By Greg Melville
It doesn’t matter how much you pimp the family minivan: It will never be a date magnet. But now that you’re earning a steady paycheck, you’re ready to buy your own -- hopefully racier -- set of wheels. Ideally, you’ll find something sporty that won’t freak your parents out about safety or economy -- a task that’s easier today than ever.
“Almost all cars are coming with high safety ratings now, and they’ve never been more reliable,” says Armaan Almeida, automotive editor for Cars Direct, an auto research, rating and buying site. “That’s why manufacturers are starting to give such stout warranties.”
So don’t feel guilty about giving in to your driving id with these new and upcoming rides. Almeida helped recommend them for their top-of-class handling, safety and ease of repair when those inevitable dings appear. And they look a lot better at the curb on Saturday night than that old minivan.
2010 Chevy Camaro Coupe: $23,040
Yes, the Camaro. The 2010 completely redesigned model -- from the cocky sneer of its grill to its iPod USB port on the dash -- makes it cool to drive a Chevy for the first time since the Bee Gees were hip. The standard V-6 engine (though you can upgrade to a V-8) catapults you from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than six seconds and gets up to 29 miles per gallon on the highway. When you’re behind the wheel, the front air bags, antilock disc brakes and electronic stability-control system will keep you as safe as if you were driving a granny sedan.
2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe: $22,000
Behold Hyundai’s first coupe. And if you can peel your eyes away from the sculpted, European-looking body of this four-cylinder rear-wheel-drive Adonis (or Aphrodite, if it makes you more comfortable), there’s just as much to drool over beneath the skin. There are the beefy 12.6-inch disc brakes; the electronic stability control; Bluetooth capability; front, side and curtain air bags; and even the soft feel of the leather-wrapped manual-shift knob. For a few extra grand, we recommend bumping up to the 306-horsepower, V-6 version. Close your eyes in it, and you’ll feel like you’re purring along in a $50,000 sports car. On second thought, maybe keep your eyes open.
2010 Mazda 3 5-door: $19,230
If you lug a lot of gear, like bike equipment or a surfboard, a coupe won’t cut it. That’s why the newly revised hatchback version of the top car bargain for the past half-decade makes so much sense. Open the rear door of the Mazda 3, fold down the backseats, and you’ve got a sporty gear shed on wheels -- complete with a 4-cylinder engine that gets 29 mpg on the highway, a satellite radio-compatible six-speaker stereo system and a roomy air bag-laden cockpit.
2009 Honda Accord Coupe EX-L V-6: $28,805
We agree that the dependable Accord sedan is about as exciting as a chess match. But the coupe version manages to strike a near-perfect balance between fun and utility. On the one hand, you’ve got the trademark Accord high resale value (that alone justifying a price higher than the other buggies featured here), safety, low maintenance (no tune-ups needed for the first 100,000 miles), and the knowledge that it’ll last longer than most modern marriages. On the other, this six-banger peels across the pavement from 0 to 60 so fast (actually 5.3 seconds) that the music blaring from the 270-watt, seven-speaker sound system barely has a chance to keep up.
2009 Nissan Altima: $19,900
Maybe it’s the four doors, but there’s something more professional and slightly less ostentatious about the four-cylinder Altima than the other rides here. It’s definitely the right choice if you’re working out of your car or taking long road trips. After all, the sub-$20,000 price and 31 mpg highway efficiency make business sense. There’s enough room to hold your high school basketball team’s starting frontcourt comfortably in back -- or all your sales samples -- and the Altima consistently receives the highest safety and reliability marks of any car in its class.
Greg Melville is a former Men's Journal editor. He has contributed to The New York Times, Popular Mechanics and other publications. He wrote the book Greasy Rider, for which he drove cross country in a car fueled completely on discarded fry oil (that car is not listed above).
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