Car Lot (© Image100/Corbis)

Conventional wisdom says that, on average, a new car loses 20 percent of its value the moment you drive it off the dealer's lot. So when times are tough and money is tight, it makes sense to shop the used-car market and be on the winning side of that depreciation curve. Auto journalists love crowing about new cars, but when it comes to used cars, reviews aren't as important as a deep dive into owner satisfaction surveys, true cost-of-ownership estimates and resale value statistics. Luckily, we've already done that research for you, factoring in some of the more intangible factors such as sex appeal, comfort and style whenever the hard numbers painted a fuzzy picture of a vehicle's worthiness. So here are our choices for some of the best vehicles the past has to offer you now.

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Sedans

Compact: Hyundai Elantra
A new Hyundai Elantra is a bargain starting at $14,145, but a used Hyundai Elantra is an absolute steal. A 2007 model, for instance, can be bought on the friendly side of eight grand, gets 27 mpg and is a roomy, well-finished car. One caveat: The Elantra would be a total no-brainer used-car buy if Hyundai's 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty transferred with the sale, but it doesn't always accompany the car. Second owners are covered under the 5-year, 60,000-mile warranty unless they buy through Hyundai's certified pre-owned program, but that can tack a few thousand dollars on to the price.

Compare: Hyundai Elantra vs. Ford Focus vs. Nissan Sentra

Midsize: Honda Accord
No surprise here. Honda's Accord has long been respected by the auto press and for good reason. It consistently scores high on the J.D. Power and Associates long-term-dependability studies (although it's worth noting that this year it was beaten by both the Buick LaCrosse and the Mercury Milan), and it maintains a high resale value year after year. Plus, a 2007 Accord's cost-of-ownership estimate comes in about $100 less than that of a Corolla, despite the sticker price being over $1,000 more.

Read: User Reviews of the Honda Accord

Large: Mercury Montego
The top ranking large sedan in J.D. Power's long-term-dependability study for 2010 is — the Mercury Montego? Really? Yup. This was the Ford sub-brand's version of the Five Hundred, which was Ford's temporary replacement for the Taurus. Both the Five Hundred and Montego were produced from 2004 to 2007. The Montego was mildly criticized for being a bit underpowered for such a large car, with a 203-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 engine, but it had available all-wheel drive and the highest safety ratings of any car in its segment at the time. That was then, this is now, and the Montego is now a great bargain. A fully loaded 2006 AWD Premier with continuously variable transmission, for example, can be had for less than $13,000. A 2006 Limited Ford Five Hundred with CVT and AWD, by comparison, lists for $13,403 — and, remember, it's the exact same car!

Watch: Mercury Montego Test Drive

Sport-Utility Vehicles

Small: Honda CR-V
This mini-ute tops J.D. Power's 3-year dependability ratings and its resale ratings, which makes sense. The CR-V is affordable yet spacious for a small SUV, and has a gleaming reputation for quality. Since the 1990s this 4-cylinder ute has offered a winning combination of a carlike ride and truck utility, while still posting respectable fuel-economy numbers. This vehicle depreciates slowly, which is part of its appeal, but the sweet spot on price seems to be the 2005-2006 model years, where the CR-V (which retails starting at $21,545 new) can be had for between $11,200 and $16,100. Before 2005, however, we'd recommend sticking with EX trims, since base LX CR-Vs didn't come with anti-lock brakes.

Compare: Honda CR-V vs. Subaru Forester vs. Ford Escape

Click to enlarge pictureToyota Highlander Hybrid (© Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.)

Toyota Highlander

Midsize to Large: Toyota Highlander
This on-road-optimized crossover SUV also tops dependability and resale ratings. In fact this may be one of the few vehicles that are better purchased used than new, since the 2008 through 2010 models are affected by the current recalls (although the 2008 and 2009 models are affected only by the floor-mat recall). The Highlander has been available since 2001, but if you're looking to pack in people, start your search with the 2004 model, when Toyota introduced third-row seating and stability control.

Read: Safety Ratings for the Toyota Highlander

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