10 Coolest Cars for Less Than $18,000

Tickers in this article: F TM HMC GM

3. 2012 Fiat 500
MSRP: $15,500

The cinquecento is giving the remaining misogynists at Chrysler a quick tutorial in what qualifies as "cool" during the 21st century. The 500 measures a scant 140 inches long and 64 inches wide, gives parallel parkers a 30.6-inch turning radius for squeezing into tight spots and finds room for 10 cubic feet of trunk space -- nearly double that of the Mini. The retractable, pool-cover-style sunroof, power outlets, five cupholders, cruise control, power windows and 38 miles-per-gallon highway mileage are a whole lot cooler to the post-bailout buyer base than gas-guzzling reincarnations of Dodge Charger and Challenger muscle cars. Unless testosterone becomes the biofuel of the future, expect more of Chrysler's lineup to take its cues from corporate parent Fiat and its zippy little 500.

2. 2012 Hyundai Veloster
MSRP: $17,450

Aimed toward the same drivers who loved the Mini's deceptive quickness, the Veloster's a light little speedster whose 1.6-liter engine and 138 horsepower are more than adequate for its needs. Unlike the Mini, however, the Veloster's sleek styling evokes more of a sports car than a retro subcompact. Hyundai's had a bit of trouble keeping them in stock recently, as evidenced by customers shelling out beyond the MSRP. Given the frugal nature of today's car buyer, the Veloster's popularity is likely based more on its combined 34 miles per gallon and 10-year warranty than its alloy wheels, touchscreen entertainment system or Blue Link telematics and roadside assistance.

1. 2013 Dodge Dart
MSRP: $15,995

The last time most Americans saw a Dodge Dart, it was in the final stages of its devolution from chromed-out, tail-finned '60s dream boat to a browned-out, ugly compact that had its V8 muscle reduced to a costly option. After nearly 36 years of dormancy, the Dart is being revived with an Italian makeover. The folks at Fiat stretched out an Alfa Romeo and shrugged off the big-box muscle for four-cylinder 2.0- and 2.4-liter engines and 160 horsepower. Since "cool" is largely about artifice anyway, Dodge has tricked out the Dart's options with 12 available exterior colors, 14 interior color combinations, three types of wheels, rear LED lighting and dual exhaust. It'll look race-ready, but its combined 31 miles per gallon of efficiency and 13 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk are more suited for weekend traffic than the track.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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