Seems like the cost of living just keeps getting higher these days, right? Fortunately, your car doesn't have to be part of that trend. Despite relentless improvements in automotive technology, it's still a cinch to find a great car under $25,000.

In fact, there were so many candidates for this list of top 25 cars under $25,000 that a lot of them didn't make the cut. We chose the 25 winners based not only on starting manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) but also on features and overall appeal. It's a remarkably diverse group, encompassing sports cars, minivans and pretty much everything in between. Let's see if one of these top 25 cars under $25,000 is your next set of wheels.

2013 Buick Encore ($24,200)

Just squeaking in under our $25,000 ceiling, the all-new Encore has essentially created a new category: the super-compact premium crossover SUV. Whatever you call it, the Encore is nimble and good on gas -- and true to Buick form, it has an attractive, hushed interior.

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2013 Chevrolet Camaro ($23,345)

Who said being frugal can't be fun? The Camaro V6 Coupe boasts show-stopping looks and with over 300 horsepower under the hood, it means business on the road. Also, if you spring for the automatic transmission, the Camaro V6 gets 30 miles per gallon on the highway.

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2013 Chevrolet Sonic Hatchback ($14,795)

A lot of hatchbacks at the $15,000 price point are of the penalty box variety, but the Sonic isn't one of them. Blessed with a refined ride and excellent high-speed stability, the Sonic drives like a more expensive car, and returning 40 mpg on long trips should be as easy as pie.

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2013 Dodge Dart ($15,995)

Like the Sonic, the Dart sedan is a small car that punches above its weight. But whereas the Sonic is a subcompact (i.e., it's tiny) the Dart's backseat can accommodate two adults with ease. What's more, the Dart's Alfa Romeo-derived suspension has a touch of Italian flair, and its optional 1.4-liter turbocharged engine delivers smiles and mpg in equal measure.

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2013 Dodge Grand Caravan American Value Package ($19,995)

We're singling out the Grand Caravan AVP because it really is a remarkable value. You might think you would have crank windows and a wimpy engine for that price, but no: The AVP includes power accessories and a punchy 3.6-liter V6, just like every other Grand Caravan. If you need the versatility of a minivan, the Grand Caravan AVP wins the value contest in a landslide. Also look at the Dodge Journey American Value Package ($18,995) for a smaller and even cheaper 3-row solution.

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2013 FIAT 500 ($16,000)

If the MINI Cooper (see below) is too much of a stretch, or if you just prefer the Italian approach to motoring, it's hard to beat the FIAT 500 for fun on a budget. The standard 1.4-liter MultiAir engine is peppy enough, and it's one of the rare engines these days that actually lives up to its mpg rating -- an impressive 31 mpg city/40 mpg hwy with the manual shifter. Want more power? The awesome turbocharged Abarth is also under $25,000, and there's a mid-level 500 Turbo, as well.

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2013 Ford Escape ($22,470)

The redesigned Escape is groundbreaking because Ford made it much more like a car this time. In fact, it drives almost exactly like the car it's based on, the excellent Focus, except the Escape sits higher for better visibility -- and it has a roomier backseat and more cargo space, too. Oh, and get this: There's an option that lets you wave your foot under the rear bumper to open the power lift gate automatically, though you might need to bring more than $25k for that.

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2013 Ford Focus ($16,200)

Remember the old Ford Focus? Well, try to forget it, because the current model is night-and-day better. Based on a design from Ford of Europe, the Focus has the refined character of an entry-level luxury car; think Audi A3 without the pretentiousness. It also has great fuel economy. Alternatively, you could snag a turbocharged Focus ST ($23,700) and blow the doors off unsuspecting Volkswagen GTI models.

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2013 Ford Fusion ($21,700)

If you need more backseat space than the Focus provides but don't want a high-riding crossover like the Escape, the Fusion hits the sweet spot. Styled after Aston Martin's super cars, the Fusion certainly makes an impression -- and it backs that up with athletic driving dynamics and 37 mpg hwy from the thrifty 1.6-liter turbo.

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2013 Ford Mustang ($22,200)

A Mustang for under $25,000? You bet, and it's got 305 little mustangs under the hood to help get you where you need to go. Pretty amazing that you can get into a 305-hp American icon for this kind of money. We wouldn't even need any options. Just keep it simple and give us the base Mustang with a stick shift.

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2013 Honda Accord ($21,680)

The redesigned Accord sedan shows us just how good Honda can be when they put their minds to it. Whereas the previous Accord wandered indifferently into large-sedan territory, the new one is taut and upscale-looking, with plenty of that energetic Honda character of old. Plus, the new CVT automatic delivers 27 mpg city/36 mpg hwy.

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2013 Honda Fit ($15,425)

Everyone knows that the Fit is a fuel-sipper, but did you know that it still starts under $16,000 after all these years? Think about that. Sixteen grand for a car that legitimately seats five, can do all manner of space-efficient tricks with its Magic rear seat and has as much cargo capacity as many compact crossovers. Throw in Honda reliability and a fun-to-drive personality and it's clear why the popular Fit suits so many American lifestyles.

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2013 Honda CR-Z ($19,975)

Folks don't typically think of hybrids as affordable, but the Honda CR-Z hybrid costs less than an Accord and it delivers fuel economy that should average in the mid-30s -- that's including both urban and rural driving. The CR-Z is also a surprisingly sporty little thing, and its assertive styling is meant to evoke the iconic CR-X of yesteryear. As long as you don't need a backseat, the CR-Z merits strong consideration.

