[Mac McGinnis]"I normally shoot 1080/60i with my end target to be DVD's and upload to Vimeo. In the past when I've rendered to MPG2 and made DVD's they've turned out well. Fairly crisp video etc. ...Any suggestions regarding my shooting mode or rendering options to improve the quality?"
Just because your camera can shoot 60p doesn't mean you should. NTSC DVD's are 60i. For the best quality, you should shoot 60i, make your project 60i, and render to 60i.
[Mac McGinnis]"Bad part about it is the footage from my $400 Sony looks better than that from the $3500 Sony."
I've experienced the same thing. The footage from my little Sony HDR-CX12 AVCHD camera $500 looks better than the footage from my Sony HVR-A1U HDV camera $2500 especially in low light because the little camera has better low light capability than the larger one. I noticed this while shooting rock bands in dark clubs that the little CX12 had less noise. Part of this may be due to the formats of AVCHD vs HDV. So depending on what formats your cameras shoot, the cheaper one might actually do a better job in certain situations.
[Mac McGinnis]"I also found out one of my render settings was wrong. Discovered a post of yours from a couple years ago that straightened that out."
I wish there was sone kind of FAQ that we could save some of the better posts because there is a lot of buried knowledge in these forums. Glad you found an answer.