According to Kelley Blue Book (KBB), an automotive valuation and research resource, the average cost of a new vehicle is now $38,948. That’s no small sum, and not only does the expense continue to climb (+1.7 percent this past year), but associated finance obligations are being extended as well. The typical length for an auto loan is now almost six years, with some terms being written around an eight year payoff to help offset affordability. Ouch!

But there is a way to push back on the price of admission into the “new” category without breaking the bank. And simultaneously enjoy today’s state of the art advantage of improved economy, better safety, greater reliability and more comfort/convenience. Two recent examples that I tested come to mind.

Both the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda3 deserve your consideration. You’ll immediately see that these two cars have something very much in common. They’re both…cars! As the market continues to migrate toward pickups, sport utilities (SUVs) and cross-overs, the good old passenger car may be starting to wane as a sales statistic, but it’s becoming a better value for buyers.

Without the burden of expensive features like all-wheel drive (which costs more to insure and maintain, too), the familiar family sedan remains a viable automotive alternative. Particularly with such proven technology as front-wheel drive and traction control. And they’re fine foul-weather friends, despite what all the SUV advertising otherwise depicts.

The versatile, VW Golf, for example, is a four-door hatchback that has become a design icon, after seven generations of existence. Its purposful silhouette is unmistakable, which has been continuely refined over the years. That’s allowed it to remain relatively expansive on the inside. Form clearly follows function.

In upmarket SE guise, like the example I evaluated, the Golf includes everything from an 8-speed automatic transmission to an 8-inch touchscreen. Leatherette seating was comfy and plush enough, while a logical, three-knob manual climate control system got the job done. The 147 horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is rated at 29 mpg City and 37 Highway. Though I consistently got over 40 shoreline miles to the gallon.

The compact Volkswagen includes America’s best Bumper-to-Bumper (6-Year/72,000-Mile) Warranty. Prices start at $21,845 for the entry-level S model and $24,145 for the better embellished SE. I only wish either Golf was still available as a two-door (the front doors were longer), because at 6’4”, I had a little difficulty getting in and out of the front of the four-door, with the driver’s seat set way back. And I’m not a fan of the SE’s translucent (perforated), panoramic sunroof sunscreen. They’re never fully effective, and transit some heat in the summer.

Mazda’s model 3, meanwhile, was yet another pleasant surprise when it came to not just affordable value, but its fun factor, as well. A sedan with spirit, the new 3 has been described as “an emotional design of elegant proportions…that accentuates the look of a wide and low stance.” In this case, form leads function, instead of following it, as with the VW. Particulary when specified in the exquisite, Soul Red Crystal paint scheme (a $595 option), like the one I drove.

Powered by a potent 2.5-liter, 186-horspower four-cylinder with variable valve timing, the stylish Mazda3 is certainly no slouch. A 6-speed automatic is included, as is something called “SkyActiv-Vehicle Dynamics,” which ensures sure-footedness by electronically integrating the control of engine, transmission and chassis subsystems.

From the inside out, a less-is-more design ethic was instilled because Mazda believes that beauty exists through subtraction. Their intention is to deliver “a bond between you and your 3 with interior materials and finishes that have been selectively chosen to combine craftsmanship with emotion.” And they succeeded, for the most part.

The Madza3 is available in a wide assortment of choices, as both a sedan or a four-door hatchback. In four trim levels, with pricing that starts at $21,500 for the base sedan ($23,600 for the base hatchback), and up to $27,900 for the sedan Premium Package ($27,500 for the Premium hatch).

The midlevel, Preferred Package sedan that was in my driveway retailed for $24,200 plus an additional $595 for the Soul Red color option (highly recommended), and delivered 26 mpg City and 35 Hwy. My primary nit to pick with the Mazda3 is its bolt-upright, flat touchscreen, which looks like it was bolted on to the instrument panel as an afterthought.

So either way, Volkswagen (the traditional people’s car) and Mazda (the sportier, “Zoom, Zoom” alternative) prove that you can find affordability these days by pushing back and getting behind the wheel of a new…CAR.

A resident of East Haddam, Steven Rossi is an automotive engineer turned marketing communicator. With some 25 years in the industry, including three tours of duty in Detroit, he serves as senior columnist for Antique Automobile magazine, and his work has also appeared in Collectible Automobile and The New York Times. He holds 21 International Speed and World Automotive Endurance Records.

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