Best Cars 2008: The Thrifty 50

With talk of recession in the air, it's time to pick vehicles that are top values.

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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.

The Thrifty 50

Model Base MSRP Mileage (city/highway) Strong Points Weak Points
ECONOMY CARS
Honda Fit $13,950 28/34 Versatile seating; good standard features; fun to drive Subpar seat comfort and support
Kia Rio $10,890 27/32 Six air bags; good gas mileage; perky engine Spartan interior; spotty crash-test results
Toyota Yaris $11,300 29/36 Cute design; decent storage; spacious front seats Slushy pickup; poor crash-test results without optional curtain air bags
Hyundai Accent $10,775 27/32 Good entry-level value; strong set of safety features; long warranty Weak acceleration; dull design; cramped rear seat
Nissan Versa $12,630 26/31 Seats five comfortably; decent cargo space; cool six-speed manual Wimpy engine; noisy; worse mileage than competitors
Honda Civic $15,010 26/34 Stable, comfortable, and quiet ride; chipper interior; good handling Minimal storage space
Hyundai Elantra $13,525 24/33 Fun to drive; comfy seats; lots of safety features; strong crash-test results Iffy handling; tricky manual transmission; bland interior
Mazda3 $13,895 24/32 Peppy pickup; sporty handling; bold design Cramped interior; weak crash-test results without curtain air bags
Saturn Ion $12,300 23/32 Better power than some competitors; dent-resistant polymer body Bland interior with low-quality materials
MIDSIZE CARS
Nissan Altima $18,230 23/32 Sporty; good 4- and 6-cylinder engines; stylish interior Antilock brakes not standard; cramped back seat; complex options
Mazda6 $18,990 21/29 Sporty, zippy acceleration; good handling Cramped interior compared with competitors
Hyundai Sonata $17,670 21/31 Spacious; good standard features and safety features; long warranty Spongy handling; weak base engine; generic design
Honda Accord $20,360 22/31 Roomy; stylish; superb engine choices Limited trunk space; no folding rear seat
Chevrolet Malibu $19,345 22/30 Bold, sporty styling; spacious rear seat; tasteful interior Outdated 4-speed transmission
Kia Optima $16,995 21/31 Good mileage; spacious; cheaper than competitors Sluggish on highway; key safety features optional instead of standard
Ford Fusion $17,770 20/29 Pleasant Euro-handling; classy interior; large trunk Fine-print instrumentation; no standout qualities
Saturn Aura $19,745 22/30 Pleasant road manners; good power for the price Plasticky interior parts
LARGE CARS
Hyundai Azera $24,535 18/26 Luxury feel; loads of features; good engine choices Squishy handling; no navigation or Bluetooth options; not a Bimmer
Dodge Charger $21,675 18/26 Bossy styling; spacious cabin; decent handling Weak base engine; some cheap materials; poor rear visibility
Chevrolet Impala $21,310 18/29 Can seat six; thoughtful interior; good engine options Blasé design; ho-hum handling; old 4-speed transmission
Chrysler 300-Series $24,595 15/22 Vast interior; dramatic styling; tasteful interior Lethargic base engine; some key safety features not standard
UPSCALE CARS
Audi A4 $28,900 20/31 Great handling and acceleration; classy cabin Gets pricey with options; requires premium fuel
Lexus ES $33,720 19/27 Quiet ride; luxurious cabin; top safety features Bland styling; uninspiring handling
BMW 3-Series $32,400 18/28 World-class performance; great safety features Complex electronics; gets very pricey with options
SPORTY CARS
Mazda MX-5 Miata $20,585 22/27 Primo handling; easy-to-manage convertible roof; high fun-per-dollar ratio Cramped (duh); weak base stereo
Hyundai Tiburon $16,875 20/28 Good power and handling; sleek design; good value Small rear seats; key safety features not standard
Volkswagen GTI $22,730 21/29 Powerful; great handling; strong standard features; convenient hatchback Economy-car design; requires premium fuel
WAGONS
Toyota Matrix $15,510 26/33 Versatile seating; good mileage; higher seating than other wagons Noisy engine; inscrutable gauges
Kia Rio5 $12,915 27/32 Six air bags; good mileage; funky design Spartan interior; options quickly inflate price
Scion xB $15,650 22/28 Good safety features; spacious cabin; cheap, oddball design Noisy, underpowered engine; oddball design
Subaru Outback $21,995 19/26 Powerful engines; right height; smooth carlike handling Tight rear seat
Volkswagen Passat-Wagon $25,115 21/29 Fun to drive; friendly cabin; strong safety features Pricier than competitors; spongy brakes; spotty reliability history
COMPACT SUVs
Ford Escape $18,770 22/28 Muscular styling; quiet interior; comfortable seats Stale driving dynamics
Honda CR-V $20,700 20/27 Lots of space and storage; sleek design; smooth ride Lacks third-row seat option; no V-6 available
Hyundai Tucson $16,995 20/25 Cheaper than CR-V or RAV4; decent features; long warranty Sluggish engine; cheap materials; road noise
Jeep Patriot $15,475 23/28 Boxy Jeep styling; versatile and roomy interior; simple controls Cheap interior materials; uncomfortable rear seat
Toyota RAV4 $21,100 21/27 Great handling; feisty 4-cylinder engine; optional (if cramped) third row Hinged rear door can be awkward; no navigation option
Honda Element $18,980 20/25 Cargo space; easy-to-clean interior; low ownership costs Awkward "suicide" doors in rear; uncomfortable rear seats
Kia Sportage $16,050 19/25 Sound handling; stylish, classy interior; roomier than most small SUVs Weak base engine
MIDSIZE SUVs
Hyundai Santa Fe $20,945 17/24 Good standard features; strong crash-test results; long warranty Subpar handling and braking
Toyota FJ-Cruiser $22,545 16/20 Cool retro design; real off-road capability; decent ride on pavement Big blind spots; awkward rear "suicide" doors; marginal gas mileage
Mazda CX-7 $23,750 17/23 Sporty, carlike handling; quick engine; aggressive styling Cramped rear seat; sleek design compromises cargo space and visibility
Nissan Murano $27,750 18/23 Smooth handling; modern styling; strong engine with good mileage Sleek design cuts into cargo space
Ford Edge $25,330 16/24 Quick acceleration and smooth ride; intuitive controls; roomy Gets expensive with options; no third row available
Honda Pilot $28,395 16/22 Loaded with standard features; spacious; carlike ride Bland design; mediocre fuel economy
Saturn Outlook $27,820 16/24 Strong engine with decent mileage; spacious; third row; nimble handling Clunky transmission
Toyota Highlander $27,300 18/24 Versatile seating; third row; good standard safety features Soft handling; little cargo room with all seats in use
MINIVANS
Chrysler Town & Country $22,460 17/24 Smooth ride; buslike interior space; numerous seating configurations Sluggish base engine; nerdy square styling
Kia Sedona $20,695 16/23 Generous standard features; strong safety ratings; long warranty Middling cabin; no navigation system available
Honda Odyssey $25,860 16/23 Great handling for a minivan; versatile seating; can fit eight passengers Bland styling; it's a minivan
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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.