The $20,370 2019 Honda Civic LX is the best $20,000* new car you can buy

The rule in our household is simple: New cars cost less than $20,000.

Nevermind that the average new-car transaction price tops $37,000 now, made easy by 72-month financing. We’re cheapskates who hate debt. Twenty grand’s the limit.

If we were to buy a new car today, the choices for $20,000 that score well across The Car Connection’s ratings schema would be few. A Kia Soul might be in the running; so would a Hyundai Elantra. There would be no hybrids nor any electric cars, two ethical choices we’re keen to make soon.

What we’re left with would be something that breaks our household rule, but just by one more car payment.

I went to California last week to drive the lightly refreshed 2019 Honda Civic. In its base version, the $20,370 2019 Civic does everything any new-car shopper might want. We rate it at 6.7 out of 10, and even that above-average score hides some of what makes it an exceptional value.

Focus on the base Civic LX, and almost all the inherent goodness of the latest Civic shines through. We’d be happy for a Sport or EX, and the Type R’s a Best Car To Buy winner we love, but the Civic LX has what we need. For starters, just enough power. Its 158-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4 keeps quiet when we want it to, and with more sound-damping glass and fiber this year, it’s quieter on the move. We’d be happy with a 6-speed manual—well, one of us would be—but the $21,145 continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT)-equipped LX isn’t too far a reach above the baseline. It also delivers a 36-mpg EPA highway rating.

We love the Civic’s small-car feel, though it’s nearly mid-size by the spec sheet. It has the smartly composed ride that its longer wheelbase can deliver, and direct and quick steering that brims with feedback compared to Corolla and Elantra, even on its standard 16-inch wheels.

All Civics have an impressive and spacious cabin that wears durable cloth at the LX trim. Manual-adjusting front seats fit well, and four adults in front and in back don’t need to Rochambeau to divvy up the available legroom, there’s plenty for all. The Civic’s sleek roofline hides a real trunk with about 15 cubic feet of space, bigger than some luxury sedans we’re driving for the 2020 model year.

Safety sells lots of Civics, and with its “Good” IIHS crash-test ratings all it needs is better headlights for a Top Safety Pick award. As it stands, the NHTSA gives it five stars, and Honda gives every Civic LX standard automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, active lane control, and decent outward vision.

On the Civic LX’s minor list of offenses, its basic 5.0-inch screen can’t deliver Apple CarPlay—but we already own an Apple-enabled screen. It’s called an iPhone, and it plugs into the USB port just fine. Power features aren’t left off the list, and the Civic LX has Bluetooth audio streaming, too. Leather, a larger touchscreen, a moonroof, high-end audio—those are all nice things that are not essential, we think.

Think of everything that costs $20,000 today, and a new car pales. A reasonably fancy wedding reception costs more; some bridal gowns do, too. From motorcycles to man caves, guys aren’t exempt.

When we instituted that rule back in 1997 the choices were simpler. A 2003 Honda Element squeaked in under the line, as did a 2004 Toyota Prius. The 2015 Hyundai Sonata, lightly used at two years old, came in a few dollars under the bogey; the Lazarus Miata at $5k and some change.

The 2019 Honda Civic would be a rare easy choice here. It flaunts its value while it flouts inflation, just like it’s done for decades.