When it's time for Americans to buy their next vehicle, the overwhelming consensus is to go used. At the end of 2015, used car sales figures more than doubled that of all-new purchases, with 38.3 million used vehicles sold compared to 17.5 million brand new cars and trucks. This trend is frequently driven by the lower depreciation associated with used vehicles, the obviously reduced entry costs, and the unmistakable charm of a worn-in ride (or at least the freedom that comes with buying a car that already has a few minor dents and dings).
While used is often better, how should you pick which brands, models, and styles are best for you? Below is a top-pick guide for used cars on the market today to help you better choose your next family hauler, workday workhorse, or weekend warrior. The list is broken down by price bracket and segment, with a few different offerings for each category. In order to pick the term “best,” we've looked at reliability data from real owners, costs per entry and maintenance, as well as our own expert guidance on their reputations.
Under $10,000 – Small Cars:
The Mazda 3 is renowned for its equipment, driving characteristics, and is a great way to get a lot of bang for your buck. If you're willing to deal with a little older model year, a 2002-2005 Impreza is a reliable way to get standard AWD for harsh weather conditions and northern motoring. The basic single cam 2.5 liter flat four is notoriously reliable and it's best to stick with a manual transmission for longevity. Toby S., one of YourMechanic’s certified technicians, says that Subaru Imprezas are “loads of fun to drive, generally very reliable, and if you spring for the wagon, they have a huge amount of useable cargo space for such a small car. Stick with the manual transmission though, as the automatic variety tended to be troublesome.”
For a true Honda-built gem, the Acura RSX is also a great way to get premium driving at a fraction of the cost. Some of the 2006 Type-S models can even be had for less than $10,000 - if you're willing to deal with about 125,000 miles.
Under $10,000 – Sedans:
For AWD, safety, and a funky driving experience, the two generations of Subaru Legacy found between 2000 and 2007 are a slam-dunk. These midsize offerings are spacious inside, especially in wagon variety where you can have nearly 70 cubic feet of cargo space between each generation. CarComplaints.com indicates hardly any issues with these models, with a careful eye needed on the 2005 GT cars for their first-year turbo engines. Check out the first generation Ford Fusion as well for its wide variety of trim levels, engines and transmissions. The early Fusions show little complaints from CarComplaints.com while TrueDelta.com shows the 2008 and 2009s to have the least trips to the repair shop. Our own repair data indicates the average cost to maintain a Fusion is $144. Another option are the two generations of Saab 9-5s between 2006 and 2011. Their global construction made them reliable and reasonable to repair - with average maintenance costs around $205, these premium sedans can be had for a great price with great power and lots of interior space and amenities.
Under $10,000 - SUVs:
Despite the premium features of the WK Grand Cherokee, these Jeeps can still be had for less than $10,000. The V8 models are the ones to go after as the 3.7 V6s are known to have more issues than their eight cylinder counterparts. A tidy alternative to the Jeep is the exceptionally reliable second generation Subaru Forester. With available turbo power and AWD toughness, the Forester should let you travel longer in between services according the TrueDelta.com - as long as you keep up with its routine maintenance. For big, boat hauling needs, the early GMT800 Chevrolet Tahoe is a wise choice. Cross referencing data from CarCompliants.com and TrueDelta.com show that an unsavory issue with the cooling system is prominent in the 2004s, so make sure to stick with the early ones – which means you can find low mileage examples for less than $10,000.
Under $10,000 - Trucks:
For mid-size pickup truck majesty, it's hard to beat the first generation Toyota Tacoma. Hardly any issues from CarComplaints.com exist, and resale prices tend to show why. Toby said that “these trucks are extremely reliable, and very sought after, especially in the 4WD models. The 4WD models are extremely capable off road right from the factory, and have a host of available aftermarket parts. They command a premium resale price, and are regularly seen with over 300,000 miles on the odometer and still going strong.”
A solid larger choice would be 2006-2008 Ford F-150. The final examples of the eleventh generation pickup are noted to be the most reliable from CarComplaints.com and TrueDelta.com. Finally, if you need a “tow rig” for less than $10,000, the early 12 valve Cummins Dodge Rams are arguably one of the most reliable trucks on the road, with plenty of potential for even more power and flexibility for alternative fueling.
$10,000 - $15,000 - Small Cars:
Of the past generation Elantra triplets, the little five-door hatchback GT is the stand-out. Based off the global i30 platform, the GT not only came available with the most premium features and 51 cubic feet of total cargo space, its two inch shorter wheelbase compared to its sedan and coupe siblings gave it tighter handling characteristics.
