My new car, the Suzuki SX4 / Fiat Sedici (same car, Suzukis are made in Japan, Fiats in Hungary)
Probably the most full featured car for under $20,000. Actually about 18k fully loaded. Even includes a sophisticated stability system in addition to the AWD.
The problem with the SX4 is it's compact size and generally average fuel economy (30mpg highway, 20ish city) put it between classes. Is it a Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, Mini Cooper competition, or is it Subaru Impreza/WRX, Toyota RAV4, Audi A30 competition.
However, if you want/need a full size SUV or a economy compact, or would just like AWD and lockable 4WD this car has it for $4000-10,000 less than a Subaru. It also gets better gas mileage than Subies. It's mild off road capable, unlike a Yaris or Fit or Cooper. And it splits the gas mileage between the classes.
Where it shines is handling. Almost no body roll. It will eat curvy mountain roads that are often found in the northeastern mountains for breakfast and crap them out as exhaust.
Key thing to remember about off road driving is it's not just
ground clearance but ramp angles and gearing. The SX4 lacks 4WD low but
in 1st gear the gearing is low enough to negotiate the roughest improved logging roads and mud pits. The ramp angles are well designed and allow it to climb fairly steep and drop into fairly steep dropoffs.
It has class leading cargo space WITH the rear seats down. And if you remove a single rear seat you get 31cu ft of space plus room for 3. Since we rarely have more than a 2-3 people and a dog and lots of gear, this is perfect.
At highway speeds (75mph) the 4 speed auto pulls 3000rpm. The engine is most effecient at 3500rpm so it SHOULD get about 30mpg on road trips (or most of my driving, about 90%) around town it seems if you leave in in 3, rather than 3D it gets in the mid 20s. Not great but not bad
Rember though the transfer case adds a few hundred pounds and the 148 hp is best in class but it's got to move a lot more weight.
Of course my Focus, even with a 16 foot canoe or a cargo basket never got worse than 25mpg. And rarely got less than 27-28mpg per tank. Actually 2 mountain bikes typically did the worst for fuel economy, and you could feel them.
And finally, it's not a Corolla, or a Civic. Those are great cars, but they are tired, boring and just plain common. Handling is so-so, nothing that even remotely differentiates them from the pack, and they aren't cheap. Cost more than the SX4 and offer less.
So while a 2WD car like the Ford Focus has served me well for 6 years. I'm pretty happy to get something a bit more functional, without having to give up much in terms of economy and comfort.