Side Exterior View - 2010 Chevrolet Malibu 4-door Sedan LTZEnlarge Photo
2010 Chevy Malibu
It's not like Chevy is a little-known brand. But what might not be so well known is the considerable improvement in the marque's overall quality in the past couple of years. The 2010 Chevy Malibu is a strong contender in the midsize sedan category thanks to its stylish design, surprisingly good fit-and-finish and a combination of powerful and efficient engine choices. Exterior lines are clean and simple, indicating that GM seems to have left behind the cheap-looking moldings and body pieces of its 1990s Pontiac days. Inside, controls are nicely laid-out, although the look and feel of certain buttons and plastic still don't scream luxury. Trunk space is plentiful for luggage and cargo. The 2010 Malibu is available with two engines: a 4-cylinder that offers efficiency and a V6 that provides ample power. Fuel economy is further aided by a 6-speed automatic transmission (available on all trims except the base). Performance-wise, the 2010 Chevy Malibu finds a good middle ground between comfort and sportiness, although a large turning circle can make the car feel somewhat clumsy when maneuvering tight spots. And while it might not be the sportiest choice on this list, the 2010 Malibu runs on regular unleaded fuel, which saves even money at the pump.
Angular Front Exterior View - 2010 Subaru Impreza WRX 4-door ManEnlarge Photo
While the base 2010 Subaru Impreza isn't what we'd call a jaw-dropping performer, the WRX model packs way more oomph when it comes to performance and handling. But performance does come at a price--rear legroom is less plentiful than the other models mentioned here, as is cargo space. The WRX is classified as a compact sedan, so don't expect it to compete in size and roominess with midsize sedans at this price. But for responsive steering, a peppy turbo-charged powertrain, and grippy all-wheel-drive, the WRX is a great choice for families who want four-door convenience with a sportscar feel. While not as rally-ready as its more expensive STI sibling, the WRX has a specially tuned version of the Impreza's 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder boxer (also called "flat-4") engine that pumps out 265 horsepower and 244 lb-ft of torque. Those who don't drive stick are out of luck, though, as the 2010 Subaru Impreza WRX only comes with five-speed manual transmission (but some enthusiasts still swear that automatics don't belong on sport-inspired vehicles anyway).
2010 Volkswagen PassatEnlarge Photo
Typically the Volkswagen Passat is recommended to those who want the look and features of a luxury car without such a high price tag. The Passat's size and ride quality in some ways split the difference between the above-mentioned models; it's comfortable and simultaneously sporty. You won't feel like you're driving a tank, yet there's adequate space for both passengers and cargo. The interior of the 2010 Volkswagen Passat is often lauded for being one of the best in its class. Many premium features come standard, such as a a sunroof, heated seats, a power driver's seat, Bluetooth and an audio system with a six-CD changer and satellite radio. The 2010 Volkswagen Passat is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. An addition for this year is Volkswagen's DSG, a six-speed, dual-clutch automated manual (the only transmission choice). The DSG behaves likes an automatic in that the driver doesn't have to row through gears, but the dual-clutch system allows for blink-of-an-eye shifting that's even faster than a manual.