"Play artist the White Stripes," you command. Your car responds, pulsing out Blue Orchid through a full set of six speakers and an eight-inch subwoofer.
You give your new boss a ride to a conference -- and impress her, not just with your leather seats, but with a European nameplate that shows your tendency to look beyond the obvious and make interesting choices.
You bypass the gas pump, smiling at the fools filling up, and revel in the electric whine of your hybrid.
These are all experiences you might expect from the upscale Toyota or the BMW you'll have to wait to buy after a decade on the job market. But the good news is that you can have them all now, and for all under $22K -- often under $16K. All you have to do is make a smart purchase.
If you're willing to look beyond the obvious candidates, you can find a car with a level of prestige, practicality and personality way beyond the monthly payment that keeps you in it -- a car that sets you apart.
Here are a few choices that'll help show how smart you are.
In a crowd of unexciting small cars, the Focus stands out by offering a suite of high-tech features that some cars twice as expensive don't even come close to offering. The key is Ford's Microsoft-based SYNC infotainment system. It controls your iPod, your cell phone and any other Bluetooth-capable device with voice commands. Imagine sending text messages safely while you drive, without ever taking your eyes off the road. Even the Mercedes S-Class doesn't do that yet. Best of all, the least expensive SYNC-equipped Focus can be purchased for less than $15,500.
Nissan Altima Hybrid
It's nearly impossible to find a Prius or a Civic Hybrid these days, and the few you do find in showrooms are selling for well over their sticker prices. But did you know Nissan offered the Altima Hybrid? No one else seems to know, either -- which is why these are almost affordable right now. Sure, a hybrid a little more expensive, but think of the gas you won't have to buy. Then add this: Toyota and Honda hybrids are no longer eligible for federal tax credits. They've sold so many cars that the tax break no longer applies. But the IRS still helps you recover up to $2,350 on the purchase of Nissan's little green machine -- more in some states.
Ford Escape Hybrid
This is the same story as the Nissan, only better. In fact, the Ford Escape Hybrid is available at even lower prices, still qualifies for the tax credit, nets almost the same mileage and offers much more cargo space. Plus, it's presidential candidate-approved -- even Barack Obama bought one.
The C30 is upscale and sporty enough to compete with BMWs and Acuras, but can be purchased for less than some Civic models. Its turbocharged engine nets up to 28 mpg on the highway and scoots from 0 to 60 in under 7 seconds -- outstanding at this price point. Plus, it looks cool with deep shoulder lines and an unusual all-glass rear hatch. The interior features a ribbon-thin floating console and unusual T-Tech upholstery that looks like a wetsuit. In a sea of look-alike Japanese compacts, why not drive a quirky European hatchback with a thoughtful Swedish design?
Want to look really smart? Consider buying a car that's ahead of its time. As gas prices rise and Americans re-evaluate our relationship with fuel, tiny city cars like the Smart Fortwo are a sign of what's to come. The Smart is so small it can be parked nose-in to the curb in a parallel spot. Plus, its Tridion safety cage earned it solid crash test scores...and it's cute. Oh, it's also one of the least expensive cars on the market, and with its thrifty three-cylinder engine, one of the cheapest to own. You'll certainly look smart with change in your wallet. But don't delay, because you'll have to sign up for a waiting list to get one.
Want to really impress people with an unusual choice? Go for utilitarian brawn and practicality all at once. Everyone who doesn't have a truck needs a friend with a truck. And even in a world of hyper-expensive gas, Toyota's smallest truck makes some sense. The Tacoma's 25 mpg highway rating isn't far from what some small cars get. Plus, its interior is often described as "car-like" and it's the safest small truck on the road.
MINIs are BMWs with go-kart-like handling, cute looks that turn heads, and a price tag less than some models of the Nissan Sentra and Pontiac G5. Oh, yes, and it bests nearly everything else on the road in terms of gas mileage with its 29 mpg combined fuel economy. What would you rather drive?
For a closer look at these "smart" cars, see our slideshow.