Even if you don’t pay attention to the automotive industry, you’ve probably heard of two new 2011 models being touted as path-breaking: the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt. The Leaf, an electric car that Nissan says is practical enough for most American drivers, can go up to 100 miles on a single charge from a standard household outlet. The Volt is an extended-range electric vehicle; it uses an electric motor to power through the first 25 to 50 miles of driving. When its batteries are depleted, it switches on a gasoline engine to recharge them, making its range similar to that of a conventional car.

With these two revolutionary models now making their way into driveways across the country, you might think that’s it for buzzworthy cars. Wrong. Carmakers have introduced a slew of new models that, while not as groundbreaking as the Leaf or the Volt, boast several sleek new designs, high-tech features, excellent fuel economy, and budget prices. For many car companies, the changes are paying off. Kia debuted four models last year and saw a 48 percent year-over-year sales increase in November. “With its edgier new designs and sustained value-oriented pricing, it’s no wonder Kia has flourished in 2010,” says Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds.com. Each of the new or redesigned models on the list that follows is in the top third of its class in the U.S. News automotive rankings. They also have low starting prices for their class, above average fuel economy ratings, strong safety ratings, and a long list of standard features. In many cases, these models are already sales successes and have earned lots of praise from the automotive press.

Small Cars:

Ford Fiesta

Base MSRP : $13,320

The 2011 Ford Fiesta has strong crash-test ratings from the federal government and was even named an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick for its crash protection. Car reviewers like the Fiesta for its performance. It’s zippy around town but still manages to get 29 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. Available as a sedan or hatchback, the Fiesta has some high-tech optional features, including Ford’s SYNC system, which lets you use voice commands to control the Fiesta’s stereo, climate, and Bluetooth phone system.

Chevrolet Cruze

Base MSRP : $16,275

The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is an affordable compact sedan, but most car reviewers say it doesn’t feel like it. While compact cars tend to be criticized for cramped seats and cheap interiors, the Cruze gets praise for its roomy back seat and upscale feel. Optional features include Bluetooth and a navigation system. With an automatic transmission, the Cruze can get up to 22 miles per gallon in the city and 35 on the highway. It also has 10 airbags, more than any other car in its class.

Hyundai Elantra

Base MSRP : $14,830

Hyundai used to be a fall-back brand for people who just couldn’t afford a Honda or Toyota. Not anymore. Hyundai has introduced cars that are perfect for recession-weary buyers, as they combine lots of standard features with prices that undercut the competition. The all-new 2011 Elantra is part of that trend. Reviewers who have tested the Elantra say it drives like a much more expensive car, but still manages to get 29 miles per gallon in the city and 40 on the highway. The Elantra also has a sleek new design that reviewers say makes it stand out from most small cars.

Midsize Cars:

Hyundai Sonata

Base MSRP : $19,195

Since its debut, the Hyundai Sonata has managed to rocket past stalwart midsize sedans like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord in our car rankings. Car reviewers love its sleek style and fuel-efficient powertrain, which gets up to 35 mpg on the highway. The 2011 Sonata’s price is fairly low for the class, and it comes with satellite radio and Bluetooth. The Sonata also has a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, one of the longest in the class.

Buick Regal

Base MSRP : $26,245

The 2011 Buick Regal may end up being one of the biggest surprises of the new crop, as it’s one of the best performing and most affordable cars in its class. The Regal debuted at the top of the U.S. News Upscale Midsize Car rankings, and no model, including the legendary BMW 3-Series, has been able to budge it. Reviewers like its taut handling and comfortable interior, which includes a standard USB port and auxiliary audio input jack. The Regal is also a 2011 IIHS Top Safety Pick.


Kia Sportage

Base MSRP : $18,295

With a redesign for 2011, the Kia Sportage has gone from a lackluster small SUV to a stylish crossover while retaining a relatively low price, reviewers say. What’s more, you now get standard features like a USB port with iPod interface and Bluetooth. Reviewers also say the Sportage has a comfortable and roomy interior that makes it work as a family car. The Sportage earned a spot as an IIHS Top Safety Pick for its crash test performance.

Ford Explorer

Base MSRP : $28,190

The Ford Explorer often gets credit for turning the SUV into the go-to family car. For 2011, the Explorer has shed its truck-based roots, making it more comfortable to drive and boosting its fuel economy by 25 percent without sacrificing power; it comes standard with a 290-horsepower V6 engine. While the Explorer isn’t the full-on rugged SUV it once was, reviewers say its available performance technology gives it a leg up on other family SUVs. It also has an optional terrain management system that lets you select your driving conditions (snow, mud, dry pavement), allowing the vehicle to alter its traction and throttle systems for maximum control. The 2011 Explorer arrives at dealerships in January.