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2009 Best Cars for the Money

With belt-tightening the new American pastime and the auto industry still dealing with the ripples set off by the government's Cash for Clunkers program, those who need a new car are facing a confusing market.  Sure, there are great deals to be had, but a cheap car isn't necessarily a good car.  And what you save at the dealership you may end up paying at the repair shop. 

The U.S. News Best Car for the Money Awards identify cars that make the most economic sense -- not just when you sign on the dotted line but for years after. We've highlighted the best long-haul automotive values in each class, so you can shop smart. The key to surviving the current marketplace is to stretch your dollars as far as they'll go -- but that doesn't mean flocking to the biggest incentives.  It means focusing on cars that are proven winners and offer a great value over the entire life of the car.

See the Photo Gallery of the Winners »

The winners: Cars

2009 Toyota Camry

Midsize Cars

2009 Honda Fit

Subcompact Cars

2009 Toyota Avalon

Large Cars

2009 Lexus ES

Upscale Cars

The winners: SUVs and Minivans

The winners: Trucks

The Awards

The Best Car for the Money awards use data from U.S. News' online automotive rankings (at to find cars that are among the best in their class.  The rankings are based on the collective opinion of the automotive press, which helps to eliminate subjectivity and elevate expert opinion about each car.  The awards also take initial price into account, but more importantly, they incorporate the five-year total cost of owning the car.  Using data from IntelliChoice, an industry leader in determining new car values and ownership costs, the awards include how much buyers can expect to spend on maintenance and fuel, as well as how much of a hit they'll take from the car's depreciation. As a result, the awards tell you which cars are the best for your money over the long haul.  Read more on the awards methodology.

The Winners

Across 14 new car classes, the clear winner is Toyota.  Five Toyotas won Best Car for the Money in their classes, with Lexus, Toyota's luxury marquee, pulling in another three. Chevrolet and Mazda each claim two awards and Honda and Korean upstart

Hyundai each claim one. Five of the award winners are even available as hybrids - most of which are also great values.

Despite ranging in size from the tiny Honda Fit to the hulking Chevrolet Tahoe, the winners have a lot in common. They share a high level of build quality that makes for worry-free and low-cost ownership. One of the reasons Toyota models take so many of the awards is because of their bulletproof quality.  That not only lowers the cost of maintaining Toyotas -- it means that they retain value better than most other cars.

The winners have something else in common: they are favorites in the automotive press. Not because they tear up drag strips or star in music videos, but because they are extremely livable. Each winner occupies an automotive sweet spot that makes it an attractive choice for the vast majority of car shoppers. Take the Lexus ES, the Best Upscale Car for the Money: it doesn't drive as sharp as the BMW 3-Series and doesn't look as sharp as the Mercedes Benz C-Class, but taken as a total package, it's very comfortable to drive and easy to live with on a  daily basis -- not to mention easier on your wallet.

Some winners, like the Mazda5, the Best Compact Crossover for the Money, take the best of what class leaders like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V have to offer, but pack in an appealing lower price.  The case of the Hyundai Elantra, the Best Compact Car for the Money, proves what many have been saying for years: Honda and Toyota should watch their backs because Hyundai is making not just economical cars, but very good ones.

Time to Buy

It's a confusing time to be shopping for a new car. While there are some incredible deals to be had, many of those incentives are for cars that don't offer a lot of value in the long term.  Worse, a car with thousands of dollars in cash-back offers may be tough to drive, and laden with features you don't need.

The U.S. News Best Car for the Money awards cut through fog surrounding the auto industry to point out the cars that combine value with day-to-day livability. As scary as it is to part with thousands of dollars in this economy, by sticking with the cars that offer maximum satisfaction at a minimal cost, your money will go further and your driving will be happier. And, who knows?  Happy new car buyers may be just the stimulus this economy needs.

5-year total cost of ownership data provided by

Average price paid data provided by TrueCar™