The 2012-2015 Ford Fiesta is another late model car with posh amenities and a tidy driving style. Because of their low price when new, you can get loaded Titanium models still as a certified pre-owned Ford.
If you want another certified pre-owned small car, the 2013 and 2014 Honda Fits are your best bet. With the least amount of documented problems, you can get a well-equipped, reliable and warrantied used car for a great price with the Fit. According to Toby, the Honda Fit is “an awesome entry in the subcompact market. Not available in the US until 2007, the Fit was an instant success. The later generation shares the same high points, which are legendary reliability and ultimate versatility. It also incorporates Honda's innovative ‘Magic Seat,’ which folds a number of ways to create several seating modes: long mode, tall mode, utility mode, and refresh mode.”
$10,000 - $15,000 - Sedans:
When the Camry was redesigned in 2012, it brought back the marquee's tried-and-true reliable groove. With high ranks from TrueDelta.com and CarComplaints.com for its ease of maintenance, the newer Camry can be in your driveway with modern amenities for less than 15 grand. The 2014 Hyundai Sonata is another almost-new sedan alternative with high reliability rankings and solid driving dynamics – especially in 2.0T form. It's important to try and stick with the 2014 though as some of the early sixth generation Sonatas – the 2011s specifically – have massive complaints regarding engine seizing. Another solid option is the Honda Accord but in 2010, 201,1 or 2012 variety. Despite launching in 2008, the eighth generation Accord has low reliability rankings from CarComplaints.com for its early model years – with the kinks worked out for the final bow before the ninth generation launched in 2013.
$10,000 - $15,000 - SUVs:
If versatility is your utmost priority in an SUV for $15,000, look for a low mileage late model Honda Element. The SC trim is particularly appealing and the reliability is pure old-school Honda. “This is a fun, funky little vehicle,” says Toby. “At least it looks little from the outside. Once you're inside and see all the space though, it's a totally different story. The rear seats can be easily removed to maximize storage and utility of the vehicle, and the floor and sides of the inside are made of plastic, making cleanup a breeze as you can simply wash with a bucket of water and a sponge.”
For a slightly larger and more truck-like experience, try a late model third generation Nissan Pathfinder. With low complaints from CarComplaints.com, this is a rugged alternative to the crossovers usually associated with mid-size SUVs. Not to mention, you can get the hairy chested 5.6 liter V8 as an option. With 15 grand, you can also find some solid Volvo XC90s – mostly in 3.2 liter straight six form – with high reliability rankings and high driver feedback.
$10,000 - $15,000 - Trucks:
With a fully-boxed frame, a powerful 4.0 liter V6, and various trim configurations, the Frontier is a solid mid-size truck option for $15,000. Browsing CarGurus.com, you can even find the robust PRO-4X, with Bilstein shocks and a locking differential, for the price range. The 2009-2013 F-150 is a bigger option, while the older years can grant you access to the premium XLT and FX4 trims. For big towing and diesel flexibility, the GMT880 heavy-duty Duramax pickups are a solid choice – just be mindful of the 2002s for their brake line rust issues.
$15,000 - $20,000 - Small Cars:
With nearly $20,000 in your pocket, you can pick up a healthy certified pre-owned Hyundai Veloster Turbo with the exceptional 10 year/100,000 mile warranty still in play. For something a little less racy, give the current generation Nissan Sentra a try to keep a warranty as well. The ninth generation Honda Civic is another high ranking option with less than 20 reported trips to a service station according to TrueDelta.com.
$15,000 - $20,000 - Sedans:
Unlike its older G35 sibling, the Infiniti G37 is a smoother, more reliable luxury sedan alternative for less than $20,000. The Lexus GS350 can also be had in this price bracket and is known for being seen as reliable on CarComplaints.com and TrueDelta.com. If luxury isn't your thing, going back to the late model Camry is a solid option in order to get a low mileage V6 variety for less than 20 grand.
$15,000 - $20,000 - SUVs:
The GMT900 SUVs are a General Motors top pick – as long as you avoid the first year 2007s. While you can get a 2011 for less than $20,000, we recommend going a bit older with the Yukon to score a high-end trim level and the 6.0 liter V8. Want something smaller? Give the current generation Ford Escape a try, which ranks well with TrueDelta.com's Repair Trip reliability rating. The Honda Pilot is solid middle ground if you want a little more space than the Escape and rugged Honda build quality.
