Auto makers once thought people who bought low-priced cars deserved what they got.

The apparent message to the downmarket set: “You want a cheap car? We’ll give you a cheap car.”

That attitude put a lot of junk punks on the road, inferior cars with low-quality engines about as reliable as crackheads performing heart surgery.

I owned a Ford Pinto. The question wasn’t if it would break down, but when. Because of that car, I expanded my circle of acquaintances to include many mechanics.

I mentioned my horrible Pinto ownership experience to a Ford executive. He replied, “That was a long time ago.”

He’s right. The surging quality and technology of today’s inexpensive compacts is striking. The auto industry now offers entry-level products that make their predecessors seem like they came off the same line as Conestoga wagons.

The advancements are evidenced by low-cost vehicles drawing praise from judges in the 2012 Ward’s 10 Best Engine competition. One such car, the ’12 Hyundai Accent, makes the list with its 1.6L I-4 – the little engine that could. “Heck,” says judge Jim Irwin. “It feels frisky in reverse.”

This year’s winners include engines powering the $53,700 Infiniti M35h hybrid, $49,900 Audi A6 and $48,650 BMW Z4.

But the Accent starts at $14,195, and that bargain-basement price buys some sophisticated stuff, such as direct injection and dual continuously variable valve timing.

A version of the Accent’s engine powers the Kia Soul with a stop/start system, a great feature that eliminates needless fuel consumption while the vehicle is at rest. Considered an upmarket feature, it’s significant to find this technology on a “cheap” car.

The ’12 Nissan Versa’s 1.6L I-4 didn’t make the top-10 list, although several judges praise the $10,990 car for offering a new dual-injector system for a cleaner, more fuel-efficient burn. Nissan bills the Versa’s technology as “Innovation within reach.”

The Accent has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 30/40 mpg (7.8-5.8L/100 km) city/highway. That draws attention to another inadequacy of yesteryear’s econobox engines: Fuel-efficient they were not.

Some things don’t change. Young people always will dream of owning expensive cars they can’t afford. But in the meantime, they now can buy low-priced cars with sophisticated, high-quality engines. A few years ago, no one dreamed that was possible.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com