With a housing bust, a slowing economy, and maybe even a recession around the corner, consumers are eyeing expenses more carefully, especially when it comes to big purchases like cars. For many shoppers, the strongest instinct is to simply put off a purchase until the clouds pass.
Stowing your checkbook may be prudent, but most people still need reliable transportation, and aging cars need to be replaced. And what if there's no recession after all, and the economy brightens? Should you drive your old clunker indefinitely, waiting until you're sure it's safe to upgrade? Or buy a joyless econobox just because the unemployment rate might go up?
Here's a better idea: Choose a car that's relatively light on the wallet today, with strong value that will hold up over the long term, in case times turn tough and you have to rein in your lifestyle. We've plumbed U.S. News's extensive database of automotive information to come up with 10 cars that are appealing in good times, and even smarter buys when there's economic uncertainty.
Buying the cheapest car that suits your needs usually isn't a good idea—if it's supercheap now, it will be worth far less later, when you want to sell. And some cars are cheap because of subpar quality, which means you might face expensive repairs down the road.
So instead of simply gauging the lowest prices, we took into account many other factors that make a car a smart buy. We started with the cars that rank in the top half of the U.S. News Best Cars and Trucks rankings, to assure the quality of our choices. Then we selected models with above-average affordability, reliability, and fuel economy—attributes that affect your out-of-pocket costs both today and tomorrow. We made sure to include cars for a wide range of needs and budgets, from subcompacts to SUVs to big sedans. And of course we included a couple of sports cars, too—hey, we're still allowed to have fun while we're cutting back, right?
Hot Cars for Lean Times
|Car||Type||MSRP||Mileage (city/hwy)||Strong Points||Weak Points|
|Ford Escape||Midsize SUV||$18,770||17/24||Muscular styling, spacious, rugged||Stale driving dynamics|
|Kia Rio5||Hatchback||$13,540||25/35||Six airbags, strong warranty, great mileage||Bare-bones standard features|
|Chrysler 300||Large Sedan||$25,270||15/26||Dramatic styling, tons of space||Lethargic base engine, some cheap materials|
|Nissan Altima||Midsize Sedan||$20,705||19/32||Sleek and sporty, good engine choices||Cramped back seat, complicated options|
|Hyundai Santa Fe||Midsize SUV||$20,995||17/24||Top safety ratings, interior design, good warranty||Power, handling and braking weaker than average|
|Toyota Yaris||Sedan/Hatchback||$11,960||29/36||Cute design, decent space||Spartan features, poor safety ratings without side-curtain air bags|
|Mazda MX-5-Miata||Sports car||$21,220||20/28||Great handling, convertible roof easy to manage||Weak stereo, cramped space|
|Honda Odyssey||Minivan||$26,495||16/23||Great engine, versatility, strong safety performance||Bland styling|
|Audi A4||Upscale Sedan||$29,675||18/30||Great handling, refined cabin||Expensive option packages|
|Volkswagen GTI||Upscale Hatchback||$23,370||21/29||Great performance, thoughtful cabin||Styling could be sportier, ride may be rough for some|