In 2011, P-platers or those on the very tightest of budgets were relatively spoiled for choice in the new-car market. For vehicles priced below $20,000, there were 170 variants available across 33 models from 21 brands.
Fast-forward a decade, and the market is a fairly depressing sight for the slim-walleted: just 19 variants available for less than $20,000 – covering just nine models and six brands.
Make that nine variants and five models if you want an automatic transmission.
There are several factors responsible for this segment decimation.
Some brands have also disappeared since 2011, including Holden (and its Barina) and Proton (which offered as many as five sub-$20K cars).
The biggest culprit, however, is the SUV. Or more specifically the compact SUV.
Most car manufacturers have deserted the city car category to focus on entry-level sports utility vehicles.
It’s good news for dealers as pint-sized SUVs provide greater scope for a return compared with the notoriously slim – or even non-existent – profit margins of city cars.
But it’s not good news for buyers with limited budgets as city-sized SUVs are being priced significantly higher than the city cars they’re based on. It’s not necessarily any consolation that these SUVs are in some instances equipped like a higher-grade city car.
In 2011, French brand Peugeot offered its 207 light car for as little as $18,990 before on-road charges. For 2021, it has eschewed its latest successor, the 208, to concentrate on the 208-based 2008 compact SUV, and its cheapest entry point is $34,990. That’s getting close to $40,000 with on-road charges added.
Ford Australia has similarly snubbed regular versions of the Fiesta city car to make the related Puma crossover its cheapest passenger car or SUV – at $29,990 before on-road costs. (The single Fiesta exception is the ST hot-hatch that’s priced from $32,290, while Ford’s lowest-priced vehicle is actually a Ranger 4x2 cab-chassis manual.)
Cheap Nissans such as the Micra and Pulsar are gone. Today its most attainable passenger car/SUV is the Juke that starts at $27,990.
Honda has also chosen to ignore the fourth-generation of its cleverly versatile Jazz, leaving the $23,590 Civic VTi sedan as its most affordable model. (The company’s HR-V compact SUV is $25,990 upwards.)
Some city cars from 2011 have simply risen markedly in price. These include the Citroen C3 (now positioned as a highly specced single model costing from $28,990) and Skoda Fabia (from $21,990), though most notably the Toyota Yaris.
Toyota’s well-known and formerly hugely popular city car was released last year in new-generation form with driveaway pricing up to $9560 higher than its predecessor. A 2021 base model with manual transmission costs $25,550 driveaway.
Toyota blamed the increase on all the major safety features and technology it needed to make standard on every model, and instead sprouted its certified used cars as an alternative for cash-strapped motorists.
Even traditional budget-car brands from China and India are moving upwards in pricing.
Where a decade ago, budget buyers had options including the Chery J3 city car, Chery J11 compact SUV, Geely MK6 (though WA only), Great Wall V240 cab-chassis ute, Mahindra Pik-Up and Tata Xenon, today the MG3 is the only sub-$20,000 not imported from either Europe, Japan or Korea.
And while MG’s new ZST is testing out new ground as a more premium-priced variant of its ZS compact SUV, the MG3 city car serves as a clear indicator that Australia still has a healthy appetite for low-priced cars.
Last year, MG sold more than 7000 MG3s – an increase of 78 per cent – while this year it has contributed to the Anglo-Chinese brand breaking into the Top 10 Manufacturers sales chart.
However, with the rise of hybrids and electric cars, and some countries planning to ban petrol and diesel vehicles by the end of the decade, what will the ‘affordable’ car look like in 2031?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.