Motorists are spending more than ever on a new car, but that doesn’t mean you need to take out a second mortgage to commute in a reliable, comfortable, and stylish car. Used cars are longer-lasting than they’ve ever been — which partly explains why the average car on American roads is nearly 12 years old — so you’ll enjoy worry-free trips if you find a good one. We’ve picked out six good options that are relatively easy to find for under $10,000.
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We used the Edmunds True Market Value tool to determine which cars met our pricing criteria by looking up the value of a clean, entry-level example with about 100,000 miles on the clock. From there, we looked at reliability scores from Consumer Reports to see how these cars are likely to hold up in daily use. Finally, we considered factors like safety, performance, practicality, and style to see which cars were genuinely worth buying.
Why should you buy this: It ticks all of the boxes, and then some.
Who’s it for: Anyone seeking a practical, stress-free car.
How much will it cost: About $10,000.
Why we picked the 2009 Toyota RAV4:
The Toyota RAV4 is several cars rolled into one. It’s a relatively roomy crossover, so you can take it on a road trip without feeling cramped. It’s reasonably efficient, especially with the four-cylinder engine, so it won’t empty your wallet if you use it to commute. And, while it’s not a bona fide off-roader, it has enough ground clearance to hold its own on dirt roads. Finally, it’s a Toyota, so you know it’ll keep going without requiring regular trips to the shop.
The 2009 RAV4 shows how quickly in-car technology evolved during the 2010s. Don’t expect to find a giant, state-of-the-art touchscreen that displays an internet-connected infotainment system. You’ll have to settle for a relatively basic stereo with a CD player, but that’s par for the course in this segment of the used car market. Living without an infotainment system isn’t as dramatic as it sounds, especially not if you invest in a good smartphone cradle and a charging cable.
Used examples with under 100,000 miles on the clock are available nationwide for less than $10,000. Ask for service records — they don’t have to come from a Toyota dealership, and an independent repair shop or a skilled do-it-yourself-er can keep up a car just fine, but you want some kind of proof that your next car has been properly maintained.
The best used SUV
Why should you buy this: It can tow, go off-road, and coddle its occupants.
Who’s it for: Motorists who need a big, burly SUV.
How much will it cost: About $10,000.
Why we picked the 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee:
Wow — the 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee certainly shows its age. Its styling isn’t what we’d call gracefully timeless, but its best attributes are. It’s capable off-road, and it’s a blank slate for modifications if you want to go farther off the beaten path. It’s well equipped, especially if you get the Limited trim level, and it’s available with a powerful V8 that’s happy to tow nearly anything you can put on a trailer.
The trade-off is that the Grand Cherokee isn’t very fuel efficient. Jeep offered this generation of the model with a six- or eight-cylinder engine, and both like to slurp gasoline.
Used 2010 examples with under 100,000 miles are readily available nationwide for less than $10,000. This is a ballpark suggestion — you might be able to find a 2008 or 2011 with similar miles for about the same amount of money. As always, ask for service records, and be careful about buying an example that has spent the past decade towing a horse or exploring the woods in the Appalachians. Take it from us: It’s wiser to buy a car without a hitch and spend a few hundred dollars installing one yourself than to buy one with a hitch and spend a few grand rebuilding the transmission six months later.
The best used fuel-efficient used car
Why you should buy this: It’s fuel-efficient without the complexity of a hybrid.
Who’s it for: Frugal commuters.
How much will it cost: About $10,000
Why we picked the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze turbodiesel:
We’re going to let you in on a little secret: If you spend a lot of time on the highway, a small, turbocharged diesel engine is often a better buy than a gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain. The 2014 Chevrolet Cruze turbodiesel received fuel economy ratings of 27 mpg in the city and 46 mpg on the highway, though many owners reported crossing the 50 mpg threshold without even trying. The Cruze’s engine is simple to keep running because there are fewer moving parts in a diesel than in a comparable, gasoline-powered engine, let alone a full hybrid system.
Diesels lose the battle in city driving. They’re less efficient than hybrids, and they’re ill-suited to small trips made at low speeds. The turbodiesel-powered Cruze won’t be happy if your commute is a two-miler driven at 25 mph.
Step inside, and you’ll find an interior on par with what you can reasonably expect from a 2014 car designed with economy in mind. Some trim levels nonetheless came with a touchscreen-based infotainment system and a rear-view camera, so you can still benefit from relatively modern tech features.
