In recessionary times, people tend to squeeze a nickel until the buffalo performs a life function.

And so, as a public service to recession-ridden nickel-squeezers everywhere, I have seized on this precise moment in Western economic history to present the annual Inquirer Cheap Car Survey (ICCS).

Of course, the golden age of deliciously deflated price tags has passed us by. There is nothing even close to the under-$5,000 stickers that once graced the side windows of Yugos and Chevettes.

But then again, happily, there is nothing even close to those cars' quality and driving characteristics, either. Today's budgetmobiles are a quantum leap beyond the econocars of even 15 years ago. They are built better, look better, drive better, get better gas mileage, and are a heck of a lot safer.

And in the scheme of things, they are still a pretty cheap date. I managed to find a quintet of small sedans and hatchbacks with base prices of less than $12,300. Two of them were under $10,000.

Keep in mind that the cars selected do not have standard-equipment lists the length of Yao Ming's inseam. Air-conditioning, for example, is typically optional on these cars. They do, however, come with basic safety gear, and they get decent grades on the federal crash tests.

So let's take a quick look at our five-pack, keeping in mind that the prices shown are MSRPs for base cars with five-speed manual gearboxes, and that they do not include shipping, incentives and any discount you may extract from your bloodied and desperate dealer:

Hyundai Accent GS three-door hatchback ($9,970). The Accent, which beats out the Nissan Versa for cheapest wheels by a scant 20 bucks, is the South Korean automaker's smallest car and, arguably, its biggest bargain. The 2009 model is largely unchanged, although it has enjoyed some power-train tweaks that bump up gas mileage 8 percent. EPA mileage ratings for this car now stand at a very respectable 27 city and 33 highway.

When buttoned to the standard manual gearbox, the front-drive Accent's 110-horsepower engine provides adequate performance, as do the steering and suspension systems. The little hatch is fairly roomy, given its exterior dimensions, and it boasts a warranty even better than its laudable fuel economy.

Nissan Versa Base sedan ($9,990). The door-buster base car is new this model year, and it counters its low price with high marks for roominess and fuel economy. The 107-horsepower engine in this new model delivers reasonable acceleration, and nice EPAs of 26 and 34.

While the Versa Base is a lot of car for the buck, there is one thing to keep in mind if you spend time in Center City traffic during the summer: Unlike the more upmarket Versas, which provide air conditioning as standard fare, the base car is not even available with it.

Kia Rio sedan ($11,495). Kia is owned by Hyundai, so we shouldn't be surprised to learn that the Rio uses the same drive train and architecture found in the Hyundai Accent. Indeed, specs such as wheelbase, track and vehicle height are identical.

There are differences, however, in styling, interior decor and content, and a slight disparity in fuel mileage. With EPAs of 27 and 32, the Rio gets 1 m.p.g. less on the highway than the Accent.

Chevrolet Aveo LS sedan and five-door hatchback ($11,965). Built in South Korea by GM Daewoo, the Aveo has undergone significant revision for the new model year, including engine tweaks that have improved EPAs to 27 and 34, which are very presentable.

The Aveo is relatively roomy for a car only 154 inches long. It is also pretty comfortable and quiet, if you discount the greater-than-average wind noise. Engine performance, like the Aveo's handling and braking, are quite acceptable.

Toyota Yaris GS 3-door hatchback ($12,205). Toyota Motor Corp. had been selling the Yaris for years in Europe and points east, bringing it into this country relatively recently when gasoline prices shot up. It is the automaker's smallest car, and like most subcompacts is available as either a hatchback or sedan.

The car is nicely screwed together and solid, and it provides a decent ride and handling. Performance from the 110-horsepower engine is satisfactory, and fuel economy is excellent. The car boasts EPAs of 29 and 36.

Contact Al Haas at Alhaasauto@aol.com.