The art and science of buying a good, solid used car and letting the first owner take the big hit on price and depreciation gets easier each year. That's because cars are getting better, have more sought-after features and last longer. We've put together a list of cars, trucks and SUVs from 2005 -- vehicles now coming off lease and being traded in -- that we think are really good values in terms of what you get for your money, and the vehicle's general reputation.

All of the suggested retail prices here are provided by Kelley Blue Book. All the prices listed reflect a car with 35,000 miles, rated in excellent condition using the KBB Retail designation and all reflect pricing in the same central geographic area using 63112 ZIP code. Nothing here is low-volume, exotic or hard to find, all of which would bump prices too high for consideration.

Compact Cars:

Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus

A great value in a small package is the Honda Civic EX, with its peppy, smooth 1.7-liter engine and 5-speed manual transmission, retail priced at $16,735 by Kelley Blue Book. The EX is the top model version of the Civic, and carries more standard equipment than the others (Civic LX and Civic DX), a strategy we've followed throughout our search, selecting only mid- or top level models based on content for the dollar. A close second for our money would be the Toyota Corolla LE 1.8-liter four-door sedan, which we found at a suggested retail price of $14,635. A plentiful, solid choice in a domestic small car would be the Ford Focus SE 2.0-liter, selling for around $10,960.

Midsize Sedans:

Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevy Impala

There must be something right for the American buying public with the Toyota Camry, or they wouldn't be selling at a rate of 425,000 or more cars every year. That's part of what makes the Camry so attractive: there are so many of them on the used-car market that the supply exceeds the demand. Opt for the SE version and you get a smooth 2.4-liter four and lots of standard equipment for a price of $18,305, according to KBB. Another excellent choice based on style, performance and price would be the Honda Accord EX 2.4-liter at $19,670 or even a Chevrolet Impala LS with the well-developed 3.8-liter V6 for $15,465.

Entry-Level Luxury Cars:

Lincoln LS, Cadillac CTS, Acura TL

If we were looking in the vast entry-level luxury market segment, we'd certainly try to find a clean Lincoln LS, with the Euro-look LSE body-color package, a 3.9-liter V8 engine, 5-speed automatic, taut European handling, and clean good looks, not to mention a boatload of standard luxury accoutrements, for around $24,000. Our choice for a good domestic competitor in the class would be the Cadillac CTS 3.6 V6 automatic at $23,440. For a premium price, you could look into an Acura TL 3.2 V6 manual for $28,000, slicker and better looking than a BMW 3-Series.

Full-Size Sedans:

Mercury Grand Marquis, Ford Five Hundred, Toyota Avalon

There are really only three players in this part of the market, and we think the Mercury Grand Marquis LS, with rear drive, a 4.6-liter V8 engine, and lots of interior space is a bargain at a KBB retail price of $16,080. For something even roomier and more modern, think about a Ford Five Hundred SEL AWD with a 3.0-liter V6 and automatic transmission, for around $18,390. Or, consider a roomy front-drive Toyota Avalon XLS 3.5 V6 at $25,240, pricy, but practically guaranteed to stay out of the shop.

Luxury Cars:

Lincoln Town Car, Cadillac STS, Mercedes-Benz E320

On the lowest tier of the luxury car market, cars that sold new for about $50,000 with options, there's quite a breadth of choice. Don't overlook the Lincoln Town Car Signature Limited, loaded with luxury gear, a 4.6-liter V8 and 4-speed automatic for around $25,840 retail in excellent condition. Its perennial rival, the front-drive Cadillac STS, comes with a Northstar 4.6-liter V8 engine, big sound system, navigation, and a lot of luxury extras for a bigger ticket, at about $33,100. A great value for those looking for a long-term relationship would be the Mercedes-Benz E320 with the 3.2-liter V6 engine and the excellent 4Matic computer-controlled all-wheel-drive system, retailing at $35,740.


Ford Mustang, Mazda Miata, Chrysler PT Cruiser

Rental car companies all over the warm-weather regions favor the Ford Mustang convertible with its standard 4.0-liter V6 engine and 5-speed automatic. In this category, so do we and we found them listed at about $19,755 retail for a 2005 model with 35,000 miles. If you need a soft-top with only two seats, we'd recommend the evergreen Mazda Miata LS with the 1.8-liter four and 6-speed manual, selling for around $18,860. A true four-seat convertible alternative would be the Chrysler PT Cruiser GT Turbo with its 2.4-liter turbocharged engine, going off the lots at the bargain price of $17,770 retail.


Ford Taurus, Mercury Sable, Subaru Legacy

While the station wagon body style may be outré in America in favor of the new generation of crossovers, wagons are a solid, low-riding alternative to the taller, chunkier crossovers. Our pick would be the high-volume Ford Taurus in the upper SEL trim level with the veteran 3.0-liter Duratec 24-valve V6 engine, priced by KBB at $14,350 retail. Its near-twin, the Mercury Sable LS with that same 3.0-liter V6 is only slightly more at $14,630. For off-road or bad weather use, we'd suggest looking at a Subaru Legacy Limited 2.5i AWD, selling these days for about $19,540.

Pickup Trucks:

Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado, Dodge Dakota

Although there are thousands of variations in load capacity, cab styles, bed length, engine choices and two- or four-wheel drive, we looked around for basic pickup bargains and found a Ford F-150 Super Cab in XLT trim with a 6-1/2-foot bed and the 4.6-liter V8 engine for a KBB price of $19,275. A very similar Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LT extended cab long bed with a 5.3-liter V8 can be had for around $19,240. The Dodge Dakota SLT Club Cab is a smaller truck, but you can get one with a stout 4.7-liter V8 engine for thousands less, at KBB retail of $16,085, if you don’t need to haul as much stuff as you can in a full-size American pickup.

Mid-Size SUVs:

Ford Explorer, Chevy Tahoe, Toyota Highlander

The Ford Explorer started and pretty much owned this segment for years, with its trim good looks, huge interior space and flexible seating. We looked up an XLT with the vastly improved 4.0-liter V6 engine and came out with a retail price of only $18,615 for a 35,000-miler. The tougher-looking Chevrolet Tahoe LT mid-grade model is selling for around $25,145 with the 5.3-liter V8 engine and a solid package of standard equipment. The less sporty-looking but equally rugged and roomy Toyota Highlander 4WD with a dependable 3.3 V6 is going for about $22,600 at retail on used-car lots.

Of course, you're free to make up your own shopping list from the vast quantity of used vehicles out there in every segment and category, but try to keep dollar value, equipment, and the manufacturer's and the vehicle's quality reputation foremost in all your deliberations.

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