689

The Corolla Cross, new in 2022, bears a strong resemblance to the larger RAV4. It has a single powertrain, an inline 4-cylinder engine paired with a CVT. Both front- and all-wheel drive ($1,300 extra) are available.

The Cross’s cabin is roomy, with good front headroom and legroom. Fuel economy is high (up to 32 mpg overall). Toyota’s strong suite of advanced safety features is standard, as are LED headlights with auto high beams, 2 years/25,000 miles of complimentary maintenance, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration.

Unfortunately, the Cross has a few downsides as well: a rough ride, a dated infotainment system, a noisy engine and CVT, and some substandard interior surfaces. Even worse, unless you buy the top trim level, some features many people want—a power driver’s seat, for example—aren’t available. 

10. Kia Sportage Hybrid

Price as tested: $33,860

The fifth-generation Kia Sportage was completely redesigned for 2023; it’s now available as the hybrid reviewed here and as a plug-in hybrid.

The Sportage stands out as an excellent value because it does lots of things well at a reasonable price. Its strong points include a refined driving experience, stellar fuel economy (38 mpg overall), plenty of space for passengers and cargo, easy entry and exit, LED headlights with auto high beams, and a full suite of high-tech safety features.

The Sportage’s downsides likely won’t discourage buyers: the engine is a bit noisy during hybrid transitions, the ride is unsettled over rough pavement, the body rolls a bit in corners, the A/C system is weak, and some interior materials feel cheap (although fit and finish are generally good).


See more reviews in the 2023 AAA Car Guide

The annual AAA Car Guide can help you find the perfect car, with rankings based on fuel efficiency, handling, and more.

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