2008 Subaru Legacy -- Tim Stevens, editor in chief
If you live in the Great White North, or anywhere else that'll see you frequently driving in inclement conditions, Subaru's Legacy GT is the choice for you. The GT a lot sportier than the base Legacy, but also much more practical for families than the smaller Impreza. It's also a fair bit more refined.
For your $10,000 you should be able to get yourself a very nicely equipped 2008 model with about 95,000 miles on the clock, a much prettier car than the refreshed model that came in 2010. It features a detuned version of the 2.5-liter flat-four engine that's still found in today's WRX STI.
If you don't mind driving stick, go for the five-speed manual, as it adds a lot of performance to this car -- but you're still only going to see 24 mpg on the highway.
2009 Acura TSX -- Jon Wong, reviews editor
Acura launched a larger and more refined TSX generation for the 2009 model year, powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine generating 201 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque.
Two transmissions were available, a five-speed automatic and a more enthusiast-focused six-speed manual.
NADA says that for a shade under $11,000, you should be able to find a base TSX with a manual transmission and 96,000 miles on the ticker, but we've seen cheaper.
While the standard seven-speaker sound system, Bluetooth and dual-zone automatic climate controls are nice, you can spring for a car with the Technology package that adds navigation, and a 10-speaker ELS premium sound system, but you'll have to be willing to spend a few extra bucks for those additional goodies.
I'm of the mind that sportier cars are generally safer cars, if only because they tend to have stronger handling, brakes and power to avoid accidents in the first place.
By that yardstick, what you want is a 2007 Mazdaspeed 6. It bundles a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder with 274 hp and a whopping 280 pound-feet of torque with a stiffened all-wheel-drive chassis.
Despite appearances, this isn't an all-out driver's car, a plus-size Subaru WRX or a poor man's Audi S4. However, it's still the most entertaining driver's car here.
For under $10,000, you should be able to secure one of these rare beauties with about 100,000 miles. Hunt around, and you could find one with fewer miles and still stick under $10,000, leaving a few shekels with which to slake the MS6's above-average thirst and bag a Bluetooth-equipped aftermarket stereo.
Inside, you'll find a driver-focused cabin with leather-wrapped wheel, Bose audio, keyless entry and...three pedals. If you're interested, you've got to know how to drive a stick. When shopping, make sure you find one with a good clutch, and get the AWD system inspected.
Look hard and you may even find one with navigation, which features the only built-in wireless remote control you'll probably ever see.
The Crown Vic went out of general civilian sale with the 2008 model year, but remained in production until early 2012. That means a clean 2011 will likely have been under professional fleet maintenance or owned by a private owner who really loved the cars and went out of their way to special order one.
Wherever you find one, you'll quickly find out why these cars have a cult following as passionate as that of any car.
These cars need no introduction for their reliability, repairability and great space and comfort. Your BMW-driving friends will stop being seen with you, but next time you give them a lift to the BMW shop to settle a $11,000 repair bill, they may notice your late-model Vickie has a torquey 4.6-liter V8, tight torque converter and good handling thanks to aluminum control arms and rack and pinion steering that all arrived in 2003.
Interior mods worth considering include the "Audiophile" head unit out of a 2006 Mercury Mariner (around $200 on eBay) and a forward dashcam rearview mirror that connects to a rear camera that can be cleanly mounted in the trunk-lock hole. Under the hood, consider the "MZT" mod that installs the free-breathing air intake used in Police Interceptors and Mercury Marauders.
To dial-in the exterior look, add a chin spoiler from a 1999-2004 Mustang GT which bolts on in about an hour and costs under $100. Then scour the junkyards for a set of the optional five-spoke Crown Vic alloys or a set of 2008-2009 Mustang Bullitt wheels that should bolt right up.
The Toyota Camry: both the king of all midsize sedans and the car that made "beige" a four-letter word among automotive enthusiasts. It's great. It's also boring.
