The Drive’s Best Car Under $40K of 2023 Is the Toyota Prius

Forty is the new 30. I’m not just talking about the lower bound of middle age—I’m talking about car prices. Where $30,000 was once the magic number for family haulers and affordable fun, that sweet spot sits closer to $40,000 today. 

It’s no secret that the price of, well, everything, has gone up in the past few years, but luckily, there are still several cars that deliver value, style, and features above and beyond their price tags—and prove that good deals still exist. We call them The Drive’s Under $40K category.

We chose sub-$40K nominees with the highest review scores, but because of the diversity of cars and people’s needs, we picked a class of category representatives. There’s a sporty sedan, an off-road SUV, a crossover, a hybrid, and a full EV—truly something for everyone. These cars all either debuted or were heavily updated in 2023, and we feel they represent the best stuff out there on a reasonable budget.

All finalists were driven by at least somebody on The Drive’s car-testing staff for ultimate judgment, and we have picked a winner. Cue the outrage. But first, meet your nominees.

Runner-Up: Subaru Crosstrek, The Best Crossover Under $40K

“At $29,685 as tested, the 2023 Subaru Crosstrek Premium is one of the most value-packed new vehicles anyone can buy today. Its appearance, practicality, and features can’t be overstated.

Better looking than before, reasonably well-appointed inside, and a reasonably pleasant vehicle to drive around town in, the Crosstrek is a wise choice whether you’re buying your first car, having your first kid, or becoming an empty-nester.” —Jerry Perez, Deputy Editor

“The Crosstrek Wilderness is unique—there are not that many small and somewhat efficient cars with earnest off-road pretenses. It’s also one of the coolest-looking practical cars at this price point.” —Andrew P. Collins, Executive Editor

Runner-Up: Jeep Wrangler, The Best SUV Under $40K

Peter Nelson

“The 2024 Wrangler maintains the mantra of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ It doesn’t shy away from meaningful upgrades, though, like freshened-up looks and a modernized interior, especially when it comes to safety and tech. It then takes the JL chassis and introduces some significant factory options to make it the most capable Wrangler off the factory floor, period.

“Jeep has done a great job pushing the Wrangler forward, helping the icon maintain its relevance in our tech-heavy world. This is everything a mid-cycle refresh should be as it actually adds enough content to make it worth buying new, and if I were in the market, I wouldn’t think twice about scooping one up.” —Peter Nelson

Runner-Up: Volvo EX30, The Best EV Under $40K

Volvo

“Remember the days when 400-plus hp was reserved for supercars? Well, those days are long gone because 422 is now available in the subcompact, entry-level Volvo. Out on the road, the EX30 Twin Motor Performance feels every bit as quick as its 422 hp, 400 lb-ft, and 3.4-second 0-60 time would suggest. It’s ridiculously fun. Purely based on sensations in the seat of the pants, the base, 268-hp EX30 is no slouch either and its lack of a motor in the front (cutting 282 pounds) also makes it feel a tad more eager being chucked into corners.

“Scandinavian styling, 275 miles on a charge, 5.1 seconds to 60, and a practical crossover body for 36 grand? You could do a lot worse.” —Chris Tsui, Reviews Editor

People’s Choice: Acura Integra, The Best Sedan Under $40K

Andrew P. Collins

“The Integra experience is good from the second you sit down; the driver’s seat is comfortable, visibility is clear. Sharp sculpting on the hood gives you the sense that you’re in something meant to be driven with intention.

“It’s also a really strong case for learning how to drive stick. Get a friend to teach you, watch some YouTube videos, do whatever it takes if you’re on the fence—the 2023 Integra is probably one of the last exceptional new-car manual-transmission experiences we’re going to have available on U.S. roads without spending supercar money. That’s always been the old Integra ethos, and it’s nothing short of marvelous that it still lives on today.” —Andrew P. Collins, Executive Editor

[Ed. note: The Acura Integra also takes home the honor of being our People’s Choice winner. In a series of polls on The Drive‘s Instagram, it was the most popular car of this bunch. Congratulations, Acura. —CT]

Winner: Toyota Prius, The Best Hybrid Under $40K

Toyota

Call it the glow-up of the century. Whereas the last Toyota Prius inspired about as much excitement as a 40-degree day, the new one merits a double-take. Beyond its good looks, the new Prius can finally get out of its own way with more powerful plug-in and conventional hybrid powertrains.

The Prius fulfills its utilitarian goal as a seamless commuting tool. Former Staff Writer Peter Nelson described the center console’s phone slot as “the single best phone holder-slash-charging pad that’s ever been conceived,” and I agree. I spent a week and 650-ish miles road-tripping the Prius and found it a thoroughly pleasant companion, if not a thrilling one. I filled up once—for $29—and didn’t want for anything.

Executive Editor Andrew Collins and I both found the cargo limits of the Prius’ sloping roofline—he with dog kennels and I with office furniture—but that’s the extent of its practical flaws. I concluded: 

“The Prius is also still a car you buy for its fuel economy. But it’s no longer a symbol of austerity—of what you’re giving up in the name of efficiency. Instead, it’s a practical reminder that smart can be sexy and compromise can be cool. In the face of blunt EV extremism (both for and against), the Prius is a nuanced, tactful argument for why we should all probably be driving hybrids.”

Hats off to Toyota for building an affordable hybrid worth buying, and a Prius worth gushing over. For that, it earns The Drive’s Award for Best Car Under $40K in 2023.

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