The economy is in the dumper, jobs and mortgages are in jeopardy, and there's doubt about how many automakers will survive.
What better time to look at what the industry does best, as in best buys among the vehicles on sale now? High mileage and low price were factors, but room, comfort, looks, ride, handling, performance and fun figured more heavily into our choices:
2009 Acura TL SH-AWD
Engine: 3.7-liter, 305-h.p. V-6; 5-speed automatic
M.P.G.: 17 city/25 highway
Base price: $38,505
Honda's luxury division added the midsize TL SH-AWD sedan -- SH for "super handling," hint, hint. Whether negotiating twisties or snow- or rain-soaked roads, the car goes and stays where pointed without nose traveling one way, tail another. If only heated and cooled seats were available.
2009 BMW 335d
Engine: 3-liter, 265-h.p., twin-turbo inline 6; 6-speed automatic
M.P.G.: 23 city/36 highway
Base price: $43,900
The newest member of the performing family takes only 6 seconds to reach 60 m.p.h. The "d," for diesel, also makes the 335d the most fuel-efficient car in BMW's lineup. It's also quick and nimble with no diesel clatter or stench. An $1,800 federal tax credit helps too.
2009 Chevrolet Silverado
Engine: 6-liter, 332-h.p. V-8 with a 300-volt, nickel-metal-hydride battery pack
M.P.G.: 20 city/20 highway
Base price: $41,170
Hybrid power provides 20 m.p.g. in a full-size pickup with four-doors and two rows of seats. With a light foot on a straight road, it can run on batteries up to 25 m.p.h. When needing power to pass, pull or climb, the battery pack teams with the V-8. Ride is pleasant and wide, well-cushioned seats offer comfort and support ¿ with a $2,200 federal tax credit to boot.
2009 Chevy Traverse
Engine: 3.6-liter, 281-h.p. V-6
M.P.G.: 17 city/24 highway
Base price: $29,990 (AWD adds $2,000)
Traverse combines best of minivans, station wagons and SUVs when it comes to hauling eight people and their possessions. Offered in front- or all-wheel drive, ride is sedan smooth, comfortable and quiet. Easy to pilot into or out of passing lane or parking spot. Stability control with roll-mitigation control plus traction control is standard.
2009 Ford Flex
Engine: 3.5-liter, 24-valve, 260-h.p. V-6; 6-speed automatic
M.P.G.: 17 city/24 highway (FWD), 16/22 (AWD)
Base price: $28,895 (AWD adds about $1,800)
The crossover Flex, with three rows of seats and FWD or AWD, is long and low, so parking is no chore ane neither is garaging. The stance means you don't wobble in corners like some SUVs with a high center of gravity. An optional fridge between second-row seats will cool seven 12-ounce cans.
2009 Honda Fit
Engine: 1.5-liter, 117-h.p. 4-cylinder
M.P.G.: 28 city/35 highway
Base price: $14,750
Redesigned Fit now has a sportier look, with its wheelbase stretched by 2 inches and overall length by 4 inches for more people and cargo space. Second-row leg and head room especially ample, cargo space behind the rear seat good, and rear seatbacks fold flat to hold more cargo.
2009 Hyundai Genesis
Engine: 3.8-liter, 290-h.p. V-6; 4.6-liter, 375 h.p. V-8
M.P.G.: 18 city/27 highway; 17/25
Base price: $33,000; $38,000
Genesis gives Hyundai a grown-up sedan, to be joined by a coupe for 2010. RWD with stability and traction control. V-6 and V-8 are smooth and quiet, but the V-8 takes off like Road Runner, with "beep-beep" zero-to-60 m.p.h. acceleration in 5.7 seconds versus 6.2 with the V-6. Ride is luxury smooth. Holds tight in corners. Steering response is speed sensitive to sharpen handling.
2009 Hyundai Sonata
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder; 3.3-liter V-6
M.P.G.: 22 city/32 highway; 19/29
Base price: $19,395; $23,145
It's solid and not cheap. Can't fault the philosophy of loading the cars with standard equipment, such as stability control with traction control to ensure the car makes sure-footed contact with the road, while keeping prices under control to emphasize value. Owners asked for a little more spirit as well as for a little more fun, and both engines were tweaked to develop more power and better mileage with less racket.
2009 Lincoln MKS
Engine: 3.7-liter, 273-h.p. V-6
M.P.G.: 17 city/23 highway
Base price: $38,465
The new flagship is derived from Taurus so it doesn't float or wander like a Town Car. It slips in to and out of parking spaces or garage stalls the first time. Adaptive Park Assist turns the task of parallel parking over to computer electronics. It holds five, with room and comfort for short distances or long.
Engine: 2.5-liter 4; 3.7-liter, 272-h.p. V-6
M.P.G.: 21 city/30 highway; 17/25
Base price: $19,220
New face, body and muscle for 2009, plus longer wheelbase, length and width for better road manners. Stands out in smooth, ripple-free ride and pinpoint handling. It sits flat into and out of corners at speed. Orange pylons should be standard for playtime.
2009 Toyota Corolla
Engine: 1.8-liter, 132-h.p. 4-cylinder
M.P.G.: 27 city/35 highway
Base price: $15,350
This old fogey has survived more than 40 years since its 1968 U.S. debut in an industry not known for longevity. Corolla is still an econocar, but one that has grown from subcompact to compact dimension. For 2009 it swells by 2.4 inches in width, a reaction to larger hips, not bigger briefcases. Four-wheel ABS is standard in all models.
2010 Chevy Camaro
Engine: 3.6-liter, 304-h.p. V-6; 6.2-liter, 420-h.p. V-8
M.P.G.: 18 city/29 highway; 16/25
Base price: $23,040; $31,040
Thanks to product-development maven Bob Lutz for giving the project a thumbs up, design guru Tom Peters for the jaw-dropping styling and to the engineers for giving it exceptional ride, handling and performance. Camaro is both swift and agile, with great off-the-line pop.
2010 Ford Fusion
Engine: 2.5-liter, 175-h.p. 4-cylinder; 3.5-liter, 265-h.p. V-6; 3-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V-6;
M.P.G.: 26 city/34 highway (4); 18/27 (V-6); 41/36 (hybrid)
Base price: $19,270; $25,825; 27,270
FWD or AWD, 4-cylinder gas engine with or without battery assist for mileage, or a gas-driven V-6 for spunk. Nice touches include soft-touch vinyl cabin trim, hypnotic ice-blue background instrument lighting, well-contoured and supportive seats, pleasant ride, nimble handling and a blind-spot warning system.