First things, first, make a list of all the companies that sell cars that I can afford.
Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Volkswagen, Chevy, Ford, Chrysley, Hyundai, Kia, Smart, Scion, Subaru, ... etc. The list goes on and I'm sure I've forgotten things. Hell, there are companies that I didn't even look at because I plain forgot. Many of those companies have more than one model in my range as well.
That's not daunting at all.
On the plus side, this means I'm actually spoiled for choice. Which means I'm pretty much guaranteed to find a car I like.
Time to start doing some early eliminations to cut down the work load before I hit the serious research. Some of these cars are things that are actually very good, but for whatever reason, just didn't grab me. I know its not particularly technical or logical, but a car is a big investment. I need to be happy with it. For the most part, these are the things I eliminated from consideration without doing too much research.
I'll bunch 'em together for the sake of brevity.
The Super Boring: - Hyundai, Kia and Toyota. As cheap as these cars are, as long as the warranties are and as reliable as they may be, they are a collection of the most boring and souless cars in the world. These are the kinds of cars you would buy if you were the kind of person who was simply waiting to die.
[Of Note:] The Toyota Yaris. A car exactly as stupid looking as its name would suggest.
American Cars That Aren't a Ford or a Saturn: GM, Chrysler and all the (largely) shit they own. By and large, there are reasons that these companies are in financial trouble. Its because they make cars for the shrinking number of people who have never driven any thing from Europe or Japan. Which is to say that they make shit cars for the most part for people who just don't have a clue. I'm generalizing for comedic effect, of course. In any case, all of the cars in my price range are awful.
[Of Note:] The PT Cruiser. I can't say enough bad things about this car. Having had the misfortune of a week long test drive in a rental, I can safely day that it is the worst car I have ever driven. The interior seemed like it was designed as an afterthought, the acceleration was awful, the ride was abysmal, the trunk space was pathetic and the car looks like a hearse for Warwick Davis.
Saturn: does not exist anymore.
Suzuki: Totally forgot these guys existed.
Scion: The 'cool' Toyota line. I actually do like the looks of the tC. However, it only comes in a 2 door version (failing an important criterion) and the other two models look like the rest of the Toyota line - boring and uninspired.
Smart Car ForTwo: Its ugly, tiny, poorly made and, apparently, wildly unsafe on the highway. As I'm shopping for my only car, I need to do better than the world's largest baby stroller.
Honda Fit: Special Lady Friend liked this car, in principal. It was inexpensive, reliable and had good gas mileage. And then she saw one in person in a parking lot. I didn't like it for much of the same reason. Also, its a tiny, tiny car and I'm 6'2".
Luckily, that was pretty good size of the pool already eliminated. Now it was time for some more in depth research.