Sorry you're having to look now.

We just spent $1700 on new front hubs and wheel bearings on J's 2000 Corolla. :-/ It needs struts all around too (probably another $2k). Labor is expensive, so just about any significant car repair gets very spendy quick. :-( I keep hoping that a decent electric or long-range plug-in hybrid will be available before we finally replace it (it has less than 90,000 so we could easily keep it another 10 years even though I hate it...)

I had to make a couple of trips in the last month. I rented a Kia Soul (black on black on black in Gainesville, Florida) and a Nissan Sentra (red over black in Cincinnati). I was impressed with the Kia, except I could see the gas gauge drop in real time even driving very gently. I was surprised how poorly it coasted - my Jetta TDI coasts really easily compared to that thing. Dunno if it's something in particular about that engine/transmission combination, or I've just become spoiled by my TDI (no throttle/choke losses).

The Sentra had really comfortable seats. I was impressed by that. And it did great in the snow in Cincinnati - people were driving at about 35 MPH on the highway, and I could drive past them at 60 with no trouble at all.

But the suspension was weird. It pogoed up and down over expansion bumps on the highway. It reminded me of the rocking horse on springs that we had as a kid... :-/ . Dunno if it was that particular car, but it was off-putting.

The plugin hybrid Niro sounds like it is well worth considering based on the TTAC story in the last few days. But lots and lots of things don't come through in the reviews. E.g. J hates my Jetta because she can't get comfortable in the seats. :-(

I would try driving everything in your price range. Just about anyone can make a really good car these days - it's not rocket surgery. ;-) And you might get a pleasant surprise and find something you really like for less than you fear you'll have to spend.

Good luck!! Let us know what you decide.