I made a friend’s day a couple of years ago when I complimented her on her BMW SUV, only to discover that it was in fact a Hyundai SUV. As a car enthusiast, I was dismayed that I had been duped, but I had to admit that this Hyundai (a name once synonymous with “cheap” and “cheesy”) actually had some rather exotic styling cues and attractive curves, much flashier than anything normally seen in this price range.

As I have looked around since, I have begun to notice more and more cars that are defying their sticker prices and looking right at home with the upper automotive crust. Now just because your budget won’t allow for a European exotic to live in your garage doesn’t mean you can’t look the part. Consider these “you’ll never guess the price” options.

Chevrolet Malibu – Don’t think I don’t realize how strange this moniker looks in this article. Once a mainstay of the American muscle car scene, the Malibu was devalued into a “what’s the point” mid sized sedan by the late 90’s, unimaginative in design and unimpressive in performance. All that changed with the introduction of the 2008 Malibu, with aggressive lines, upscale interior, and performance that made you forget you were driving a Chevy. This author has a 2010 LT model and loves the fact that he gets appreciative glances from BMW drivers. For $20,000, you can have one impressive ride.

Mazda Miata – With a retractable hard top on the options list, it’s hard not to look like a million bucks in this classic Japanese convertible. Not exactly practical in any sense of the word, the Miata’s main goal is to get you to your destination and look good while doing so, a job it carries out with remarkable finesse. Its unmistakable styling and impressive performance deliver as much or more driving pleasure as any other two seater on the market, regardless of price.

Chrysler 300 – When the new 300 was introduced for the 2005 model year, jaws dropped. The best results from Chrysler’s partnership with Mercedes, the 300 featured upscale styling and a choice of either six cylinder or Hemi V-8 power plants for exceptional acceleration and performance. The good news is that the upscale 300 can be had for a price that is half that of an entry level Mercedes.

Ford Flex – If there was ever a vehicle poised to take over the hip hop world from the Cadillac Escalade, the Flex is it. Handsomely equipped in the mid $30’s, the Flex offers an impressive array of options, including headrest mounted DVD systems, voice-activated navigation, and a refrigerated rear console.

Hyundai Santa Fe – The SUV that inspired this article, a top of the line model bears a striking resemblance profile wise to the much more expensive BMW X5. Now we’re not promising comparable performance or anything, but for riding in style that doesn’t require you taking out a third mortgage, this thing is hard to beat.

Mazda RX-8 – This is quite possible the most original sedan styling of the last decade, combining sports car styling with “suicide doors” on the rear, it looks like a lot of the “concept” cars seen at car shows across the country, idealized styling that we all know will never actually make it into production. But this one did, and remains one of the most innovative designs on the road nearly a decade after its debut.

Hyundai Coupe – The low cost automaker strikes again with a sporty two door that would look right at home beside the Nissan 350 or Porsche 911. Removing the nameplate will keep the less informed guessing for a good long while.

Yes, Virginia, you can have automotive fun without losing your beamng life. Pretty much all of the manufacturers both foreign and domestic have high style/low cost options, so check out these and other budget defying wonders at your local dealerships today.

write by Jimmy Spencer