2008 Honda Accord

By Rick Newman, U.S. News & World Report

Quick-what's the best car you can buy for under $40,000? OK, that's an easy one-the BMW 3-series, which is the top-ranked upscale sedan in the U.S. News Car Rankings for the second year in a row. But other winners in our just-published 2008 list are more surprising. The top luxury SUV isn't a wood-paneled Mercedes or a silky Lexus but the in-your-face Cadillac Escalade. The Toyota Prius hybrid, beloved by environmentalists, has fallen behind the Toyota Camry and Honda Civic hybrids. And pickup loyalists will either embrace or denounce this definitive  outcome: The Chevy Silverado has trounced both the Ford F-150 and the Dodge Ram.

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RankingModelBase MSRP
1Honda Fit$13,950
2Honda Civic$15,010
3Scion tC$15,300
1Honda Accord$20,360
2Toyota Camry$18,570
3Subaru Legacy$20,495
1BMW 3-Series$32,400
2 (tie)Lexus ES$33,720
2 (tie)Infiniti G37$34,250
1BMW 5-Series$44,000
2Mercedes-Benz E-Class$50,900
3Lexus GS-450 Hybrid$41,970
1 (tie)Mazda MX-5 Miata$20,585
1 (tie)Mazda Speed3$22,340
1 (tie)Honda S2000$34,000
1Honda CR-V$20,700
2Toyota RAV4$21,100
3Honda Element$18,980
1Honda Pilot$28,395
2Nissan Murano$27,750
3Buick Enclave$32,255
1Chevrolet Tahoe$34,095
2 (tie)Mazda CX-9$37,380
2 (tie)Chevrolet Suburban$29,400
1Toyota Camry Hybrid$25,200
2Honda Civic Hybrid$22,600
3Toyota Prius$20,950
1Lexus RX 400h$41,180
2Toyota Highlander Hybrid$33,700
3Ford Escape Hybrid$21,510

Car buffs can endlessly debate the best and worst cars, but our rankings are a trove of practical info for ordinary consumers, too. Drawn from thousands of reviews by automotive experts, the rankings score every model on a 10-point scale, so car shoppers can make head-to-head comparisons of different cars they're considering. Our data also reveal changes in consumer tastes, brands that are gaining strength or falling behind, and cars you should probably steer away from completely. Some of the trends that emerge from the latest data:

Arrivistes. New or newly redesigned vehicles that have drawn raves and rank highly: Volvo C30 miniwagon, Chevy Malibu sedan, Infiniti G37 coupe, and the Mercedes-Benz C Class and Cadillac CTS upscale sedans.

If at first . . . By contrast, some new models have underwhelmed reviewers: the Nissan Rogue and Jeep Liberty SUVs, Subaru Impreza sedan and wagon, Dodge Avenger sedan, and the all-things-to-not-enough-people Volkswagen Eos. General Motors has aggressively touted hybrid versions of two full-size SUVs, the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, but in early reviews, the critics haven't been impressed.

Marathon runners. Brand-new models tend to impress critics the most, because they feature the latest technology, innovations, and styling. But a few models show remarkable endurance, scoring at or near the top of their categories even though they've been on the market for several years: the Honda Pilot SUV, Toyota Matrix wagon, Mazda 3 sedan and wagon, and Chrysler 300 sedan.

Home-run hitters. Four nameplates achieved a kind of perfect score, with all of their models scoring above average in their respective categories-Acura, Honda, Lexus, and Scion. Toyota, renowned for the quality and reliability of its vehicles, performed well overall, but critics rate the Highlander SUV and Yaris economy car below average. Mazda and Cadillac were also top performers.

Saab story. Seven manufacturers failed to muster a single hit, with all of their models scoring below average-Saab, Pontiac, Mercury, Lincoln, Isuzu, Jaguar, and Hummer. Struggling Jaguar, one of the luxury brands Ford Motor Co. is planning to sell, is in a particular slump. Its X-type and S-type sedans are both dead last in their categories.

And the winner is: Since automobiles serve so many different purposes, there's no single "best car" out of the 300-plus models in our database. That's why we rank cars relative to others in the same category. But reasonable people who love motoring might agree that a great car, above all, should be a funmobile that offers ordinary folks a daily thrill. A bit of practicality is nice-though we wouldn't let that spoil a great ride-and since lean times may be around the corner, it should be modestly priced-under $25,000, say. By those standards, we present the most lovable cars of 2008: the Mazdaspeed 3, Volkswagen GTI, and Mazda MX-5 Miata, our highest-ranked affordable performance cars.

See the full rankings of cars, trucks, and SUVs