Do your automotive press homework, read Car and Driver and Motor Trend online reviews. But remember that these publications can often favor “fun” and performance over other considerations. Consumer Reports just recently released their top ten new cars, and the Kia Optima is on it.
A Honda Accord with the V-6 has plenty of guts (and if you like a manual tranny, Honda’s is one of the absolute best) and is, and has for decades, been an all around great car.
Ditto the V-6 Camry, although a little bit bland for me, though it did get a recent refresh.
Subaru makes GREAT cars, but I’d be leery of a performance model like the WRX or WRX-Sti used, they have likely been driven very hard or even modified.
Mazda seems to garner a lot of automotive press for their “fun to drive factor” across almost their entire carline, including the 3, the 6 and ultimately, the MX-5 (which is NOT a practical car other than MPG’s, but one of the most grin-inducing cars I have ever driven).
The newer Ford Fusions are actually good cars, especially the brand new ones. My boss has a Fusion Sport with AWD and it’s a riot to drive, but only available new (and at $40k) right now.
Finally, the new Chevy Malibu with the 2.0L turbo engine might be your cup of tea. Talk about a car that’s made leaps and bounds in quality/technology, etc in only a few years.
Another option for you if you don’t want to buy new is to lease a car. If you can keep your car under 15k miles a year and don’t damage it beyond normal wear and tear (and they’re a lot less restrictive about that stuff than in the old days) it’s a good option for a cheaper payment, more car for your payment money, and it’s always under warranty. At the end, you can buy it outright, trade it in (although you will have some negative equity, some cars much more than others) or just hand in the keys and walk away. Or lease another new car then.