With the economy on the fritz, shoppers are increasingly basing their car buying decisions less on impulse and more on value. While some define value in terms of safety, reliability, or even luxury, others focus primarily on performance. For those gear heads and thrill seekers, U.S. News presents the Best Performance Cars for the Money:
Subcompact Car: MINI Cooper
It's no surprise that the MINI Cooper earns rave reviews for its excellent handling. MINI is, after all, owned by BMW. Renowned for its fun-to-drive personality, the 2009 Cooper is available in two models: a 118-horsepower base-trim and 172-horsepower turbocharged Cooper S. While both net outstanding ratings for fuel economy, critics favor the Cooper S for its extra zip -- especially when equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. All told, the 2009 MINI Cooper is a lively little car that's easy and fun to live with.
Compact Car: Honda Civic
The 2009 Civic earns high marks for its good gas mileage and reliable performance. And though the base model's 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine provides significantly less power than the Si trim's 197 horses, reviewers agree that it has enough get-up and go to keep drivers pleased. Combined with its refined handling and comfortable ride quality, the Civic is a real winner. For the Earth-friendly, the 2009 Civic is also available as a hybrid. While critics complain that its 110-horsepower engine feels weak, its outstanding fuel economy is only second to the Prius.
Midsize Car: Honda Accord
For 2009, the widely acclaimed Honda Accord offers three different engine and transmission options -- ranging from two I4 engines that produce 177 and 190 horses to a 271-horsepower V6. While drivers can choose between a five-speed manual or automatic transmission for the I4s, the V6 features a standard seven-speed automatic that leaves critics impressed. Not surprisingly, the Accord's less powerful trims aren't as highly praised, though test drivers still find them adequate for daily commutes. Altogether, auto writers assert that the Accord is both sporty and fun to drive -- especially for a practical midsize car.
Full Size Car: Toyota Avalon
For a large car, the 2009 Avalon provides impressive power and agility -- allowing drivers to pass, merge, and cut corners with ease. Best of all, it boasts the highest fuel economy in its class. Though it's no sports sedan, it does come equipped with a powerful 268-horsepower V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission with manual control. By and large, the Avalon has enough dexterity to meet most people's everyday driving needs.
Sports Car: Honda S2000
Featuring a 237-horsepower I4 engine, one of the best six-speed manual transmissions money can buy, and perfect front/rear weight distribution, the 2009 Honda S2000 handles twists and turns with ease -- making it difficult for even the MX-5 Miata and 350Z to keep pace. However, test drivers warn that its stiff suspension and intrusive engine note make it impractical for daily use. Instead, many suggest that drivers reserve the S2000 for weekend thrill rides on the track, where its masterful engineering can best be appreciated. For hardcore enthusiasts, a track-tuned Club Racer trim is available.
Upscale Car: Infiniti G37
The 2009 G37 garners praise for its ability to serve as both a comfortable cruiser and spirited performer. Available in coupe, sedan, and soon-to-be-available convertible body styles, the G37 comes equipped with a satisfyingly smooth 330-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 engine. Other standout performance features include an all-wheel drivetrain and seven-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. To critics' delight, many report that the G37 handles marvelously, regardless of trim or body style.
Luxury Car: Infiniti M
The 2009 Infiniti M earns praise for its satisfying balance of luxury and performance -- which, thanks to its powerful engine options and sporty handling dynamics, gives high-end cars like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Lexus GS a run for their money. Available with rear-wheel or all-wheel drivetrains, the M35 features a 303-horsepower 3.5 liter V6 engine, while the M45 comes equipped with a 325-horsepower 4.5-liter V8. It's available with either a five-speed or seven-speed automatic transmission. Even so, critics complain of lackluster fuel economy. And, because its suspension is tuned for sporty driving, some test drivers find the M's ride a bit rough. Sports enthusiasts, however, won't mind.
For a pictorial look at these fun-to-drive cars, see our slideshow.