Used cars — $10,000 to $12,000
• 04 Chrysler PT Cruiser. About $10,200, depending. "A look and personality all its own," wrote Cars.com.
• 06 Chevy HHR. With a nod to the PT Cruiser, folks either think these hot rods are beautiful or ugly. You can find one for around $10,000.
• 99 BMW 3-Series. A BMW in this price range? Look for a 99 or 00 model; KBB lists them from $6,200 to $14,000 depending on options. This much is clear. Despite their age, they are built like anvils, and hold up reliably according to the experts.
• 04 Scion XB. The lost love child of a Mini Cooper and a UPS truck, it's posted Toyota-like reliability numbers and is easy on gas (27/32). Right around $12,000.
• 00 Audi A4. Around $10,800. Called a near-luxury sedan by MSN Autos, it's Audi's top-selling model. It's a car that's been redesigned and upgraded three times since 1996.
• A special shout-out to the Honda Insight, the first electric hybrid car sold in America. Rated at 48 mpg city, 59 highway, we have no idea how the batteries hold up in these things, and we don't know where you could find one (AutoTrader, at the time of this writing (Jan 09), had only 26 listed nationally). A 00 model runs about $9500; an 01 about $10,600.
• 06 Nissan Sentra. As About.com said, "Nissan is the Japanese manufacturer that really gets little respect in this country. ... The Sentra is a nice, compact sedan." Around $10,500.
• 03 Volvo S40. According to Consumer Reports, Ford makes the most reliable American cars -- and their partnership with safety-conscious Volvo is one reason why. Around $10,700 depending on options; the second generation of this car, from 05 on, holds its value very well (an 07 can cost $22,600).
Best Used Cars Just Over This List Price
• 03 Nissan 350Z. In 2003, Edmunds called the Nissan 350Z the most significant new car of the year in 03, and said it was a vehicle redefined the term "affordable sports car." You can find an 03 for around $17,000.
• The 02 Subaru Impreza WRX. Seriously. "A rally car tamed for the street," Subaru said, and critics agreed. From a maker of cars known more for reliability than performance, the 227-horsepower, 3,000-pound car could leap from 0-60 in 5.8 seconds. Around $14,000 -- and the consumer reviews at Kelly Blue Book rated this car a 4.8 on a 5-point scale.
• The Acura MDX is a serious midsize luxury crossover SUV, and you can find a 2001 for between $14,000 and $17,000. You can find MDX models dating back to 96, but those were merely rejiggered Isuzu Troopers.
• The 07 Honda Fit. Nearly impossible to find (only 1,500 for sale nationwide at AutoTrader.com at the time of this writing) but incredible roominess (for a small car), gas mileage and value. KBB lists the 07s at $13,800 to $15,100 -- a brand new 08 runs $14,000 to $16,000.
• The 02 or 03 Mini Cooper. "A stylish and detailed coupe that makes other cars seem surprisingly ordinary," said Edmunds. Cheapest we found one was $12,700. It was totally redesigned for 2007, and holds its value as well as any car on the market -- even an 05 can still fetch $23,000 used.