You can find a 2014 Chevrolet Cruze equipped with the turbodiesel engine and under 100,000 miles for less than $10,000. Diesel cars aren’t exactly in hot demand in the United States, so don’t hesitate to negotiate a better price.
The best used truck
Why you should buy this: It’s a used truck that’s almost as good as new.
Who’s it for: Motorists with toys to tow.
How much will it cost: About $10,000.
Why we picked the 2010 Nissan Frontier:
We didn’t make a mistake when choosing the image you see above — the 2010 Nissan Frontier looks just like the one available new in 2020. The model’s design hasn’t changed much since its introduction in 2004, though a new model is finally in the works, and this unusual longevity makes it a great used buy. It’s easy to criticize a car that’s 15 years old, but that would be overlooking the fact that it’s built on solid, time-tested foundations.
Then and now, the Nissan Frontier is available in many configurations. There are two- and four-door cabs, four- and six-cylinder engines, and rear- or four-wheel drive, not mention an array of trim levels ranging from a basic, construction site-spec truck to a daily driver. All are well-suited to towing or hauling anything you need to move. And, because the Frontier is a relatively small pickup, it fits in spots bigger models would have to admire from afar.
Finding a Frontier with under 100,000 miles on the clock for less than $10,000 is easy. The advice we provided to Grand Cherokee buyers holds true here, too. Be very careful not to buy a truck that has spent a significant amount of time towing or one that has attempted to conquer the Rubicon Trail. Use your best judgment (look underneath it for dings and dents, notably), ask for service records, and move on to the next truck if something looks fishy.
The best used luxury car
Why you should buy this: Luxury never goes out of style
Who’s it for: Drivers who want a luxurious bargain.
Why we picked the 2004 Lexus LS 430:
Depreciation sucks, doesn’t it? Imagine spending close to $80,000 on a car and selling it for less than $10,000 about 15 years later. That’s a terrible investment, but the original owner’s loss can be your gain. The 2005 Lexus LS 430 is old-school luxury at its best. It’s huge, it’s exceptionally comfortable, it’s softly suspended, and it has a big V8 engine under its long, stately hood. It was the Lexus flagship, after all. Hop behind the wheel, start up the silky-smooth eight-cylinder, and you’ll feel like a dignitary every time you drive to Starbucks.
There are many other sedans fit for a king in this price range, like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series, but we chose the LS 430 because Lexus is owned by Toyota. You can double the mileage on the odometer without doubling your initial investment or needing to invest in a parts car.
2005 LS 430s with less than 100,000 miles on the clock are widely available for under $10,000. Don’t let the V8 engine fool you, either. It’s not going to match a Prius on efficiency, but it was rated at about 25 mpg on the highway when it was new, which is more than reasonable considering this sedan’s size and weight.
Where to buy
Where you buy your used car can be an important factor. When shopping for a new-to-you ride, you’ll probably come across ads posted by both dealers and private sellers. Each type of seller offers some pros and cons, so here’s a quick breakdown:
Private sellers: Buying a car from an individual does offer some advantages. Their situation may make them more likely to cut a deal. The seller could, for example, need to sell a car quickly to come up with money, or because they no longer have a place to store it. Since the private seller isn’t running a business with overhead, you’re also more likely to get a low price than with a dealer.
On the other hand, private sellers are less accountable than dealers. You never know exactly whom you’re talking to, after all. If you buy the car, you also have to take care of registration and other related paperwork yourself.
Dealers: Car dealers have a well-deserved reputation for obnoxious tactics, but the buying process can be more straightforward than going through a private seller. A dealer can potentially take your current car as a trade-in, and handle a lot of the paperwork needed to put your “new” vehicle on the road.
Going to a dealer usually involves haggling, but keep in mind that, because used cars have no fixed MSRP, you’ll probably be doing that no matter how you shop. Used cars sold through dealers tend to be a bit pricier, although dealers usually make some effort to clean them up and fix glaring issues before selling.
Dealers with certified pre-owned programs: Some dealers also offer certified pre-owned used cars, under programs backed by the manufacturer. The “certified” part means these cars have undergone a more thorough pre-sale inspection and conditioning process, backed by an extended warranty.
Certified pre-owned cars tend to be higher quality, with lower mileage. That, along with the extra work put into conditioning them, means prices are often higher than other used cars. But having the backing of a manufacturer can offer peace of mind, assuming one of these cars falls into your price range.
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