Save 20 Percent by Betting on a 'Dark Horse Car'

It's almost car-buying season for new vehicles.

— -- "Dark horse" is an old horse racing term that describes an unlikely winner. And you know what happens when you bet on an unknown horse and it wins the race? YOU win big money!

That's also the idea behind "dark horse cars," a term coined by auto website edmunds.com. The Edmunds editors define them as cars that are roughly equivalent to the most popular makes and models but less well known -- so, less expensive. How much less? You could save big money -- up to 20 percent by purchasing a dark horse car instead of its in-demand twin, according to Edmunds.

As we near the end of the year, it's car-buying season for new vehicles, but this strategy also works for used cars. For example, I priced used Toyota Camrys, one of the best-selling cars for decades, and used Nissan Altimas, a comparable dark horse car. I found cars the same age, with the same options and same mileage, and yet the Altima was $5,000 less!

Edmunds Senior Consumer Advice Editor Phil Reed pointed out now is an excellent time to buy what are sometimes considered "second tier" vehicles because quality across all brands has improved, resulting in safer cars that last longer almost across the board.

I asked Edmunds Automotive Editor John DiPietro if he'd assemble an updated list of dark horse cars for you, my readers. What a guy! He came through with a long list and commentary on what makes these lesser-known vehicles worthwhile. Enjoy!

2015 Buick LaCrosse: "The 2015 Buick LaCrosse is a well-rounded large sedan that pampers its occupants and drives nicely -- especially with the V6."

2015 Chrysler 200: "With a more-powerful base four-cylinder engine and a thoroughly overhauled interior, the midsize 2015 Chrysler 200 sedan has what it takes to fight for a spot in your driveway."

2015 Ford C-Max Hybrid: "The 2015 Ford C-Max Hybrid is an interesting alternative to compact crossovers, wagons and hybrids. Its high fuel economy and refined driving manners make it especially appealing."

2015 Ford Fiesta: "The 2015 Ford Fiesta is a fun-to-drive small car, with a nicely trimmed cabin, excellent build quality and plenty of connectivity features. If you're looking for an economy sedan or hatchback that feels like a more expensive car than it really is, the Fiesta deserves serious consideration."

2015 Hyundai Genesis: "The Hyundai Genesis has always offered plenty of features at a very agreeable price. But this year's redesigned 2015 Genesis has all that, plus the quality interior and overall refinement it was missing previously. It's a top choice for a luxury sedan."

2015 Hyundai Sonata: "The 2015 Hyundai Sonata further refines the midsize sedan formula with a new look, revised powertrain and plenty of tech and convenience features. If you want plenty of passenger room and a quiet, easy-to-live-with cabin, this Sonata definitely has what you're looking for."

2015 Kia Forte "Upscale design, quality and value underscore the 2015 Kia Forte's appeal. It's certainly a great choice for a small sedan, hatchback or coupe."

2015 Kia Sedona: "With more modern style, a new interior, a fuel-efficient V6 and loads of standard features, the 2015 Kia Sedona should make a compelling alternative to established minivan choices."

2014 Mazda 5: "The sporty 2014 Mazda 5 is a good option for small families who don't need all the space and amenities of a full-size minivan but still want three rows of seating."

2015 Nissan Altima: "The 2015 Nissan Altima continues to be a top choice among family sedans, delivering excellent fuel economy and a rare blend of comfort and agility."

Opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.

Elisabeth Leamy is a 20-year consumer advocate for programs including "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show." She is the author of “Save BIG” and “The Savvy Consumer.” Elisabeth is also a professional speaker, delivering talks nationwide on saving money, media relations and career success. Elisabeth receives her best story tips from readers, so please connect with her via Facebook, Twitter or her website to share your ideas.