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2012 Used Car Best Bets SM's annual Used Car Best Bet Awards are based on the following criteria: reliability, safety and availability (wider availability means more competitive prices and better value). Eligibility is limited to used cars originally sold from 2005-'10.

About Used Car Best Bets SM

Our editors are often asked what the best used car choices are, so here we present the collective opinions of our editorial staff through our Used Car Best Bets SM .

In order to put together this list of our top choices in the used vehicle market, we emphasized the most important criteria: reliability, safety, value and availability. Eligibility is limited to vehicles from two to seven years old for the following reasons: Older vehicles will probably have too many miles on them, and newer ones will not have fully taken the large depreciation hit that typically makes a two- or three-year-old car (with low miles) the best value. For these reasons, our list is limited to used cars with model years ranging from 2005-'10.

First, we looked at our consumer ratings as well as sources that report on reliability and longevity, and applied our own experience and judgment to determine a vehicle's reliability. Second, we considered the way these vehicles rated in various crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Third, we looked at value, taking into consideration Edmunds True Market Value (TMV) ® and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) ®. And fourth, we considered availability: the larger the spread of potential model years a buyer had to choose from, the better. This is why one (more abundant) car may have beaten out another (less available one) if the two were otherwise closely matched.

The following vehicles are our winners for 2012:

Compact Sedan: 2005-2010 Hyundai Elantra

  • A complete redesign in 2001 earned the Hyundai Elantra our respect, which was bolstered further by a tough tour of duty in our long-term fleet. In addition to peppy performance and a smooth ride, the Elantra offers solid build quality, reliability and operating economy. A GT hatchback version provides added cargo capacity in addition to standard leather seating, a moonroof and a sport-tuned suspension. Impressive crash test scores are another feather in the Elantra's cap.

    For 2007 the Elantra was again redesigned. It was initially offered only as a sedan and boasted more interior room and higher fuel efficiency than the previous generation. A wagon (dubbed Elantra Touring) debuted for 2009, boasting a more European feel both in terms of its design and chassis tuning.

    Midsize Sedan: 2005-2010 Nissan Altima

  • When the Nissan Altima was redesigned and enlarged for 2002, it gave family sedan shoppers a viable choice if a "fun to drive" personality was a requirement. As such, the Altima has established itself as an accommodating midsizer with strong performance (especially if equipped with the potent V6) and athletic handling.

    A full redesign for 2007 brought handsome Infiniti-like styling, a nicer interior with more soft-touch materials, and a CVT (continuously variable transmission) that delivered on that technology's promises of ultra-smooth operation and increased fuel efficiency. That year also marked the debut of a hybrid version, though it was only available in eight states.

    Large Sedan: 2006-2010 Hyundai Azera

  • Offering an upscale look inside and out and a number of unexpected luxury features for short money, the Azera also boasts the solid build quality and steadfast reliability that Hyundai is fast becoming known for. Strong crash test scores, smooth and refined performance and a quiet ride round out the Azera's impressive credentials, while its "dark horse" status all but guarantees bargain pricing.

    Those looking for something more upscale that stills packs similar Hyundai value might consider the Genesis luxury sedan. Introduced for 2009, the similarly well-rounded Genesis makes a good alternative to pricey German luxury brands.

    Coupe: 2005-2010 BMW 3 Series

  • The BMW 3 Series embodies everything a coupe should be: sporty, stylish and with a level of practicality closer to that of a sedan than a dedicated sports car. Even if you go with the entry-level, less powerful 325/328 models, there's still plenty of performance to be had from the smooth inline-6. Communicative steering coupled to an athletic chassis provides a very satisfying drive and validates why these cars remain so incredibly popular with enthusiasts.

    An all-new coupe debuted for 2007, bringing more power and sleeker styling as well as the availability of all-wheel drive. Offering impressive fuel economy along with very strong performance, the turbodiesel 335d sedan debuted for 2009.

    Convertible: 2005-2010 Mazda Miata

  • Anyone who wonders how car enthusiasts can be so passionate about driving need only take a spin in a Miata. With its ultra-responsive and communicative steering, an exuberant engine and a manual transmission with short, precise throws and an easy clutch, Mazda's little two-seater wins over even those who don't know a camshaft from a crankshaft.

    Nothing within the average Joe's means represents affordable all-around automotive athleticism better than a Miata. Factor in great reliability, frugal fuel usage and plenty of aftermarket accessories, and it's easy to see why so many Miata owners love their car as much as (perhaps even more than) their significant other.

    Wagon: 2005-2010 Pontiac Vibe

  • With more than a touch of style, impressive space efficiency, compact dimensions and a smooth, reliable powertrain courtesy of Toyota, the Vibe makes for a very practical choice. Although it shares its mechanical components with the Toyota Matrix, the Vibe is arguably more attractive. In addition, it will likely be a better value, as chances are you can get this Pontiac for less money than a comparable Matrix due to the higher resale prices the Toyota name usually commands.

    A redesign for 2009

    brought new styling, a larger, more powerful 2.4-liter inline-4 option and improved fit and finish within the cabin.

