Embrace a 'cheap' car

Dollar bill shaped like a car with quarters for wheels

You read a lot in these shaken and stirred financial times about "living below your means." Less-conspicuous consumption is on its way to being the next big trend.

Downsizing your automotive desires is one primary route to spending less than you make. The beauty is that many of the "cheap" cars in showrooms today are inexpensive but far from cheap.

More equipment and more refinement for economy cars means you now can have a lot of the little luxuries without a lot of the cost.

Manufacturers are pressing on with compact and even subcompact cars that include all manner of safety and technical innovations that used to be only for expensive luxury models.

Everyday compact cars now offer sophisticated safety features such as electronic stability control, which helps prevent dangerous skids even in bad weather, and infotainment features such as Ford's magnificent Sync system, which is available even in its least-expensive model, the Focus.

Consider what you get in something like the 2009 Toyota Corolla LE sedan for a base price of $17,310, including destination charges:

In addition to the usual comforts such as air-conditioning, automatic transmission and power windows and door locks, standard features include front and side-impact air bags, antilock brakes and front-seat "active" headrests, a big-dollar feature just a couple of years ago.

The Corolla's stability control system -- the most vital safety feature in probably 25 years -- costs a meager $250 extra. And the car's 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine uses sophisticated variable valve timing to generate a highly respectable 27 miles per gallon in the city and 35 m.p.g. on the highway.

Over the next couple years, we will see a raft of new advanced technologies drift into the "cheap car" market -- features like sound-insulating glass, efficiency-enhancing turbo-charging and direct fuel injection, and sensors that warn of vehicles in your blind spots.

One of the best examples of sophistication-on-the-cheap is this spring's Insight hybrid-electric car from Honda. It's jammed with all kinds of brag-to-your-friends technology (the kind required to generate up to 45 m.p.g. on the highway), yet prices will start at less than $20,000 when it goes on sale.