What an experience it has been testing as many sub-$20k cars as we could in a reasonable amount of time. We were expecting very basic cars with no real extras or equipment, and made to a price. Oh how wrong we were. The reality is that for under twenty grand, you can get an excellent car. And not just one car – you have a choice of excellent cars. A car from Japan, Korea, Italy and other countries for under $20,000 brand new, and with at least a 3-year warranty.

Our criteria for the $20K limit wasn’t necessarily retail price. Many of the cars we tested are on a type of ‘long term discount’ so while the RRP may be over $20K, they may be discounted down for a period of time.

It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t quite organise all the cars to review – we tried hard, but timing and availability just wasn’t there. The ones that missed the Challenge are the Fiat 500, Holden Barina CD, Kia Rio and MG3. Not much we can do about that, and certainly the Rio could have been a good contender and so would the Barina CD. I did not like the Barina Spark too much, but apparently the CD version is a totally different car to drive.

I for one had never thought we would see things like cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, sat nav, tyre pressure monitoring systems, climate air-con, 5-star safety ratings, superb handling and excellent build quality. Sure, all these things weren’t in one car, but to see them at all was a revelation to both myself and Rob Clubley, who shared the reviewing duties with me.

And that’s not to mention the fun factor. Every time (and I mean, every time) I see a Fiat Panda I smile and yell, ”Panda!’ I am smiling now just thinking about that fantastic little car. Yes, the gearbox takes getting used to, but that car is a ten on the grin-factor rating scale.


Let’s not sugar coat it though. Some cars were…disappointing. Particularly the two Cherys we reviewed. I know both Rob and I said it in our reviews: we both so hoped those cars would be better. They weren’t, and I know he couldn’t wait to hand his back. A shame, and while I expect in five to ten years the Chinese will have caught up in build quality and driveability, they aren’t even close yet. The Holden Barina Spark did not spark me up too much. While it had lots going for it, a combination of disappointing engine and transmission combo made for a tiring drive at times.

Holden Barina Spark

This was one surprising thing that came out of the $20K Challenge. Both Rob and agreed halfway through that equipment levels did not mean much when the car drove badly. What use is cruise control when the car is a bit of a pig to drive around town? The reality is that these sub-$20k cars would spend most of their time on city streets. For both of us, a car that had great driving dynamics was far better than a car loaded with goodies.

Overall it has been a great experience, and raises the question again that was in the opening article: why buy used?


When I drove the Suzuki Swift, my immediate thought was, this is it. This is The One. Fantastic driveability, good build quality (even though my review car had done 11,000Ks) and a fun drive. Then I drove the Skoda Fabia. Where the Suzuki is essentially a ten year-old design, the Fabia is obviously a newer design, and it shows. The chassis is great, that 1.2L turbo engine and lovely 5-speed manual gearbox are an awesome combination. The torque from that little motor is a revelation. You have to keep reminding yourself it’s just 1200cc! Add in a 5-star safety rating and surprisingly good equipment levels. Build quality is yet another grade above the Swift; it is the sort of build quality you would expect from much more expensive cars. Interior space is above average and the boot space puts bigger cars to shame. It’s the only car I have given a 5-Chevron rating to, so that’s saying something. Once I drove the Fabia, there was no other that came remotely close to taking out best car for me.


When I drove the Suzuki Celerio, the car that sparked the idea for the $20k Challenge, I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was, and that probably came across in my review. I was also surprised at how many cars were available in this price range, then like Fred I was surprised once again at how good some of these cars were.

There were highs and lows – the little pink Mitsubishi Mirage was a great car, the Nissan Micra disappointing, and the Chery J3 pretty dire. But of the cars I tested, the two that stood out for me were the Fiat Punto and the Kia Picanto. The Punto, despite being an older design, was fun to drive, well equipped, and had a five star safety rating. The Picanto felt more modern, solid and well built, and I loved the way it felt to drive. It would have been my pick for the top spot, but then I drove it back-to-back with the Fabia. I preferred the way the Kia handled, but for the same money the Fabia’s equipment level and refinement were more impressive, and that little turbo engine but a smile on my face. It felt so much peppier than the Kia’s despite giving the same power. So overall it has to be the Fabia in a well-deserved first place.

Best Overall Car: Skoda Fabia

It’s a no brainer: for 2015, the Skoda Fabia takes out the award of Best Car in our $20K Challenge. It got the highest marks in our chart (80%) and is the favoured car by both of the $20K Challenge reviewers.

It’s going to be hard to beat, perhaps only until the new generation Swift comes out in 2017. Well done, Skoda.


So many thanks to Gazley in Wellington for allowing us to test their Fiat Punto and Panda, Skoda Fabia and Nissan Micra.

More thanks to Brendan Foot Motors in Lower Hutt for the Suzuki Swift, Chery J3 and J11, and Kia Picanto.

Also thanks to Wellington Mitsubishi for the loan of the Mitsubishi Mirage.

Our Holden Barina was supplied by Johnston Ebbett in Wellington.

Lastly, thanks to Suzuki New Zealand for the Celerio review car.

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Fred Alvrez
How on earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic and muscle cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? In 2016 my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz. We did this again in 2019 in a 1990 Chev Corvette - you can read about that trip on DriveLife. I'm a driving instructor and an Observer for the Institute of Advanced Motorists - trying to do my bit to make our roads safer.


  1. Hi, I’m hoping you can plz help. I’m a hard working single mama n I need to get the best bang for my buck. I like smaller, modern, mags, Bluetooth etc economy,long lasting cars with exrta bells,I like fiat punko n panda, Daihatsu siriin,toyota Passo n spade,Mazda demio, Nissan juke n leaf.
    My max price is 6500. Year 2013 to now, km under 100000. What would b ur top 3 picks.
    And is a later model beta than low km?
    Been offered both
    2015 Fiat 64km for 5500
    2014 Daihatsu sirion sport 84km for 5990.
    I’ve never driven any of these cars b4. I’m a skilled driver with 8 license

  2. Hi Jade
    That’s a tough call you are asking.
    I love the Panda, but buying a 7 year-old model? Still at that price and with those low Ks it does seem good but I’d certainly get it checked out by someone. VTNZ have a pre purchasing inspection.
    The Sirion seems like the safer choice but really it comes down to you. I think you should drive both cars before even adding them into the mix. You might hate the gearbox of the Panda, for example.
    For me, newer always=better. Safety will always be better on a newer car, but that is dependent on Km driven. But for me, I’d still lean towards something more modern if you can afford it.
    To give you three picks I’d have to go off for a while and do some research, but I think you’d still be struggling a bit. Used car prices have gone up a lot, and I highly doubt you’d get (for example) a 2013 or newer Demio for $6500. In saying that, Turners still has some bargains now and then and that’s always a website I visit to see what’s going for not too much cash.


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