By Rick Newman, U.S. News & World Report
Auto buffs love to rave about burled walnut, custom rims, and V-12 engines, but most car buyers just want a pleasant car at a good price. Especially now. With the housing-boom excesses dragging down the economy and a possible recession looming, extravagance is out. Like investors fleeing exotic securities for the safety of gold or T-bills, it's time for car shoppers to make safe, practical purchases that will hold up through tough times, if necessary.
So we've scoured our data on hundreds of models and highlighted the cars that offer the best mix of value, performance, and curb appeal. These aren't necessarily the cheapest cars or the most priggish gas misers-standard-issue econoboxes tend to lose their value quickly, plus they're usually dull and joyless. Instead, we've included cars that offer lots of conveniences and safety features for the money, get decent mileage, handle well, and score above average in the U.S. News Best Cars and Trucks rankings. Those scores account for important factors like expected resale value and the long-term costs of maintenance and repairs-things that can affect your wallet directly down the road.
Some cheap cars made our list, like the Kia Rio (base price: $10,890), Honda Fit ($14,750), and Hyundai Elantra ($13,895). Those choices tend to be spartan, but they come with a good set of standard safety gear and can be outfitted with options that make them quite comfortable-even fun.
We've also included lots of other vehicles for car buyers who have kids to cart around, or need extra cargo space for hauling, or want something luxurious that won't cost a fortune. Our top midsized SUVs, for instance, are the Honda Pilot ($27,595) and Nissan Murano ($27,750), both notable for a generous set of standard features and smooth, carlike handling.
The Dodge Charger ($21,675) and Chevrolet Impala ($21,310) are spacious large sedans with good reliability and modest price tags. And the thriftiest (ahem) near-luxury car is the BMW 3-Series ($35,300), one of the highest-ranked cars in our entire database. It's the most expensive car among the Thrifty 50, but it also holds its value extraordinarily well-so what the heck, let's call it a bargain.