Click to enlarge pictureHappy Car Buyer (© Barry Austin/Getty Images)

The car of your dreams might not be new, but rather slightly worn as the used and certified pre-owned markets grow.

If you don't have the scratch for the down payment on a shiny new car and can't find financing for the used chariot of your dreams, we have news for you. Not so long ago, having less than $10,000 to pay for a set of wheels meant sentencing yourself to the kind of commuting hell that resides only a half-step above the big yellow bus you reluctantly boarded in the third grade. Even worse, that low entry price usually meant years of service nightmares — if the car lived long.

But thanks to ever-improving reliability and manufacturing standards, the life cycle of a car has increased to about eight years, up from five only a few years ago. As a result, there are more vehicles on America's roads than at any point in history. It also means that more than a few high quality, comfortable machines are popping up for sale every day on the used market. Take a look at our top five used or pre-owned cars for less than $10,000 to see what we mean.

2003 Infiniti G35 Sedan

Click to enlarge picture2003 Infiniti G35

Infiniti's 2003 G35 sedan boasts all the hallmarks of a true sports sedan: powerful engine, rear-wheel drive, sports suspension, performance tires, excellent brakes and driver-oriented cockpit.

It took a little digging to find a G35 from a dealer that scoots under our $10,000 price tag, but it was well worth the effort. Infiniti graced this car with Nissan's robust 3.5-liter V6 engine, which produces 260 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. It's the same engine the company plopped in the 350Z to take track abuse at the hands of right-pedal-happy gearheads the world over, and the mill does it with glee. All that toughness translates into carefree ownership for you — a deal made sweeter by the Infiniti's classy interior and rocking factory sound system. Fuel economy leaves a little to be desired at 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway, but, given the kind of horsepower available, we can't complain too much. Expect a solid 5-speed automatic transmission to come with the deal, as well as a fairly cavernous trunk.

2004 Acura TSX

Click to enlarge picture2004 Acura TSX

With a stellar engine, hiccup-free transmission and a silky ride, the 2004 Acura TSX is an ideal 4-door commuter car that is fun to drive at higher speeds. Plus, it is superbly built. Craftsmanship is top-shelf, to say the least.

Though a dealer will probably ask a little bit more than our $10,000 cutoff, we found several privately held 2004 TSXs well within this lowball price point. This car has the benefit of being one of the more attractive things to come out of the Acura stable in years, thanks to its aggressive stance and lunging lines. Under the hood sits a 2.4-liter inline four, and though the engine puts out a respectable 200 horsepower, it also manages up to 32 mpg highway. Those are numbers anyone can smile about. That efficient engine can be coupled to either a 6-speed manual or an automatic transmission. The latter is easier to come by, but the magnesium encased 6-speed is a delight to shift. Honda's reputation for reliability is some assurance against massive mechanical failures down the line. Inside, you'll get high-quality leather and, in some cars, a great-for-its-day navigation system, although you'll probably pay a little extra. If you're looking for the perfect blend of luxury and efficiency, the TSX is your pick.

Read:  New Cars for $10,000?

2002 Audi A4

Click to enlarge picture2002 Audi A4

The Audi A4 single-handedly revived the Audi brand after its big sales slump two decades ago, and has been always been one of the best cars in its class. Tight panel gaps, high-quality materials and firm, comfortable seating give the interior the proper European ambience, while a supple ride and willing performance make the Audi A4 a great road-trip choice.

The kingdom of quattro has plenty to offer when it comes to fine used cars, and the A4 is the crown jewel. In the past, Audi owners have fought with reliability issues and repair bills that could leave your eyebrows permanently planted in your hairline. But the German automaker has made solid progress in the reliability department in recent years.

The 2002 Audi A4 could be had with either a 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder or a 3.0-liter V6 engine, but we prefer the 1.8 for its immediate torque delivery and remarkable efficiency. The V6 is typically mated to a CVT transmission, which sends power to all four corners. If you look hard enough, you may be able to scrounge up a 5-speed version of the 1.8-liter car, complete with Audi's all-wheel-drive wizardry. Like some of the other luxury rides on our list, the A4 excels at keeping its occupants comfortable at any speed, though those in the back seat may find things a little cramped. Hey, that's why they're in the back, right?

Compare the 2002 Audi A4 and the 2003 Saab 9-3

2003 Saab 9-3 Convertible

Click to enlarge picture2003 Saab 9-3 (© General Motors)

The Saab 9-3 is a great match for buyers looking for a spacious, safe and comfortable automobile with a proven safety record and a distinctly modern attitude. Plus, it has abundant cargo space and a frugal yet powerful engine.

Being low on funds doesn't have to mean a sentence cruising around in a no-frills 4-door. There are as many hot drop-tops out there as there are boring sedans, and the 2003 Saab 9-3 convertible is a great option. As we discovered, sharp versions with low miles can be sourced from individual sellers for less than $10,000. The cars boast unique styling and a peppy 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine under the hood. But if you take your time, Aero versions can be found, featuring a 280-horsepower V6. Even harder to come by are the Aero XWD versions with all-wheel drive, but expect to shell out a little more cash for those cars. Power aside, the 9-3 convertible can brag about Saab's stout safety structure — meaning you may even get a lower rate on your car insurance. Fun and responsible? Now we're talking. The interior of the 9-3 isn't quite up to par with some of the high rollers on our list, but it's hard to complain when you're working on that windswept look.

What kinds of deals have you found while searching for a used car?

2003 MINI Cooper

Click to enlarge picture2003 MINI Cooper

The MINI Cooper is a pint-sized tour de force. Driving it is more fun than riding on a roller coaster. And while it is small, it actually feels pretty large on the inside, offering room for four adults and all their stuff. Plus, it comes with advanced safety features and innovative engineering, thanks to BMW.

If a luxurious sedan or Swedish drop-top isn't quite up your alley, maybe the 2003 MINI Cooper is. When BMW resurrected the MINI name back in 2001, the company ousted all of the English reliability issues associated with the classic car and replaced them with solid German engineering principles. The result is a car that will serve up the same carefree motoring it offered right off the lot for its second or third owner. Outside, you get the now-iconic neo-MINI looks, which are still cute as a button after all these years. There's a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine with 115 ponies on tap. That may seem anemic when stacked against the other bruisers on this list, but the Cooper's relatively low weight makes for plenty of fun behind the wheel, especially when it's equipped with the 5-speed manual transmission. Inside, there's more space than should be physically possible, especially with the rear seats down. The Cooper isn't for families of five, but for singles or couples without any plans for carpooling, you really can't go wrong.

James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.

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