's Six Best Bang-For-The-Buck Cars

October 28, 2008
2009 Chevrolet Malibu LS w/1LS

2009 Chevrolet Malibu LS w/1LS

The stock market's jittery, banks are closing and the smell of recession is in the air. Is anyone worried about new cars?

The answer is yes. Regardless of the tattered condition of Wall Street and some big has-beens in the money world, the real world still is turning--and that means people are still shopping for cars. There may be fewer buyers, but automakers from all corners of the world are eager to let Americans know that the showrooms are still open, and credit is still available for those who would be a good risk.

The tumult in the economy has made some striking changes in the new-car market, though. There's not much room for frivolous purchases in times like these. Any new car has to do it all: It needs to be relatively inexpensive, it should have plenty of room, plenty of power, leading fuel economy and good looks, too. Above all, it should have all the safety gear buyers expect--and the kind of features across the board that make even base models a satisfying purchase.

As it turns out, cars and trucks and crossovers that fit the bill aren't difficult to find.'s car experts think these six cars will give car buyers the most bang for your buck--and make the most sense for drivers who have to buy now:

SEDANS: Chevrolet Malibu

- Smooth responsive engines and transmissions
- Good fuel efficiency from four-cylinder models
- Surprisingly elegant interior styling and materials
- Relaxed on the highway, with good roadholding
- Feels different than follow-the-crowd competitors

- Doesn’t feel very sporty
- No Bluetooth hands-free interface
- No screen-based nav system

New in 2008, the Chevrolet Malibu proves that GM can field a competitor for the best from Honda and Toyota, and do it with superior style and even better interior room. The Malibu comes in four- and six-cylinder form, with automatic transmissions, all the safety gear you expect, lots of cabin space and great looks. At just over $21,000, the Malibu offers 30-mpg highway mileage--or in a new four-cylinder LTZ version with a six-speed automatic, 32 mpg.

Other Choices: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry

MINIVAN: Dodge Grand Caravan

- The ultimate in family practicality
- Kids will love satellite TV
- Two DVD screens available
- Lots of storage
- V-6 engines with six-speed automatics

- Chunky styling
- Plasticky interior
- Lack of polish

2009 Dodge Grand Caravan SE

2009 Dodge Grand Caravan SE

Chrysler invented the minivan 25 years ago, and in the interim it's polished and padded its trademark vehicle with big V-6 power and all sorts of flexible seating arrangements, not to mention a class-leading set of features. The new Dodge Grand Caravan may have some iffy interior plastics, and reliability is no better than average, but this minivan delivers unparalleled entertainment features for your family, including in-car satellite TV and a hard-drive music player. The Grand Caravan's optional Stow 'N Go seating sets the standard, too, for fold-away utility--all the seats aft of the front buckets can be tucked away to create a flat load floor. If Chrysler's current condition worries you, know that Volkswagen's new Routan is essentially the same vehicle with a revised look and an upgraded interior, while Hyundai's Entourage offers an inexpensive, roomy alternative to the Detroit minivans, as does its twin, the Kia Sedona.

Other Choices: Volkswagen Routan, Hyundai Entourage

GREEN: Toyota Prius

- Fuel economy
- Roomy cabin
- Hatchback utility

- Digital gauges
- Price premium
- Steering feel
- Midgrade interior materials

2009 Toyota Prius

2009 Toyota Prius

The Toyota Prius has done nothing less than convince the American public that hybrid cars are a good thing. It's in its second generation--and next year, a third version is in the works--but today's Prius blends 48-mpg fuel economy with a roomy package that's usefully sized to carry four adults, or with the rear seats folded, more gear than you imagine. The space-age dash takes a little getting used to, as does the Prius' somewhat artificial steering and braking feel. The Prius won't win any awards for a luxurious interior, either. At $23,375, it's changed forever the notion of what a family car should be. As an alternative to this highly alternative vehicle, Honda's Civic Hybrid takes a more conventional approach to its body style, but offers similar fuel-economy ratings.

Other Choices: Honda Civic Hybrid

PICKUPS: Nissan Frontier

- Rugged styling
- V-6 performance
- Four-door version’s flexibility
- High towing capacity

- Longest bed is six feet
- Interior trim is mid-grade

2009 Nissan Frontier XE

2009 Nissan Frontier XE

For those who still rely on pickup trucks for their daily bread, Nissan's Frontier is strong and flexible enough to cover many of the tasks that often get punted into the full-size category. Instead of full-size gas mileage, the Frontier offers a frugal four-cylinder version, a choice of body styles, a reasonably long bed and an optional V-6, not to mention automatic or manual transmissions. It's do-it-yourself attitude to the extreme--right down to the spray-in bedliner and the hooks and cargo holds that make its mid-size bed more useful. For those who worry about it, the Frontier's built in Tennessee, too.

Other Choices: If a full-size truck is a must, the new 2009 Dodge Ram and Ford F-150 are equals to Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra.

SUVs/WAGONS: Subaru Forester

- Improved styling
- Reduced interior noise
- All-wheel drive
- Carlike handling

- Still not a great-looking machine
- No manual gearbox on turbo models
- Only four speeds on automatic
- Lots of silver plastic in the cabin

2009 Subaru Forester

2009 Subaru Forester

Sport-utility vehicles and newfangled car-based crossovers are meant to haul people and cargo in a more stylish way than minivans. The excess of the SUV fad--think HUMMER and Escalade and Navigator and Excursion--has been neatly balanced all along by the Subaru Forester, a plucky four-cylinder wagon with a tall roof and an option for turbo power. The Forester makes all-wheel drive standard, which makes it a favorite in the Rocky Mountain states and the snowy Northeast--but buyers across the country can appreciate its 26-mpg highway fuel economy and sub-$20,000 base price. Motor Trend picked up on the smaller-is-better trend by naming the Forester its 2009 SUV of the year; anyone who's spent $100 on a fill-up can see why. Along the same lines, Honda's CR-V has more controversial styling and is a touch slower, but has an enviable repair record.

Other Choices: Honda CR-V

TWO-DOORS: Volkswagen GTI

- Solid build quality
- Rich interior materials
- Torquey acceleration
- Great driving dynamics
- Nice detailing

- Bland exterior
- Not great economy
- Modest passenger and cargo room
- GTI and R32 aren’t performance kings
- GTI and R32 are pricey

2009 Volkswagen GTI

2009 Volkswagen GTI

There's little balm for the financial turmoil hitting the country, but for the few buyers who can afford a little indulgence, some two-doors with tons of personality and baked-in driving fun can also provide good fuel economy and a good measure of practicality, too. Tops among them is the Volkswagen GTI, one of the best-handling cars in its class, and one with an enthusiast's dream of a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. With more than 200 horsepower on tap through an available dual-clutch transmission, the GTI has superb driving feel and response, while turning in 29 miles per gallon on the highway--all for less than $23,000. The squared-off tail gives it a step up on its two-door competitors for occasional cargo needs. Ford's Mustang is a perennial winner among two-doors, with a more economical V-6 option, while Volvo's C30 is a slow seller with great dynamics and a useful hatchback style.

Other Choices: Ford Mustang, Volvo C30


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