But it's no surprise that well over 10 million of them have been sold; the Camry is an affordable workhorse with plenty of room for people and things, its reliability assured in hundreds of thousands of miles. Still, you should look for something with 60- to 80-thousand miles on the odometer.
To hit our target price, you'll be looking for a model powered by the 169-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with the six-speed automatic transmission. Depending on the model year (2009-2012) and mileage, you may be able to haggle a slightly better equipped LE model or a more sport-tuned, 179-horsepower SE model for the budget. Keep in mind that the SE model has slightly less cargo room due to additional suspension bracing and a slightly harsher ride, which may not be desirable in a family car.
Even without options, the base model is reasonably well equipped, with Bluetooth good enough to get you hooked up to a modern phone. Most of the LE model upgrades are cosmetic, but its addition of keyless entry is a welcome convenience get.
However, don't bother splurging on optional tech; Toyota Entune didn't launch until late in this generation's lifetime and will push you over budget. Besides, the tech suite on models older than 2011 is probably outdated by now.
The 2008 Nissan Maxima is a good option for those who want a bit of a sporty feel in their sedan. Under the hood is the same 3.5-liter V6 engine you'll find in the 350Z and the 255 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque should satisfy the lead-footed family members. Those looking for economy will find the efficient continuously variable transmission a plus.
Both the SE and SL models are well-equipped, but look for a Platinum Edition Package which adds features like Bluetooth, a driver memory system for the seat, steering wheel and side mirrors, a heated steering wheel and rear sonar.
You may also want to find a Maxima with the Sensory Package, especially if you like to rock out on the commute.
This package adds satellite radio and an eight-speaker Bose audio system with speed sensitive volume control so you never have to turn up your tunes to cover any wind noise. And for comfort this package comes with leather-trimmed heated front seats. You know what they say: warm butt, warm heart.
One thing to avoid is the SkyView glass roof. Nissan thought it would be a good idea to put a skinny rectangle of glass right smack dab on top of the car. It looks silly, like a toaster slot on the top of your vehicle.
SkyView was standard on all Maximas in 2008, but a traditional power sunroof was optional. Find the smart family that purchased the sunroof option and buy their car.
If you were skeptical about hybrid cars in the past, their current ubiquity on US roads should assuage any fears about reliability. And one solid choice is the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Like its gasoline-engined counterpart, its cabin comfortably seats five and boasts a good amount of trunk room, enough to take the family over to the grandparents' house for a long weekend.
Under the hood, however, you benefit from a four-cylinder gasoline engine aided by an electric drive system. When you hit the gas pedal, the system puts power from both engine and electric motor to the front wheels.
Hit the brakes, and much of the car's kinetic energy gets recycled into electricity, so it can be used to accelerate the car again. Not only does this process result in an average EPA fuel economy rating of 39 mpg, it also takes the strain off of the car's brakes, requiring less frequent replacement.
The 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid has a few other things going for it. The instrument cluster makes use of configurable LCD screens on either side of the speedometer. These screens offer a variety of views for the car's economy and power output, letting you select the one you want.
A navigation system was available on these cars, but probably best to avoid that six-year-old technology in favor of the basic radio, which includes the first version of Ford Sync. That means a very good Bluetooth hands-free phone system and USB audio input, both with voice command that lets you name specific contacts or music titles.
An optioned-up 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid should come in around $10,150, according to NADA. Drop the navigation system and it should come in under $10,000. Although the general warranty on a 2010 model would have expired, Ford offered an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on the car's hybrid components, including the battery and electric drive motor.
My choice should be most folks' first choice for a cheap, reliable family sedan: the Honda Accord. A longtime promiser of reliability, sensibility and economy, the Accord is the perfect blend of cheap thrills when the V6 engine is thrown into the mix.
With 96,000 miles on the odometer, you can pick up a 2008 Honda Accord EX V6 for just a hair over $10,000, according to NADAGuides.
It scores well in NHTSA safety tests, and this was also the first generation where interior volume bumped the Accord's EPA classification up to full-size. Midsize looks with ample interior space? Not a bad deal, if you ask me.