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2013 Mazda CX-5 ($20,995)

We were frankly amazed to discover how attainable the Mazda CX-5 crossover could be. The CX-5 model's interior is one of the nicest in its class, so you certainly won't feel like you cheaped out. And if you do get the entry-level model, it comes with a manual shifter, which means your highway fuel economy will be a whopping 35 mpg. From a crossover! Moreover, as you'd expect of a Mazda, the CX-5 is unusually entertaining from behind the wheel.

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2013 Mazda5 ($19,940)

Mazda doesn't get enough credit for providing great value, and the Mazda5 is one of the best examples. Where else can you find a 3-row family hauler with sliding doors for under $20,000? Well, we mentioned the Dodge Grand Caravan American Value Package above, so the Mazda5 does have some competition. But we love this Mazda's in-between size -- it really is a mini van -- and it has a cool-looking interior and those sporty Mazda driving dynamics to boot.

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2013 Mazda Miata MX5 ($23,720)

The Miata reminds us of the Mustang (see above) in the following sense: It's pretty neat that you can get a brand-new iconic sports car for less than 25 large. Here's our question, though: Why would you want anything more than what the base Miata MX5 provides? You get one of the best manual shifters in the world, a high-revving engine with satisfying punch and a classic wind-in-your-hair roadster experience, all for what you'd expect to pay for an average family sedan. This car is the rare indulgence that's easy to justify.

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2013 MINI Cooper Hardtop ($19,700)

Checking in well under the $25,000 barrier, the Cooper Hardtop is one of those cars that's all things to all people. Want a rolling fashion accessory? The entry-level MINI fits right in on Rodeo Drive. Want a great city car? Few cars are better for tight urban maneuvers. How about a car that's fun on your favorite back road? The Cooper's racing heritage sees to it that you're taken care of there. And 40 mpg is easily within reach, so we can't even complain that the MINI requires premium fuel.

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2013 Nissan Juke ($20,280)

The funkadelic Juke is obviously a departure from the norm stylistically, but it's also an abnormally good deal. Boasting spunky turbocharged power, available all-wheel drive and a kind of urban assault vehicle mix of dynamic handling and an elevated ride height, the Juke is the perfect affordable accessory for city dwellers with a taste for the unconventional.

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2013 Scion tC ($18,725)

It's easy to forget that the Scion tC is actually made by Toyota, but when you remember that, you'll start to appreciate just how much this car brings to the table. The tC has style, plenty of standard features and a zesty 2.5-liter engine under the hood, so that's all good. But the clincher for us is Toyota's reputation for reliability, which elevates the tC from a mere object of desire to a genuinely sensible purchase.

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2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek ($21,995)

Automakers have been dancing around the concept of high-riding compact cars for years now; after all, that's essentially what compact crossovers are. But for 2013, Subaru decided to dispense with the formalities and simply lift an Impreza hatchback about five inches into the air. That's the XV Crosstrek in a nutshell, and what it gives you is better visibility for the driver, along with better ground clearance for driving through snow drifts and such. The best part? Subaru only charges a modest premium for these uplifting changes.

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2013 Toyota Camry ($22,235)

Tried and true, the best-selling Camry has made millions of Americans into Toyota fans, and for good reason. Fundamentally, you can't stop these cars from starting and driving -- it's just what they do, day after day, year after year. As an added bonus, the current Camry delivers tighter handling than ever before, along with relatively adventurous styling and all the latest technology inside. Oh, and it gets 35 mpg on the highway. Not too shabby for this kind of coin.

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2013 Toyota RAV4 ($23,300)

We're not sure we would have put the previous RAV4 on this list. It was getting a little long in the tooth after almost a decade on the market. But the new RAV4 is a major step forward, and we feel it's a great match for many modern lifestyles. Limited to just two rows of seating this time, the RAV4 nonetheless retains its predecessor's big-time cargo capacity, so it's still a true utility vehicle. The dashboard, however, has been massively upgraded and boasts technology such as iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, along with a generally contemporary, upscale look. Think of it as a Honda CR-V with a little extra attitude.

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2013 Volkswagen Golf ($18,095)

Here's another price that made us go, "Huh?!" The Golf hatchback is just such a wonderfully engineered car, from its high-quality interior materials to its sporty-yet-sophisticated ride. In fact, the American Golf continues to share its major components with the European model, whereas the American Jetta sedan has been downgraded in some ways to cut costs. It's remarkable that you can pick up a base 2-door Golf with its engaging manual shifter and 5-cylinder engine for this kind of money. The Golf is definitely one of our all-around favorites on this list.

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2013 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen ($20,595)

Like the Golf, the Jetta SportWagen uses European blueprints, so it has a more sophisticated suspension and a higher-quality interior. The SportWagen also has the distinction of being one of the only true station wagons still on the market. There's a lot to be said for wagons. They handle better than crossovers due to their lower center of gravity, yet they can haul just as much thanks to that convenient hatchback cargo area. For superior fuel economy along with satisfying acceleration, check out the diesel SportWagen TDI variant. The same goes for the Golf, by the way.

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2013 Volkswagen Passat ($20,845)

The Passat is one of Volkswagen's Jetta-style American specials, but we're fully on board in this case. Volkswagen basically looked at what American drivers want and tried to build the perfect family sedan. We think they came pretty close with this stylish, comfortable and incredibly roomy model. Although you can get into a Passat for under $21,000, we really recommend springing for the diesel TDI version. The diesel torque effortlessly gets the Passat moving from a stop, and highway fuel economy of 50 mpg -- yes, 50 -- is not unheard of.

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author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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