I'm a little surprised at just how many people here don't own a strat already; it's the meat and potatos of the electric guitar!
Strats are great, I don't know why so many people are ragging on them all the time. They have a nice quack, they're sensitive to picking dynamics, and there's just nothing like a good strat. Granted, Fender has some of the crappiest consistency I have ever seen in a gutiar manufacturer. Go to a HUGE guitar store and try every Fender Strat they have. I guarantee you if they have 50, no more than 2 or 3 of them will feel, play, or sound roughly the same. I went strat hunting many years ago and played a lot of real crappers before I found the one for me: a 1996 Fender Strat Plus. It has matte finish hardware, mother of pearl pickguard, gold lace sensor pickups, and locking machine heads. I've never owned another guitar that's more stable tuning-wise, and I do divebombs on a non-locking trem! It was the first guitar I had that I did a lot of serious playing on and I never knew why people used humbuckers to avoid hum, because these pickups are dead silent. It plays like BUTTER and sounds amazing. I love this strat and wouldn't trade it for all the VWHs or JS10ths in the world.
There are also a lot of total **** strats. Don't play one or two and assume that they're a good representation of all the others out there. About a year and a half ago I was looking to spend about $1100 on a really nice Telecaster. I tried dozens, and ended up buying a $350 Mexican made one that had damage on the neck heel, but its tone just blew the others away. I don't get Fender, they have absolutely no manufacturing consistency whatsoever!
That being said, do NOT buy a strat without playing it first. Bad move.
Since Fender made some revisions to its American line, I can honestly say that the average American strat is a bit better quality. There's this BRIGHT blue one at the local guitar store I've been eying for a while, but money's a wee bit tight. Also, I've heard great things about Lindy Fralin pickups.. I'm itching to put them into a strat some time. If you're willing to spend more money, check out the Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic. I tried one a few months back and it absolutely blew me away.