Many of today's most popular cars are familiar, highly competent and have proven track records. But then there are cars - among them, some of the best vehicles on the market - that are surprisingly well-kept secrets. Here are seven of our favorite cars that most buyers haven't heard of. We're hoping to provide alternatives to buyers bored with traditional car shopping lists. These will give you some interesting choices even on a $30,000 budget.

Audi A3

Audi's compact A3 is a tremendous choice for budget-minded car shoppers interested in a new luxury car. While many buyers stretch their budgets to purchase a base Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series, the A3's starting price of $28,145 with destination makes it much more affordable than its larger competitors. Despite its low base price, the A3 doesn't skimp on luxury, offering a long list of standard features that includes leather upholstery, remote keyless entry, 17-inch alloy wheels, satellite radio and dual-zone automatic climate control. We also recommend checking out the fuel-efficient A3 TDI, which offers a 140-horsepower turbo-diesel 4-cylinder. Its $31,000 price is slightly over the $30,000 mark, but the miserly hatchback makes up for that with fuel economy ratings of 30 mpg in the city and 42 mpg in highway driving.

Honda Ridgeline

Shoppers interested in a mid-size pickup have probably already sampled the Nissan Frontier and the Toyota Tacoma; both are well built and offered at reasonable prices. But for buyers looking for further options, we nominate the Honda Ridgeline. While the truck's aging design isn't as eye-grabbing as it was when it came out in 2005, it still offers the same basic traits that led to its initial success. For example, the pickup still uses its car-based chassis, which provides a compliant ride when driving around town. It also still has a waterproof "trunk" built into the floor in its bed. Best of all, the Ridgeline offers four full-size doors and a surprisingly roomy rear seat, meaning it's capable at hauling goods or people. And if you're concerned by the Ridgeline's near-$30,000 price tag, don't be: the truck's slow sales mean dealers are usually willing to offer deep discounts.

Mazda CX-5

The Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 remain perennial favorites among buyers looking for a small SUV. In that category, Mazda's latest entry into the popular segment merits serious consideration. The CX-5, on sale since March, has the distinction of getting the best fuel economy of any compact SUV: 35 mpg when equipped with the standard manual transmission. But the CX-5 offers more than just gas mileage, with a reasonable base price of around $22,000 with shipping and luxurious available equipment including a rear-view camera, a blind spot detection system and a navigation system. The CX-5's 4-cylinder may not have the V6 grunt of many competitors, but it's a good SUV alternative for economy-minded buyers.

Subaru Impreza

Buyers in northern states may deride the Impreza's appearance on this list, feeling it's actually quite a common vehicle. We would remind them that not everyone lives in the snow belt. The Impreza remains surprisingly rare in most of the country's warmer regions. To us, that's a shame, because the recently redesigned compact car offers more than just highly capable performance in the snow. Available as a 4-door sedan or a 5-door hatchback, the Impreza comes at a reasonable starting price of around $18,000, plus a history of dependability and an available high-performance, 260-horsepower WRX model. Its all-weather traction is yet another selling point to add to the Impreza's long list of desirable qualities.

Suzuki Kizashi

It's a shame that many of today's car shoppers are unfamiliar with Japanese brand Suzuki, and particularly its highly competent Kizashi sedan. Priced from $19,765 for the base Kizashi S to nearly $28,500 for the generously equipped Kizashi SLS, there's likely a Kizashi out there for every car shopper who would otherwise consider a compact Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla-and maybe even a mid-size Toyota Camry. he sedan is also available with all-wheel drive, meaning it can be a strong candidate for shopping lists all over the country. Best of all, Suzuki is currently advertising several excellent deals on the Kizashi, including zero percent financing for 72 months and up to $1,500 cash back.

Toyota Venza

Car shoppers interested in a crossover have probably looked at Toyota's Highlander or RAV4 SUVs, but surprisingly few buyers consider the Venza. The 6-cylinder model is slightly out of the $30,000 price range, but a 4-cylinder Venza LE starts at $28,235 with shipping. The smaller engine benefits buyers in the long run by returning up to 20 mpg in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway. The Camry-based Venza also comes with all the necessary safety features expected in a modern family car, including curtain side airbags, an anti-skid system and even a driver knee airbag. There are also some driver-focused goodies including Bluetooth, a USB port for music and dual-zone automatic climate control. The Venza doesn't offer a third-row seat, but it compensates by including a roomy, comfortable rear bench.

Volvo C30

With eye-catching styling, powerful engines and a practical cargo area, the C30 should be among the first choices for car shoppers interested in a luxurious coupe at a reasonable price. Its lack of a 4-door body style may be a deal breaker to some buyers, but we think its rear liftgate gives it far more practicality than coupes from rival automakers. It's also hard to argue with the C30's strong value thanks to a base price of under $26,000 including destination. That figure includes the hatchback's standard 227-horsepower turbocharged 5-cylinder engine. If you've checked out a GTI and a Mini but you're looking for a little more power, the C30 is a strong and surprisingly uncommon alternative.

What it means to you: Don't buy your next car just because it's popular. Many great but mostly unknown vehicles are available to buyers willing to do a little extra research.

author photo

Jeffrey Archer is fortunate to have turned a passion for cars into a career. His wide-ranging automotive experience includes work for automakers and dealers in addition to covering the news. When not writing, he spends his time searching for unique cars on AutoTrader.com.

Related Articles & Car Reviews

Find Cars for sale near you:

Research by Vehicle Type

  • Convertible
  • Coupe
  • Hatchback
  • Hybrid
  • Luxury
  • Sedan
  • SUV
  • Truck
  • Van/Minivan
  • Wagon

Shopping Tools

Compare the 2012 Audi A3 with these competing Wagons:

  • 2012 MINI Cooper Clubman
  • 2012 BMW 3 Series
  • 2012 Subaru Outback

For Sale on Autotrader.com

Please enter your ZIP to see prices and listings near you.

Loading Ajax Content Loading Ajax Content