Buy a reliable used car. During the recession, preowned cars got pricey. With the economy improving, prices have fallen 5.4% from their 2011 peak. "For $10,000 you can get quality vehicles under five years of age," says Edmunds.com senior analyst Joe Spina.
Example: the 2008 Ford Fusion SE (starting at $9,400), which earned high reliability marks from Consumer Reports.
For better mileage, there's the '08 Honda Fit, which gets 34 highway mpg ($9,200). "The Fit is technically a subcompact," says Kelley Blue Book analyst Tim Fleming, "but doesn't feel like it."
Lease a quality new car. Leasing is back, thanks to promotions by carmakers looking to boost market share. Compare offers within the same category.
The average lease on a midsize sedan goes for $1,242 down and payments of $324 for 36 months ($12,900 total). Through Nov. 4, though, you can get a 2013 Honda Accord (named one of the 10 best cars by Car and Driver) for $2,499 down and $219 a month -- or just over 10 grand.