Japanese built cars under $20,000 are very rare on the U.S. market but after having driven an old Toyota for 2 years, I just had to have one. So far, I have put 22,000 miles into the car in the first 12 months, so I think I know what I'm talking about.
Like the Toyota Prius, the Suzuki Aerio is a unique vehicle because besides being built in Japan, it was also designed for the Japanese, rather than for the word market. The Japanese care more about efficiency than style or performance, so their cars tend to be tall and narrow to fit on their bike path-like roads while providing as much room as possible, and the cars also have small wheels and tight, lowered suspensions, which works well on Japan's superbly maintained, mirror-smooth roads. The result is a vehicle that looks disproportionate to us Westerners while feeling uncomfortable on our neglected inner city roads. The Aerio is definitely not recommended for areas with harsh Winters or dilapidated roads but for most suburban buyers, the car is a superb deal.
The Aerio SX costs less than $17,000 with auto transmission and a full package. A comparably configured Toyota Matrix or Honda Element would run for about $23,000, especially when you include dealer fees. Most Suzuki dealers charge no fees and will prepare your documents for free. The warranty policy is far superior to anything Honda or other big name Japanese firms would give you, and the warranty is indefinitely transferable. But wait, it gets better. Since the car has practically no re-sale value, you can easily find near-new Aerios on the net for thousands less than the already aggressively discounted retail price. This car is truly a fantastic bargain.
Beyond value, the Aerio offers something else us former Toyota people appreciate, rock solid reliability. So far, I haven't had a screw come loose, and I don't think I will have any problems with this car during the next 8-9 years -- which is about as much as I care to squeeze out of it. I think most of the people who had problems mistreated the car or failed to do the maintenance. I only use the finest supplies with my cars and maintain them religiously. Suzuki's are often used as rental cars in many Third World markets, and they run for up to 15 years before they are retired. I think that's pretty impressive.
There is only one problem you should know about. The dealers routinely inflate the tires well above the manufacturer's recommended 30psi to make them look bigger, but that can cause damage and discomfort. You must take your car to a tire shop immediately upon purchase and have it properly aligned and the tire pressure adjusted.
A well maintained Aerio is a joy to drive. It has plenty of power and when you gaze through the panoramic windshield, you often feel like you're flying above the road. A MINI Cooper or a VW will give you better resale value, but those cars will also give you plenty of headaches. The Aerio is for practical people who depend on their cars and want value for their money.