The Rides of Your Life
Whether your family's big or small, young or old, you can find the right cars for your driveway. Right here.
By Lawrence Ulrich

(MONEY Magazine) – Throughout your driving life, choosing the right car always involves three competing factors: the need for a reliable set of wheels; the desire for a vehicle that reflects your evolving financial status; and the expectation that it perform its chief tasks well, whether lugging surfboards or visiting the grandkids two states away. Your life twists and turns, your budget fluctuates and cars change. Matching a vehicle with your situation at any given moment is a challenge.

To help out, we've filled four hypothetical garages with top-rated machines for people at various life stages. As always, we've recommended only models that performed exceptionally well in our test drives and that offer outstanding value for the dollar. For that reason, we've also included a few pre-owned models, since buying used remains the best way to drive more car for less money.

In making our picks we've also been mindful of trends in today's auto market, paying close attention to any factor that could affect the deal whether you're buying or selling. So read on, find the family situation that best matches yours and keep these trends in mind. That way, even if you don't buy one of these exact models, you'll at least go in with as much knowledge as the person on the other side of the bargaining table--if not more.

• NEXT-GENERATION SUVS RULE Between downsized SUV design and high gas prices, sales of full-size SUVs are declining. Buyers are switching to car-based crossover SUVs (as opposed to those built on heavy pickup chassis) that combine roominess and commanding ride height with gains in handling, safety and mileage. Demand for sophisticates like the Toyota RAV4 on page 107 and the Honda Pilot, above, have made crossovers the fastest-growing auto segment in recent years, according to the experts at (a new partner of our website--see The result? Shoppers for traditional SUVs can expect massive rebates but may suffer at resale time. Buyers of top crossovers will see fewer discounts but will enjoy superior residual value.

• SAFETY IS IN Consider safety features that probably weren't around the last time you bought a car. Side air bags, especially ones that protect your head, are increasingly standard, as they are in the Cadillac SRX, above. Electronic stability control (ESC), a computer-operated system that can help prevent spinning and rolling over, is particularly key for SUVs and is becoming standard on more cars and trucks. Vehicles with ESC have proved 35% less likely to be in a single-vehicle crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ESC is available on most of our picks, including the Audi A6, the Cadillac and the BMW 3 Series.

• LONG-TERM LOSERS About 45% of car buyers today take out loans for terms of 60 months or longer, up from 21% five years ago, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Bankers Association. The low monthly payments can be tempting, especially with low-interest-rate offers from car companies, but stretched-out terms are trouble--when you go to get your next car you could end up owing more on your current loan than the trade-in is worth. Dealers refer to this as being upside down. Avoid this debt trap by not taking on a loan that lasts longer than you plan to keep the car.

• USED IS THE NEW NEW Most car companies now offer certified preowned (CPO) programs. That sounds like marketing jargon, which may be the reason these programs haven't caught fire--a recent study by J.D. Power & Associates revealed that while 38% of recent-model used-car buyers bought certified, most did so because the model they wanted was on the lot, not because it was certified. To decide if CPO is worth it, compare prices of certified and uncertified models and consider how much you're willing to pay for peace of mind: A CPO car can cost $500 to $5,000 more than an uncertified used car, but in return you get a significant warranty extension (usually to 100,000 miles), a young car and a full professional inspection. A fairly new car at a depreciated price? With a warranty? Sounds like a sweet deal wherever you happen to be in life.