I wholeheartedly second the Babylock suggestion. I just upgraded to their Elizabeth from a newer but very basic Viking and wow -- what a difference! The new machine sews like a dream and I no longer feel like I'm fighting with my tools! I know the Elizabeth is more machine than what a beginner needs, so I just want to say that in my research (and in-store testing!) I would also highly recommend the much less expensive Brother Innov-is 40. I "test drove" the Project Runway edition and I don't think anyone would be disappointed with it. It is a really, really nice machine and it can be found for around $350 on sale. I think the regular price is around $600. I know when I was first looking into buying a sewing machine, anything over $200 would have been unthinkable but looking back I wish I would have gotten something basic but more reliable. Not only would it have lasted me longer, but learning to sew would have been much more enjoyable.
I can also recommend checking Craig's List if it's pretty active in your area. I'm near Seattle, so there's tons of sewing machines for sale all the time. There are some really good deals out there, especially on slightly older machines. Whether you buy new or used, really make an effort to try before you buy and, if possible, take someone along for second opinions and whatnot.