The average new car in the United States commanded a price of about $32,000 last month — a jump of nearly 4 percent from a year earlier, according to market trackers at TrueCar. More than ever, a new car or truck has become a luxury purchase; these days, even the cheapest new cars — say a Nissan Versa Note, Chevy Spark or Mitsubishi Mirage — start around $13,000.
That's been a boon to the used-car market, where used car prices have risen as well; the median second-hand vehicle now sells for about $16,000. But what if you're someone who needs a vehicle and has $10,000 or less to spend?
For those of us not lucky enough to stumble onto a cream-puff $100 SUV, the analysts at Iseecars.com decided to answer that question by analyzing some 30 million used-car listings to determine which models were the most likely to have a window price of $10,000 or less. The results were not what you might expect:
% of Listings $10,000 or Less
Model Year Range
Dodge Grand Caravan
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Chrysler Town and Country
Dodge Ram 1500 Pickup
This isn't a list of sheer popularity; the Jeep Liberty has never been a huge seller, and the perennial national best-sellers (Ford F-Series, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord) were shut out. Nor is it solely about size or the price of the vehicle when it sold new; in fact, the list is dominated by larger and near-luxury vehicles, with only the compact Focus, Civic and Elantra breaking the top 12.
So what gives? For starters, all of these models are well-worn, with an average of more than 100,000 miles on the odometer. Nine of the 12 come from either Ford or Chrysler, with only three imported vehicles (although many of those Civics were made in the United States.)
What I see here isn't so much a trend as a history lesson of a decde ago; most of these models were the favorite cars of rental fleets and other business buyers, who tend to pay bottom-dollar new and sell cheaply. The flip side of being a fleet favorite is that it was traditionally how Detroit kept its factories running before the great recession of 2008-09; building far more vehicles than the market demanded, then moving the metal and worrying about losses later. By the time the sixth-generation Taurus went out of production in 2006, Ford was selling it solely to fleets.
That bloat depresses the prices of those models not just when new, but throughout their usable lifetimes, and in the years since the SUV boom, less fuel-efficient models like the old Explorer and older versions of the Ram pickup have only grown less appealing. And some of these models would put a gleam in your mechanic's eye for their questionable durability, especially beyond six-digit mileage.
The exception to all of this is the Civic, where the law of averages finally starts to kick in. It's possible with enough searching to find just the right used car under $10,000 — but if you're willing to consider those models that weren't all that popular to begin with, the menu's a whole lot bigger.