Hot Cars for Lean Times

Ten smart buys when there's economic uncertainty.

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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
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  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.