Base Price: $13,675 Hyundai is moving up in the world, gaining more respectability each year and charging more for its cars. The company's Elantra sedan, however, feels less like a part of the successful, growing Hyundai than a part of the old Hyundai--the Hyundai that was a punch-line for so many years. The Elantra is unrefined and unsafe, and its driving dynamics will not excite you unless you think any car is exciting. But you don't have to be a joyless coupon clipper to gravitate toward the Elantra; you just have to be in search of a reasonable deal, as millions of Americans are. The Elantra provides basic transportation with a price tag that is hard to beat, which is why Hyundai sold almost 100,000 Elantras in America in the first three quarters of 2005.
Base Price: $16,785 The Optima sedan comes with underpowered engines and much refinement needed in such areas as steering response. The Optima also has poor residual values and, with its 2.7-liter engine, achieves an average fuel economy of 20 mpg overall *, which is pretty bad for a family sedan.
Price: $19,555 Perhaps the most refined models on this list, the Mazda6 sedans, hatchbacks and wagons are handsome inside and out and fun to drive. The automotive press loves to endorse the Mazda6 because the nameplate offers a less mainstream, more hip, more sporty alternative to the antiseptic Toyota Camry.
Base Price: $13,680 Another basic, small, unsafe sedan with few charms, the Sentra is what you drive to high school, not what you drive to work if you want to get promoted. The Sentra comes with one of the wimpiest engines on the market: a 126-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder.
Base Price: $13,699 There's a reason we don't give Suzuki much coverage in these pages. The company sells three sedans that are just about the same size and have just about the same price: the Aerio ($13,999), the Forenza ($13,699) and the Reno ($13,199)--and the Forenza and Reno have the same disappointing engine specifications (127 hp each). A Nissan or a Toyota will have one such forgettable vehicle in its lineup; what's the point of having three for the same price? Suzuki's slogan for the Forenza is "Have it all." Trust us: this is not as good as cars get.
Base Price: $14,545 We were surprised to find such poor ratings for the Corolla, a car we had thought was in fact one of the market's safest. But the low scores come with caveats. For one thing, since model-year 2004, the Corolla's rear crash-test score has dropped to "poor" from "acceptable," two grades higher. But more importantly, the Corolla on the list is the one tested without optional side airbags. Tested with optional front and rear head curtain airbags and optional front seat-mounted torso airbags, the Corolla's side rating is not "poor," but "acceptable"--the second-highest possible score. We have said it before: Purchasing optional side airbags is probably the single biggest safety enhancement you can buy for your car.