A car dealer’s scientific guide to the 10 best used vehicles

Consumers often agonize about what vehicle should be their next car. When it comes to older used cars in particular, I have always offered buyers three ironclad pieces of advice:

• Your footwear is going to have a greater impact on your life than the car you drive.

• The driving and maintenance habits of the prior owner will have a far greater effect on a used car's longevity than the brand. So whatever you choose, make sure you have it inspected before you buy.

The first gets people to laugh. The second gets them to think. But it's my third tip that's most important for those looking to buy an older used car:


• Don't believe the hype.

Cars from prestige brands (especially European ones) don't necessarily last longer or work better. In fact, they now represent many of the most costly and least reliable vehicles in the used-car marketplace. The exact opposite is true for certain unpopular brands and models. Defunct automakers such as Saturn, Saab, and Pontiac have certain specific models that can equal — or exceed — the quality of the so-called market leaders.

For well over a year now, myself and a statistician named Nick Larivere have developed a long-term reliability study that you can find here. We now have nearly 300,000 vehicles from across the entire United States, and recently, we highlighted those low quality vehicles that were found to be most defective at trade-in time. You can read about those findings here.

Now, that same data also reveals the most durable cars and trucks over several years, and with results that defy popular wisdom.

To give you a grasp of how divergent our findings have become versus the usual stereotypes, the Chevrolet Cavalier, a car not generally associated with quality, has registered more trade-ins with over 180,000 miles, and fewer defect issues, than the entire Volkswagen line-up. Other models that are no longer sold as new cars, such as the Buick Park Avenue and Saturn L200, are apparently capable of matching the overall quality of their classes' top-tier vehicles for thousands of dollars less.

There are plenty of good used vehicles out there that are capable of offering the highest levels of long-term quality and owner satisfaction. However, since manufacturers often sell multiple vehicles over the same platform, to increase reliability and lower cost, for this study we have decided to broaden the field a bit and highlight the ten most successful platforms. This way those less popular models in our study don't get overlooked.

1. Lexus LX470/Toyota Land Cruiser

These vehicles are the automotive version of granite. They are heavy as hell, don’t age and will most assuredly squash whatever vehicular bugs and cockroaches are on the road should the Zombie Apocalypse ever take place. The Land Cruiser and LX470 are the best on our list.

2. Ford E-Series

While GM only offered a mild redesign of their full-sized vans back in 1995, and Dodge left the segment entirely, Ford decided to double down by improving the vehicle's interior design several times over, and then sticking with three engines that Ford has collectively put into over 10 million vehicles (the 4.6-liter V-8, the Trition 5.4-liter V-8, and the 6.8-liter V-10).

The end result is the best-selling full-sized van in today's market, and one whose durability has been earned the hard way. A true workhorse that is kept instead of curbed.

3. Lexus LS

The LS400, LS430 and LS460 are among the only ultra high-end luxury models that buck the trend of having dubious reliability and maintenance issues upon trade-in. No luxury car in our study, on average, is driven longer with more miles on the odometer, and fewer defects, than the Lexus LS series.

4. Chevy/GMC full-sized trucks and SUV's

Toyota and Lexus finished first and second in the Manufacturer Quality Index Rating. But guess who finished third? GMC.

With GMC only selling trucks and SUVs, all of which are also sold by Chevrolet, the two have combined to offer outstanding quality and durability that few others can match, which is one of the main reasons why GM trucks have remained so dominant. Suburbans, Silverados, Tahoes, Yukons and a long list of other makes and models are all part of the GMT platform which has remained at the forefront of vehicle longevity.

5. Ford full-sized trucks (V-8 and V-10 models)

While Dodge remains a distant third, and Toyota and Nissan have barely made a dent in the full-size truck business, Ford has become Chevy's equal in the segment, and in certain cases, now the superior choice. The now defunct Ford Excursion holds the title as the third most reliable full-sized SUV in our study (the Land Cruiser and LX are first and second). Meanwhile the Ford F-Series is based on the P-platform which regularly yields that V-8, rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame combination that has made the F-150 the best selling vehicle in America for 32 years running.

6. Toyota Camry / Lexus ES / Toyota Avalon

We found in our year-long study that the Honda Accord has experienced a rash of transmission issues with V-6 models, and the Nissan Altima had severe oil consumption issues with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The Toyota Camry is the only midsized vehicle to remain consistently well above average for the last twenty years (click the chart here.) The mid-'90s to mid-2000s Lexus ES and Toyota Avalons are based on the Camry XV platform which laid the foundation for other standouts from this era, including the Toyota Solara and Sienna. The Avalon is the second-highest ranked car in our study.

7. Toyota 4Runner / Lexus GX470

We should mention that there have been two major platforms for older 4Runners. The older 4Runner was based on the Toyota truck and then later, an overseas model known as the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. In 2003, Toyota decided to offer the North American only 4Runner with it's very own platform and added a Lexus variant. Both 4Runners are a cut above in terms of long-term reliability. The 4Runner and GX470 are ranked 5th and 8th respectfully while the older Toyota truck rounds off the top ten.

8. Honda S2000

Only 65,000 S2000s were built over a ten year period, and yet they remain neck-and-neck with the Mazda MX-5 Miata as the most popular roadster of the past decade. The S2000 has the distinct honor of being among the few on our list that are exceptionally reliable and fun to drive.

9. Toyota Prius

While the S2000 has served as a fun car for the enthusiast, the Prius has become the car of choice for planet-lovers and hipsters. Fewer than 4 percent of Prii that are traded-in exhibit any type of serious mechanical issue, and that includes problems with the hybrid battery. While the older Honda Civic Hybrid and Accord hybrid have all experienced substantial battery wear, the Prius remains among the most reliable vehicles in the marketplace by any standard.

10. Lexus GS

It was our hope to make this list a bit more diverse by incorporating platforms instead of single models, since Toyota has so far managed to nail down eight of the top ten slots in our long-term reliability study.

The good news is that this platform based list offers over 40 distinct models to choose from, both imports and domestic, and certain popular media favorites such as the Honda Accord and Toyota RAV4 can no longer obscure major mechanical defects that don't take hold until after most first owners sell their vehicles. The bad news for Toyota haters, however, is that yet another Toyota product —the Lexus GS — rounds off the list. The GS was based on the Japan-only Toyota Crown and Toyota Aristo for most of it's life, and it's the seventh rear-wheel-drive platform to land in the top ten in our list of best long-term reliability.

These rankings will gradually change over time as we are scheduled to get over 600,000 vehicles into our reliability study by the end of 2014, and well over a million by 2015. So feel free to click here for a model by model breakdown. But as it stands today, if you're looking to buy a used car, a Toyota will likely have the most life left.