Not everyone can (or wants to) shell out the money for a new car, but luckily there are plenty of great used vehicles out there.
As always, keep in mind that while certain cars are safer bets than others, the condition and availability of individual vehicles can vary widely, affecting both the price and the advisability of a used-car purchase.
2006 Acura TL
Acura is often criticized for building cars that are too similar to those of parent company Honda, but that’s good news for used car shoppers. It means an Acura will still work properly with a few miles on it.
The second-generation TL in particular was a sweet spot for Acura. Unlike the first-gen model, it has distinctive styling, but unlike the current model, that styling isn’t so distinctive as to be polarizing.
This TL was also considered to be one of the better-handling front-wheel drive cars of its day, and it functioned without the complicated technology that’s been piled on more-recent Acuras.
2008 BMW 3 Series
Few new cars come quite as well-recommended as the BMW 3 Series, which seems to win every magazine comparison test it’s entered in.
That’s down to a well-balanced rear-wheel drive (all-wheel drive is available on certain models) chassis and smooth inline engines. Since it’s a BMW, the cabin isn’t exactly the worst place to be either.
BMWs don’t have a reputation for being as bulletproof as other cars, but a well-maintained example can prove reliable. Remember to look for the best car possible, and keep in mind that the wide array of body, drivetrain, and trim combinations can make for a varied range of prices.
2007 Ford Mustang
The Mustang is the quintessential affordable American performance car, and so it makes a good used performance car as well.
A $15,000 budget should net a model from after the 2005 retro redesign, so you can pretend to be Steve McQueen all day long.
With the departure of the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird in 2002, the Mustang was the only pony-car game in town for most of the last decade, so there should be many used examples to comb threw.
A healthy aftermarket means there also plenty of ways to upgrade and customize your ‘Stang.
2006 Honda Pilot
The Pilot is the Accord of midsize crossovers, in that it’s generic to the point of being a Platonic ideal form.
So the Pilot is low on fun, but big on practicality and, quite frankly, if you’re planning on buying one of these school buses, fun was never really in the cards.
Still, this crossover will get plenty of stuff and people from place to place effortlessly, and like all Hondas it will do that without much of a fuss.
2010 Kia Soul
If style figures heavily in your decision-making process, consider Kia’s box on wheels.
The Soul is not a sporty car, but it is a fun one. Even if CGI hamsters weren’t schilling for it, anyone would have a hard time looking at a Soul without cracking a smile.
It’s also ideally sized for urban driving, and since it’s only been on sale for a few years, it hasn’t gone out of style.
The Mazda6 isn’t as popular as its rivals from Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. Maybe that’s because fewer people have heard of it, or because those who have can’t stand looking at it’s grinning front fascia.
If the Mazda’s unusual styling is to your liking, you’ll find a reliable car from the company that created the Miata and RX-8. It’s a little funky and offbeat, but can still do everything important.
Also, you probably won’t see another one on the road.
2008 Subaru Impreza
For most people, all-wheel drive and a high seating position are one and the same. It doesn’t have to be this way.
In addition to having impeccable reliability and safety records, the Impreza offers plenty of extra traction, which should come in handy if you live in a place where weather occurs.
That all-wheel drive system, combined with a decently powerful boxer engine, makes the Impreza a decently engaging car to drive. Plus, there’s the whole World Rally Championship halo effect.
2006 Subaru Outback
The Outback is part station wagon, part crossover, and all awesome. Even if you’re not a Subaru cultists, it’s easy to appreciate the all-wheel drive Outback’s superior driving dynamics and fuel economy when compared to larger crossovers and SUVs.
Like all Subarus, Outbacks are legendarily reliable because they’re built like farm equipment, and are about as luxurious. With base models, at least, there just isn’t too much to damage.
2010 Toyota Prius
Hybrid cars have been on the road long enough that many are showing up on used car lots and, like anyone else, people who are more interested in mpg than mph sometimes don’t have the money to spend on a new car.
So if you want a green used car, why not go for the lozenge-shaped model that put hybrids on the proverbial map?
There are more Toyota Priuses on the road than any other hybrid. They are, after all, Toyotas. If there’s a safe bet in the emerging used hybrid market, this is it.
2006 Toyota Tacoma
Just as Rolls-Royce is known for luxury and Volvo is known for safety, so Toyota is known for reliability. That reputation stems from the Japanese automaker’s small – but indestructible – trucks.
Everyone from Top Gear to the Taliban has tested the reliability of Toyota trucks, and said trucks have survived the worst that’s been thrown at them.
Today, the Tacoma carries on the legacy of those redoubtable trucks. It’s also part of a vanishing breed: a pickup that doesn’t require two mall parking spaces.