General car guy here…I love giving car advice
Here’s my opinion on a variety of cars in the smaller-sedan category:
Toyota Corolla: Great reputation (don’t worry about the engine failure problems on the Camrys and Siennas, that’s a different engine), all-new 2003 model is available now, plenty of features, should last a long time. Cons include relatively high price.
Toyota Echo: Slightly smaller than the Corolla, probably equally reliable, and a few $1000s cheaper. If you like Toyotas and you want a true budget model, this is it. Cons: Some think it’s ugly, maybe a little small.
Honda Civic: Great reputation, easy ordering (no stinking option packages!). Cons: Relatively high price.
Hyundai Elantra: Very low price for its size and feature content. Questionable reputation, but it’s getting great reviews from all the car magazines and such. Worth looking at.
Ford Focus: Known for its sporty handling and “European” design. Prices are reasonable, not the lowest or highest in the class. Cons include questionable quality/reliability.
Suzuki Esteem: A decent vehicle. Reliable, but nothing special. 2002 is its last model year, so you can probably get them cheap.
Suzuki Aerio: New for 2002, will replace the Esteem, which is being phased out. Getting good reviews, expect reasonably good reliability. Has the Focus/Echo “tall sedan” look that some think is ugly.
Kia Spectra: Probably not as bad as people think, but not best in class, either. Very low price and reasonably high content. Expect slightly below average quality/reliability; maybe you’ll get a good one and be pleasantly surprised.
Dodge Neon: An average choice. Low price, especially now that Chrysler Group is offering huge incentives. Nicely styled, in most people’s opinion. Not a particularly powerful or sporty car, but you may not care about that. Chrysler reliability is still a little questionable.
Chevy Cavalier: You probably don’t want one of these. Price is low and feature content is decent, but it’s basically a brand new 1982 model. Good if you like simple vehicles and you want to do your own maintenance and repairs, but if you want refinement and modernity, this isn’t it.
Pontiac Sunfire: Basically the same car as the Cavalier. It has a little more going for it (more features, sportier styling), but still not a great car.
VW Jetta: A fairly large compact car. Decent feature content, but high price. Initial quality is good, but expect only average long-term reliability.
Mitsubishi Lancer: New for 2002. A better car than the previous Mirage; worth looking at. Particularly good safety ratings. Price is a little high if you want all the features. Mitsu reliability is good, but not as good as other Japanese makes.
Mazda Protege: Known for sporty handling. More powerful 2.0L engine is standard on all Proteges for 2002. A fairly old design underneath, so it may seem a little rough, but supposedly a fun car to drive.
Nissan Sentra: One of the most boring-looking cars in this class, but at least it’s not ugly. Quality should be good; price is reasonable. Particularly annoying option package configuration (all Nissans have this problem).
I think that covers just about all the possibilities. Good luck.