I went ahead and did a little searching for you on dpreview.
I did a features search tool from the menu, lookinjg for the following features, as I find them most suitable for what I think you may be interested in, and what may help you to go ahead and get the best images possible.
My search criteria is:
Price (street): US$ 400 or less
Release Status: Not discontinued (current or upcoming)
Image stabilization: Yes
Aperture priority: Yes
Shutter priority: Yes
Price, I chose as it is your price range. I assumed you wanted to buy new. I think image stabilization is a great feature for new shutterbugs and veterans alike. It removes hand-shake. Aperture priority makes shooting those nice blurred background shots easier. Shutter priority is great for capturing action, as you can set the shutter speed and shoot away, not worrying about getting blurred action.
In order of average street price, low to high, here is what I found.
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z5
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ4
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7
Canon PowerShot A710 IS
Canon PowerShot S2 IS
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z6
They all feature 12x optical zoom (around 35mm-420/430ish.) except the a710, that is only a 6x zoom.
Many of the features are similar, here is a link to side by side comparison:
Personally, I've heard GREAT things about the panasonic. I checked out the sample pictures though, and was troubled by two things. 1) they all seem a little bit washed out to me. This could be an ok thing though, as 'exposing to the right' causes this sort of thing. The way image sensors work is by levels of color, decreasing in cound on each level of dynamic range. Technically, slightly overexposed (but not blown out) images can be corrected with more color data than underexposed images. So, perhaps taking those images into photoshop and fixing the colors may yield overall a great exposure. Hard to say, not knowing. The other thing that troubles me about the panasonic is the CA I see where white meets dark. This shows as a small, often purplish line that traces the border. It seems to be in the panasonic images a lot, and thats a little unnerving. It can be seen VERY VERY pronounced here at the head of this bird. (baaaad) http://img2.dpreview.com/gallery/pan...s/p1000716.jpg
I will try to leave you to look at the samples yourself so you can form your own opinions. Look for what you like in terms of saturation of colors, contrast, sharpness, bokeh (background blur), color range, noise levels (graininess), and dynamic range (highlights to shadows). These are all proprietary to your the camera you buy, and will define how your images are created. Also, in this case, the following are also built into your camera, by way of an attached lens. CA is that purplish ring around borders of high contrast that I talked about above. Vignetting is where you get darker towards the outer edges of your images. Distortion (Barrel or otherwise) is where your image is distorted from what it looks like in real life. Also, contrast and resolving power have a lot to do with the glass on your camera.
Ultimately, at the place you are in your photography endeavors, you should be choosing a camera based on what the camera does for you and how it fits you. Dont be so concerned over accuracy of a camera, and worry more about what YOU find pleasing.
Even myself, buying canon for my choice in cameras, know that canon does NOT produce the most accurate colors of the choices available in the dSLR class I purchase in. But, I enjoy the saturated vibrant colors that it offers more than I enjoy real life colors. Something that comes from me using films like velvia back in the day of film.
Soooo, hold the camera in your hands, try it out, check out the images it produces (not on an LCD, i mean look at them on your monitor or in print, at high resolution). You'll know the camera you like when you hold it and when you see those images. You'll just FEEL it fit right to you.