For many families searching for a vehicle on a tight budget, a good used car might often seem like the best choice. But while a well-maintained used vehicle can be a great buy, many safe new cars with surprisingly reasonable price tags are frequently passed over in the search for dependable family transportation. We've listed our favorites below - and we've capped prices at $25,000 to ensure that our picks are affordable for a wide variety of families on a budget.

Chevrolet Cruze

Chevrolet's compact Cruze sedan may be small, but it has a lot to offer to families on a budget. We'd skip the sparsely-equipped base model - despite its impressive base price of just over $17,000 - and step up to the well-appointed Cruze 2LT, which starts around $21,000 and includes leather upholstery with heated front seats, a USB port for music, Bluetooth, and 17-inch alloy wheels. We're also impressed with the 2LT's turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which produces a respectable 138 horsepower and achieves 26 miles per gallon in highway driving and a whopping 38 mpg on the highway. All Cruze models also feature anti-lock brakes, curtain side airbags and traction control, making the sedan an easy pick for families willing to squeeze into a slightly smaller car.

Ford Escape

While we're not sure what the new 2013 Escape will cost when it arrives in showrooms during the first half of 2012, pricing for last year's model leads us to believe the compact SUV will start well under $25,000. That's a great deal considering the redesigned Escape will feature brand new styling inside and out along with a series of newly available engines and features. While base-level Escape models will retain today's 2.5-liter four-cylinder powerplant, we recommend opting for the automaker's new 1.6-liter EcoBoost motor, which is expected to produce 173 horsepower and deliver stellar fuel economy. Any money left over can go towards some of the Escape's exciting options including the programmable MyKey, the clever hands-free liftgate and Ford's innovative SYNC infotainment system.

Kia Optima

The handsome Kia Optima takes the boring midsize family sedan your parents had and injects expressive styling and an exciting drive. With a starting price of around $22,000 including destination for an automatic or just over $20,000 for a manual, the Optima is certainly affordable - especially considering its impressive list of safety features that includes anti-lock brakes, curtain side airbags and an anti-skid system with traction control. The Optima is also high on practicality due to its cavernous trunk and large, comfortable rear seats that fold down to increase storage space. Best of all, the sedan's standard 2.4-liter engine will impress driving enthusiasts thanks to a muscular 200 horsepower and an EPA-rated 30 miles per gallon in mixed city and highway driving.

Mazda5

The practical Mazda5 is one of our top recommendations. The standard equipment list includes all the safety basics: curtain side airbags, anti-lock brakes and even an anti-skid system designed to prevent drivers from losing control. Exterior styling is more reminiscent of an exciting hatchback than a minivan despite its sliding doors, and the standard 157-horsepower four-cylinder engine achieves an impressive 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway. Best of all, families will find the six-seater Mazda5 offers all the comforts of vehicles with much higher price tags, as even the fully-loaded Grand Touring model - which offers Bluetooth, leather upholstery, a sunroof and an in-dash 6-disc CD changer - can be easily had for under $25,000.

Subaru Impreza

Although it was once a compact car, the dependable Subaru Impreza grew considerably with its redesign for the 2012 model year. Now measuring more than 180 inches in length in its practical five-door hatchback body style, the Impreza comfortably seats five occupants and comes with standard all-wheel drive for tackling inclement weather. While the base-level Impreza's spartan list of standard equipment features only basic items, the upscale 2.0i Premium offers a 148-horsepower four-cylinder engine, attractive alloy wheels, a USB connection for music and steering wheel audio controls in its starting price of around $20,000. As an added bonus, every Impreza features standard side airbags and four-wheel anti-lock brakes, making the smallest Subaru a safe ride for the whole family.

Toyota Prius

Although the Toyota Prius's $23,015 base price just barely fits under our price cap, the hatchback is worthy of mention on this list for several reasons. First up, of course, is its tremendous fuel economy, which measures around 50 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving - enough to recoup some of the costs of going over budget. The Prius also offers a long list of standard equipment that includes safety features like curtain side airbags and an anti-skid system, and convenience items ranging from keyless starting to Bluetooth. Parents will be glad to know the Prius also includes ample cargo room and a surprisingly spacious back seat, making it a great choice for families - especially those who are looking to cut their fuel bills.

What it means to you: As the list above shows, you don't have to spend upwards of $30,000 for a good family car.

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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.

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