$15,000 - $20,000 - Trucks:
The Tacoma is always a solid choice for reliability and low maintenance costs. We recommend sticking with the older model years to get the best options in the $15,000 - $20,000 range. For something a little larger, try the Ram starting in 2009. The fourth generation's revised rear suspension is a nice alternative to its leaf-sprung counterparts from Chevy and Ford, while Hemi V8s can be had for less than $20,000. For diesel power, we recommend searching for a Ford F-250 Super Duty with its much improved 6.4 liter PowerStroke V8.
$20,000 - $25,000 - Small Cars:
With $25,000 to spend, the small car spectrum gets pretty fast. The Focus ST is available, with many certified pre-owned options. The 265 horsepower Subaru Impreza WRX can also be had if you want fast and AWD. For something a little more subdued yet premium, the BMW 128i is oddly reliable with its basic N52 3.0 liter straight six. Toby says that, “although the nickname of ‘rocket sled’ normally applies to the BMW 135, the 128 is still a solid performer with a less problematic motor and predictable handling. Available as a coupe or a convertible, there is no shortage of good times to be found in a 1 Series BMW, and it will still have all the comforts you expects from a BMW.”
$20,000 - $25,000 - SUVs:
Don’t be fooled by some sour online reviews as the flat six variety fourth generation Outback is a solid and reliable performer. Whereas the 2.5 liter trims have engine and CVT troubles, the 3.6R, with its timing chain and 5-speed automatic, is a recipe for miles of useful smiles. If you avoid the first year WK II Grand Cherokees, you can get the SUVs mantle of awards without the unsavory reliability issues from the first-year 3.6 liter Pentastar V6. The seven/six seater Santa Fe is also a solid choice, with its smooth V6 power, extremely well-equipped interior, and chance to buy into the car’s 10 year/100,000 miles warranty.
$20,000 - $25,000 - Trucks:
Following some unsavory HVAC issues indicated by CarComplaints.com.com on the 2011, the 2012 and up Nissan Titan is a solid full-size truck with little reported reliability issues. Because it was made for 11 years, the first generation Titan is also cost-effective to maintain. For $25,000, you can also get a solid and reliable late model heavy-duty Silverado for towing and workhorse needs, or a low mileage 2004-2005 Ram 3500 dually for some really heavy pulling.
$25,000 - $30,000 - Sedans:
Want a different luxury sedan for less than $30,000? Give the Volvo S80 a try. Most late models can still be had in certified pre-owned variety to help you save on any potential maintenance issues. It’s also possible to get a turbocharged N55 powered BMW 535i. Oddly enough, the first year 2011 ranks highest for reliability according to TrueDelta.com. If you’d like a calm yet rowdy 429 horsepower 5.0 liter V8 wrapped up in an extremely comfortable and spacious sedan, give the Genesis R-Spec a try – you might even get the warranty still.
$25,000 - $30,000 - SUVs:
For big luxury and big reliability, you can’t go wrong with an Escalade. Both CarComplaints.com and TrueDelta.com indicate the ‘09 and ‘10 Cadillacs are top performers for reliability – and many can be found with less than 100,000 miles depending on your location. The 2012 through 2014 Wrangler Unlimited is also a smart choice for a little more adventure. We recommend sticking with a ’13 to avoid the first-year engine issues sometimes associated with the Pentastar V6. For something a bit more car-like, the 2012 and 2013 Toyota Highlanders offer a wide variety of features in a manageable yet reliable package.
$25,000 - $30,000 - Trucks:
If you yearn for the luxury land yachts of the 1960s, simply buy a 2011 GMC Sierra 2500HD Denali. This wonderful truck blends luxury with brute force and utility all for average prices less than $30,000. A smaller option is the top-ranking 2013 turbocharged F150. Compared to other model years, the ’13 makes some of the fewest repair trips according to TrueDelta.com. For around the same price, you can actually find a strangely reliable early year Ford Raptor for your off-road needs.
For a wide price bracket of $10,000 to $30,000, you can find virtually any used vehicle to suit your needs and desires. Have a little extra cash? We recommend sticking with certified pre-owned luxury cars when you get up to the 40 to 50 grand rang. This way, you can ensure the car is maintained by its factory warranty. Infiniti, Lexus, and BMW tend to be the most well built in this price bracket, so try and stick with these makes.
If you can afford more than $50,000 to spend on a used car, we have one name for you: Porsche 911. These are notoriously reliable and well made for their prestige.
Still curious about which used car is right for you? Ask one of our expert technicians for advice on a specific car – they’re available to help answer any question you may have about your current and soon-to-be car, truck, or SUV.
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