Here's a big number for you: $9.6 trillion.

Nope, that's not the price of AIG's latest bailout request. It's the total amount of money invested in U.S. mutual funds as of the end of 2008, according to the Investment Company Institute. While it's less than the $12 trillion total from the end of 2007 -- thanks, Mr. Market! -- it's still a huge number, one that reflects the enduring popularity of mutual funds.

Or does it?

Well, it doesn't look like a decline, but …
To say that mutual funds aren't the flavor of the month right now is kind of an understatement. Index funds will always have a place in long-term portfolios -- the case for a low-cost way to match the market's return is as strong as ever -- but actively-managed mutual funds get less respect than Rodney Dangerfield these days.

Index funds have been slowly but surely stealing market share from active funds for years -- they accounted for almost 18% of total fund assets as of November 30, versus just over 11% in 2003, according to Financial Research Corp. Further, there's a sense among some industry-watchers that many active funds are running on inertia, pulling in assets via captive audiences in 401(k)s and the clients of brokers who love the fat commissions that many funds still pay.

Certainly, we Fools have long been skeptical of actively managed funds. It's hard not to note that roughly three out of every four active funds underperform their benchmark indexes once fees and expenses are taken into account. The broad case against actively-managed funds seems solid, and with innovations like exchange-traded funds (ETFs) making indexing strategies easier than ever to implement, one can get the sense that history is passing active funds by.

Which is too bad, because there are still some awesome funds out there.

The case for hiring a (great) manager
The best active funds still deliver a lot of performance at a reasonable cost. A low-cost fund with a veteran management team that is well-focused and mindful of turnover can be a tremendous holding for any portfolio, and it can give you great exposure to an asset class where you might not be comfortable picking individual investments -- or where the available indexed products aren't what you want.

And there are still some "go anywhere" active funds whose managers earn their fees and then some. Take the great, giant Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX) and its manager for almost two decades, Will Danoff. Danoff is basically a large-cap-growth investor, but Contrafund's current top holdings include more defensive names like Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) -- companies that make great sense to hold in the current environment. Yet you'll also find plenty of the big-growth stars you'd expect to see, like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Genentech (NYSE:DNA).

This is a great example of how the whole active-manager thing is supposed to work.  Contrafund's open-ended investment objective gives Danoff the freedom to reposition the fund as conditions warrant -- and his decades of experience give his shareholders the benefit of a steady hand in challenging markets.

Dodge & Cox International Stock (DODFX) is another example of the benefits of consistently strong, flexible management. It's a longtime favorite of Foolish fund fiend Amanda Kish; the fund's strategy statement points loosely at largish non-U.S. value stocks, but with plenty of room to roam. While last year wasn't pretty, the fund looks solidly positioned right now behind names like Novartis (NYSE:NVS) and Kyocera (NYSE:KYO), and there are good reasons to believe that the fund is already returning to form. And as Amanda recently pointed out in an article for the Fool's Champion Funds newsletter, last year's underperformance means that shares are cheap right now -- a situation that isn't likely to last.

Finding those elusive fund champs
If you're looking for more funds along these lines -- including some hybrid and bond-focused funds that are worthy of your attention -- you may want to check out the new issue of Champion Funds, available online at 4 p.m. EST today. The aforementioned Amanda -- Champion Funds' lead advisor -- has put together a comprehensive review of 64 different "Champions" -- actively-managed funds that deliver on their promises and appear positioned to consistently outperform over the long-term, just like the ones we've been talking about.

As I've noted, sometimes a great mutual fund can be exactly what you need to fill out a corner of your portfolio, and starting your research from Amanda's list will greatly improve your chances of success over time. Simply choose the funds that interest you from her summary chart, and follow up in the newsletter's archives to read about the fund's management and approach in much more detail.

Not a subscriber? Doesn't matter! You can get complete access to the whole deal for 30 days, including all of Champion Funds' resources, absolutely free of charge. Click here to get started now.

Fool contributor John Rosevear has no position in the stocks or funds mentioned. The Fool owns shares of Dodge & Cox International Stock, which is a Motley Fool Champion Funds selection. Johnson & Johnson is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy has low fees, low turnover, and the most sure-handed management in the business.