The numbers don't look good. November car sales were down 30 percent from last year. While shoppers are used to doom and gloom sales numbers coming out of Detroit, the declines are now industry-wide, with Honda posting a 32 percent decline, Toyota sales dropping 34 percent, and even venerable Porsche reporting a nearly 50 percent drop in sales.

In Pictures: 2009 Best Cars for the Money

While these numbers obviously spell trouble for automakers, what they mean for car shoppers isn't immediately clear. The credit crisis has continued for months and with belt-tightening becoming the new American pastime, car shoppers are finding themselves adrift in a sea of bad industry news, rising new car incentives, and little advice for consumers.

That's where this year's U.S. News Best Car for the Money awards come in. Car shoppers face an uncertain economy and a shrinking ability to borrow. The key to surviving the current marketplace is to stretch your dollars as far as they'll go -- but that doesn't mean flocking to the biggest incentives. It means focusing on cars that are proven winners and offer a great value over the entire life of the car.

The Awards

The Best Car for the Money awards use data from U.S. News' online automotive rankings (at www.rankingsandreviews.com) to find cars that are among the best in their class. The rankings are based on the collective opinion of the automotive press, which helps to eliminate subjectivity and elevate expert opinion about each car. The awards also take initial price into account, but more importantly, they incorporate the five-year total cost of owning the car. Using data from IntelliChoice, an industry leader in determining new car values and ownership costs, the awards include how much buyers can expect to spend on maintenance and fuel, as well as how much of a hit they'll take from the car's depreciation. As a result, the awards tell you which cars are the best for your money over the long haul. Read more on the awards methodology.

The Winners

Across 14 new car classes, the clear winner is Toyota. Five Toyotas won Best Car for the Money in their classes, with Lexus, Toyota's luxury marquee, pulling in another three. Chevrolet and Mazda each claim two awards and Honda and Korean upstart Hyundai each claim one. Five of the award winners are even available as hybrids - most of which are also great values.

Despite ranging in size from the tiny Honda Fit to the hulking Chevrolet Tahoe, the winners have a lot in common. They share a high level of build quality that makes for worry-free and low-cost ownership. One of the reasons Toyota models take so many of the awards is because of their bulletproof quality. That not only lowers the cost of maintaining Toyotas -- it means that they retain value better than most other cars.

The winners have something else in common: they are favorites in the automotive press. Not because they tear up drag strips or star in music videos, but because they are extremely livable. Each winner occupies an automotive sweet spot that makes it an attractive choice for the vast majority of car shoppers. Take the Lexus ES, the Best Upscale Car for the Money: it doesn't drive as sharp as the BMW 3-Series and doesn't look as sharp as the Mercedes Benz C-Class, but taken as a total package, it's very comfortable to drive and easy to live with on a daily basis -- not to mention easier on your wallet.

Some winners, like the Mazda5, the Best Compact Crossover for the Money, take the best of what class leaders like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V have to offer, but pack in an appealing lower price. The case of the Hyundai Elantra, the Best Compact Car for the Money, proves what many have been saying for years: Honda and Toyota should watch their backs because Hyundai is making not just economical cars, but very good ones.

Time to Buy

It's a confusing time to be shopping for a new car. While there are some incredible deals to be had, many of those incentives are for cars that don't offer a lot of value in the long term. Worse, a car with thousands of dollars in cash-back offers may be tough to drive, and laden with features you don't need.

In Pictures: 2009 Best Cars for the Money

The U.S. News Best Car for the Money awards cut through fog surrounding the auto industry to point out the cars that combine value with day-to-day livability. As scary as it is to part with thousands of dollars in this economy, by sticking with the cars that offer maximum satisfaction at a minimal cost, your money will go further and your driving will be happier. And, who knows? Happy new car buyers may be just the stimulus this economy needs.


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