Maya is my personal choice for "recreational" modeling and rendering. I've invested a few hundred dollars in a complete set of "Learning Maya" books and have the "Personal Learning Edition" that came with it. I also have worked with (but obviously don't personally own it due to cost) the "Unlimited" edition of Maya 6. For the sort of trek-related stuff we do here, you don't really need Unlimited... it mainly gives additional particle effects (water, etc), and hair/fur capabilities... things like that. For doing technology, having the "Personal Learning Edition" (which you can get essentially for free, or get as part of a "Beginner's Guide" DVD bundle for only something like $30... this is definitely the way I'd go.
I've worked with Lightwave, 3DSMax, and Maya... but I chose Maya because it's just so much easier to learn (IMHO).
Now, if I can only find a good tool for exporting Pro/E files and importing them into MAYA without losing surfaces and appearances... I really like doing the hard mechanical stuff in there (that's what it's designed for). I use Pro/E at work... a personal copy of that will run ya about $6,000, but the build-in renderer is not particularly capable (nor is it really intended for any such purpose).
Anyone have any experience getting ProE files into any of the computer animation/rendering packages we're talking about without data loss?