Everyone knows the usual suspects.
Ask your co-workers, your neighbors and your friends to name the best values in the automotive market, and cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius repeatedly come up. They're known for reasonable prices, low ownership costs and high quality. And that reputation isn't unearned. The top cars in a class usually earn their reputations through the real-world experiences of millions of owners.
But it isn't necessarily the entire story, either. Some of the best values in the automotive world are cars that might not leap to the front of your mind. They haven't caught the public imagination yet. Perhaps they haven't even sold as well as they should. But they're worth a look if you want to save some money on your next car.
Below, we run through a few hidden values -- cars that haven't earned the acclaim their top rivals have, but which might actually represent a better buy for some shoppers:
MSRP: $14,120 - $17,820
Invoice: $13,735 - $17,090
Hyundai is on a roll lately. The Korean brand won its first North American Car of the Year award in 2009 with the entry-level luxury Genesis. It dodged the sales slump most rivals faced in the recession, offering creative incentives like a no-penalty return policy on new cars for those who lost their income in the recession (and that program is still active). The company also won its first Best Car for the Money award from U.S. News for the 2009 Elantra.
The Elantra is comfortable, reliable and scores points with a well-designed interior that is more spacious than those of some midsize cars. Best of all, it's cheap when fully loaded. An optioned-out Elantra complete with leather runs less than $20K (with the help of a $2,000 incentive, but Hyundai has run incentives on the Elantra for most of the last year). A fully-loaded Civic, on the other hand, can actually run over $27K MSRP. The Elantra is reliable as well -- its low five-year cost of ownership contributed to its win in the U.S. News awards.
MSRP: $19,800 - $23,100
Invoice: $18,688 - $21,790
If you've got about $20,000 to spend and want a hybrid car to reduce gas expenses and your carbon footprint, you can get a certified pre-owned 2008 Toyota Prius with a three-month comprehensive warranty (a new 2010 Prius, even the most stripped-down model available, will run you over $22,500).
Or, for your $20K, you could get a brand-new 2010 Honda Insight with a full three-year warranty and an EPA-certified 41 mpg rating in combined city and highway driving. The Insight, brand new for 2010, could be mistaken for the Prius from 15 feet away. But no one would say the window stickers look alike. In fact, the Insight has changed the value calculation for hybrid buyers so thoroughly that Toyota is planning a response -- a stripped-down version of the Prius that will be offered for Insight-like prices later this year.
MSRP: $22,655 - $27,250
Invoice: $21,182 - $25,479
If you want a Honda Accord with heated leather seats, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, an auxiliary MP3 jack and a moonroof, it's going to cost you -- more than $27,000 in most parts of the country. A Saturn Aura with the same equipment, however, can run $4,000 less.
Why? Fear, primarily. The Aura is a comfortable, attractive family car that is as fun to drive as the Honda, but you've probably seen the news -- General Motors has plans to shut down the Saturn brand by the end of 2009. The headlines have cut Saturn showroom traffic dramatically. Despite the fear, however, the Aura is a car worth considering. The 2007 North American Car of the Year, the Aura offers sharp styling, surprisingly athletic handling for a family car, and an optional cocoa leather interior that's just gorgeous.
Under the skin, the Aura uses many of the same parts as other GM midsize cars, like the Chevy Malibu -- so most GM dealerships can repair Saturn cars. Saturn warranties will be honored by other GM dealerships after Saturn dealers are gone, so service and repairs should be easy to come by. The negative headlines don't make the Aura a bad car -- just a good buying opportunity. With Saturn dealerships facing few interested customers and a definite date to close their doors, they're often more willing to negotiate prices than many competitors.
MSRP: $30,625 - $36,450
Invoice: $29,400 - $34,445
Another Saturn finds its way onto our value list, but this one is a particularly strange story. General Motors builds four midsize SUVs on the same platform. The four share the same chassis, the same V6 engine, the same suspension, and the same three-row, eight-passenger seating arrangement. It's called platform sharing, or badge engineering. An automaker designs a single car, and sells it under several different brand names for several different prices. The four are functionally similar vehicles. They look different, and interior styling varies slightly between the four.
Pricing, however, varies wildly. A top-of-the-line Buick Enclave, for instance, costs more than $42,000. A top-of-the-line Chevy Traverse runs just under $40K. But a top-of-the-line Saturn Outlook sells for less than $35,000 -- and again, with Saturn's recent struggles, it may be possible to negotiate that price down even more.
MSRP: $21,245 - $27,745
Invoice: $20,430 - $25,710
Minivan buyers face fewer choices today than they have in years. Ford and General Motors, Mazda, Hyundai and Nissan have all pulled out of the minivan market. Sales figures show that most buyers seem to be left with the impression that there are just three minivans left -- the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and Chrysler's Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan twins.
A little-known contender, however, might be the best value of them all. The Kia Sedona offers great safety scores, a long list of standard features, and a sticker price that undercuts every other minivan on the market. It's possible to buy a decently-equipped Sedona for under $22,000 -- less than the average Toyota Camry costs, nevermind the Sienna. Kia's reputation as a budget car builder doesn't hold up when the Sedona's near-perfect crash test scores and standard three-zone climate control are part of the picture.