A:Before we go straight to brands, lets talk generalities. It sounds to me as if youre looking for a decent all-purpose road bike, one that could likely handle fenders for wet weather, maybe a rack for gear, but that doesnt look out of place on a longer ride around the city or out into the country. And it has to be sturdy, to stand up to city riding with its potholes and other indignities.
With all that in mind, Id lean strongly toward a cross bike. These are the bikes designed for muddy trail races. But they also make fantastic all-purpose bikes, as theyre fairly fast and sporty, but also have typically better wheel clearance than road" bikes, and often more braze-ons for racks and fenders. Cantilever or even disc brakes also offer more stopping power in wet weather.
I use a Fuji Cross Pro ($1,649) for a commuter, and its great. Lots of room for fenders, the aluminum frame rides better than most (carbon fork helps), and the Mavic wheels have taken tremendous abuse and stood up to the task. When I bought mine two years ago it had a Shimano setup with Ultegra and Dura-Acenow Fuji has gone to SRAM, also a good choice. The Fuji Cross Comp has slightly lesser components but the same frame, and comes in at $1,225, a little closer to your budget. Again, you always can look for a slightly used one on eBay or elsewhere and save a boatload of $$.
Another good choice would be Cannondales Cyclocross 6, which retails for $1,179, but I always figure there is a chance of finding one on sale or getting last years model. Its a nice bikeCannondale aluminum frame with carbon forks to smooth things out, a mix of FSA/SRAM/Shimano component, canti brakes, and sturdy wheels. Itll do well.
The best buys out there are probably to be had from Redline. The Redline Conquest ($900) has an aluminum frame and carbon fork, FSA and SRAM components, Alex wheels, and compact crank with 28-tooth little cassette ring in back for good climbing, and canti brakes. A lot of bike for the money, and easily upgradeable in the years to come. Plus I love the red and black paintvery sharp.