Top Values, Srarting With the $7,000-$10,000 Range
Our favorite trick for researching used cars is to get on the Internet and look up award-winning cars from a few years ago (because by now they'll have dropped in price). Some of the still-good cars from these lists (and still in our price range) include something big (04 Ford Crown Victoria), something sporty (03 Mazda Miata), the best-selling pickup truck in America (04 Ford F-150) and even a minivan (02 Honda Odyssey).
We also recommend researching platform cars, as the Saturn Aura will be cheaper than the nearly identical Chevy Malibu, the Volkswagen Touareg far cheaper than the nearly-the-same Porsche Cayenne. Places such as MSN Autos routinely note which cars are built off the same platforms (Optima/Rondo), and such information can be quite useful.
And finally, Consumer Reports keeps a Web page up called Best car deals right now. Absolutely invaluable.
In terms of new cars, it's a fight among subcompacts (Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, Chevy Aveo and Kia Rio) for the cheapest-car title, but all the manufacturers have entry-level cars that are good on gas and relatively cheap, as in the Toyota Yaris, Mazda 3 and Honda Fit. A new car that gets you 10 mpg more than your current ride will generate $45 a month in gas savings, so keep that in mind.
Auto writers and critics are very high on the quality and reliability improvements by Ford and Chevy, so have no fear shopping American. Have to say, however, that our final plug on new car bargains is the SX4 from Suzuki. It's the only all-wheel drive vehicle on the market for under $18,000.