    Compact SUV/Crossover: 2005-2010 Honda CR-V

  • Space-efficient, fuel-efficient and easy to drive and own, the Honda CR-V does almost everything well. With as much passenger and cargo space as some larger SUVs, the CR-V is usually more than enough for most consumers' needs. Though no V6 engine is available, the CR-V's inline-4 is sufficient and returns respectable fuel mileage. A comfortable ride, an excellent reliability record and strong crash test ratings underscore why the CR-V is a top pick among our staff and consumers alike.

    The CR-V was redesigned in 2007 with slightly controversial styling and the new option of a navigation system but no mechanical changes of note. A few tweaks took place for 2010, including 14 more horsepower.

    Midsize SUV/Crossover: 2005-2010 Ford Explorer

  • With its available burly V8 engine, nicely balanced handling and ride characteristics, roomy interior and plentiful family-friendly features, the Ford Explorer has a lot to offer anyone needing a versatile family vehicle. Being a truck-based SUV and available with V8 power, the Explorer provides greater towing capability than car-platform-based (a.k.a. "crossover") SUVs. Yet by virtue of some clever engineering that provides a spacious footwell out back, it boasts an adult-friendly third-row seat.

    Large SUV/Crossover: 2005-2010 Chevrolet Tahoe

  • Strong performance, a comfortable ride and attractive styling are a few of the Tahoe's assets. Others include a roomy cabin that can seat up to nine and fairly nimble handling for such a bulky vehicle. A Tahoe equipped with the torque-rich 5.3-liter V8 is a good choice for towing duty. A complete redesign for 2007 brought greatly improved interior materials, quelling perhaps the biggest gripe we had with this versatile hauler and giving the cabin in the top trim levels a truly luxurious ambience.

    Minivan/Van: 2005-2010 Honda Odyssey

  • Before 1999, the Odyssey couldn't compete with the more powerful V6-powered minivans from Dodge and Toyota. A four-cylinder engine, no matter how refined, isn't going to cut it when the van is loaded up with seven passengers and their belongings. That all changed when Honda brought out the completely revamped Odyssey in 1999.

    Boasting the then most powerful V6 in the segment, along with a huge interior, hideaway third-row seat, top safety scores and Honda's solid reputation for quality and reliability, the Odyssey quickly jumped to the head of the class. A redesign for 2005 preserved these virtues and kept it there. You'll probably have to lay out a few more greenbacks for one of these vans, even in the used market, but consider it money well spent.

    Compact Truck: 2005-2010 Toyota Tacoma

  • In addition to the well-known strengths of impressive overall quality and a rock-solid reliability record, the Tacoma offers a pickup for most any need or personality. There's even the PreRunner edition that offers the suspension, ride height and aggressive tires of a 4WD truck without the added complexity and fuel appetite. Whether you're looking for a sporty street truck, an aggressive off-roader or a crew-cab family truck, we're willing to bet that the Tacoma lineup has something with your name on it.

    Large Truck: 2005-2010 Ford F-150

  • There must be a very good reason that the Ford F-150 has been the top-selling vehicle in America for most of the last three decades. Actually, we can think of many: a huge variety of cab styles and trim levels, a comfortable interior with sound ergonomics, a compliant ride, communicative and precise steering, smooth power plants and best-in-class brakes.

    A full redesign for 2009 brought more powerful engines along with styling inspired by Ford's Super Duty pickup line. Regardless of what year and style you settle on, the amazing popularity of the F-150 means finding one that suits you perfectly should be fairly easy.

    Luxury: 2005-2010 Infiniti G35/G37

  • With rear-wheel drive, a ripping V6 and sporty suspension tuning, the G35 and later G37 are Infiniti's answer to the BMW 3 Series. As compared to that German benchmark, the G's much roomier cabin and lower acquisition and maintenance costs make the Infiniti a smart choice for savvy enthusiasts. While the sedan will make the most sense for most folks, the rakish coupe offers Nissan Z-car intenders more practicality, with performance that's virtually identical to that dedicated two-seat sports car.

    Hybrid: 2005-2010 Toyota Prius

  • After testing the hybrid waters with the cramped first-generation Prius, Toyota pulled out all the stops with the second-generation version introduced for 2004. The Prius' snub-nosed hatchback design devotes most of the car's body to passenger and cargo space. The result is a midsize cabin within a compact footprint, making the Prius a snap to park in tight spaces. Of course it gets excellent fuel economy while providing satisfactory performance whether dicing with city traffic or merging onto a fast-moving freeway.

    The third-generation Prius bowed for 2010, bringing more power, better fuel mileage and more conventional controls all wrapped up in crisper styling.

    Sport Compact: 2005-2010 Subaru WRX

    Subaru's Impreza WRX has long been a favorite of enthusiasts on a budget for its spirited performance and fun-loving personality. Yet the WRX packs a few practical strengths that also make it a good choice as an everyday vehicle. A compliant suspension means it won't beat you up during the daily grind over broken pavement, while standard all-wheel drive allows it to handle foul-weather driving with sure-footed confidence. Throw a set of dedicated snow tires on it and the WRX can handle most anything a tough winter season could throw at it. A 2009 redesign brought firmer suspension calibrations as well as a substantial (41 hp) boost in power.

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