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For bad credit history customers, this price range is a sweet spot for dealers and lenders.

Top used cars — $4,000 to $6,000

• Mazda Miata. Consistently lands on list after list of top used cars. Reliable, sporty and fun. A 94 to 96 will land in this price range.

• Suzuki Aerio. A compact sedan with a bigger engine, better warranty and lower price tag than others in its class. Above average reliability according to MSN, and even available in all-wheel drive. You can find an 02 for $5,300 or so; an 07 can be had for a little over $11,000.

• 98 Honda Civic. No list of best-bet used car is complete without a Civic or an Accord from Honda. We plunked the 98 Civic in here. Around $5,500 -- and good gas mileage to boot (27/34)

• 95 Toyota Camry / 97 Toyota Corolla. No list of best-bet used cars is complete without these two dependability stalwarts either. (In fact, including the two Hondas above, these four cars hold their value as well as any vehicle on the market.) According to Kelley Blue Book, both of these Toyotas can be found for around $4,900.

• 93 Volvo 240. The Yuppie standard, the safety tank, the box that just keeps on rolling. Not cheap to fix when something breaks, but a car known for things not breaking; you can find a 93 in the $4,900 range -- which says a lot about a 15-year-old vehicle.

What just missed this list:

• The Chevy Prizm. According to About.com, this is "an absolute sleeper of a car. It's basically a Tooyta Corolla sold as a Chevy." (Today, the most common Toyota/GM shared car is the Toyota Matrix / Pontiac Vibe). The 98 and 02 models have held up well in reliability, according to Consumer Reports and MSN, and fuel efficiency comes in at 27/37. You can find a 98 for around $5,000; an 02, according to KBB, will run between $6,600 and $7,400.

Other Price Ranges:

    $4,000 to $6,000
    $6,000 to $8,000
    $8,000 to $10,000
    $10,000 to $12,000

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Negotiate total price first.
The most common advice from auto finance experts is to negotiate on a final price, and not get sidetracked by thinking in terms of a monthly payment. Any monthly payment can be made to fit your budget if the loan terms are stretched out long enough.