Need new wheels but have a tight budget? Consumer Reports has long advocated buying used as a way to get the biggest bang for your buck. It’s simple math: After one year, a new car has depreciated 27 percent of its sticker price; after three years, it’s worth barely half of its sticker. When someone else takes the depreciation hit on the car, you benefit.
But picking out a good used car from a sea of bad ones has never been easy. You want to buy one that’s reliable, affordable, and equipped with modern safety features. Add in the desire to avoid a car that has been damaged in an accident or a natural disaster, and the process can feel overwhelming.
It doesn’t have to be. We’ve created this handy guide to help you find the small cars, sedans, and SUVs that are most likely to fulfill your needs without breaking down and soaking you in repair bills.
Every vehicle on this list performed well in our tests when it was new and has had above-average reliability for the model years shown, based on our latest Annual Auto Survey. Each also came standard with electronic stability control (ESC), unless otherwise noted. Consider these the used cars we’d recommend to our family and friends.
Also, see our lists of used cars for every budget and those to avoid for models not to purchase.
Mazda3 s (2008)
Pontiac Vibe (2005-08)
Volkswagen Rabbit (2007-09)
The Mazda3 has everything most shoppers want in a small car: reliability, fuel efficiency, a fun-to-drive attitude, an interior that feels upscale for the price, and seats that won’t leave your back and behind screaming. The Vibe is a reliable and roomy compact hatchback similar to the Toyota Matrix. The Rabbit hatchback is an alternative for shoppers who want a sporty, European driving experience and richer interior materials.
Acura TL (2005)
Acura TSX (2005)
Toyota Avalon (2005)
Hyundai Sonata 4-cyl. (2006-08)
Kia Optima 4-cyl. (2007-08)
You can stick to your budget and still get a reliable luxury car if you choose the slick-handling Acura TL or the coddling and cavernous Avalon (with optional ESC). The TSX is a smaller but sportier alternative based on the European Honda Accord, and the economical Sonata and Optima deliver roominess and reliability in slightly newer packages.
Honda CR-V (2005)
Mitsubishi Outlander (2007)
Honda Pilot (2005)
Standard ESC and curtain air bags, combined with near-minivan levels of space, make the reliable CR-V a can’t-miss prospect. Need three rows in a pinch? Consider the Outlander and its handy split tailgate. For even more room, check out the eight-seat Honda Pilot with its smooth V6 acceleration and carlike handling.
Subaru Impreza (2010)
Kia Soul (2010-12)
Standard all-wheel drive, the availability of hatchback and sedan body styles, and a rear seat with room for three adults contribute to the Impreza’s versatility. The boxy—yet stylish—Soul has tons of features for a small car and an expansive cargo space, making it a smart choice for recent grads.
Infiniti G35 (2006-07)
Acura RL (2005-06)
The G35 is exhibit A in how to blend sporty handling with interior refinement. For less of a racetrack feel, the RL’s all-wheel-drive traction, luxurious interior, and reliability make it a wise choice, once you get past its plain looks.
Acura MDX (2005-06)
Toyota Highlander V6 (2005-07)
The MDX’s quiet interior and responsive handling put an enjoyable spin on family-friendly vehicles, showing why it’s the standard for three-row crossover SUVs. The rock-solid reliable Highlander is a slightly smaller package, but for some it’s a handier size.
Toyota Prius (2010-13)
Hyundai Elantra (2013-14)
Honda Civic (2013-14)
The Prius has always proved that you don’t have to give up space or ride comfort to get stellar gas mileage, and the redesigned 2010 model brought a quieter engine and standard electronic stability control. Lots of features for the money, a roomy backseat, and responsive handling make the Elantra a great deal. Go for a 2013 or newer Civic to get its much-needed interior, braking, and suspension upgrades.
Honda Accord (2008-12)
Toyota Camry (2010-12)
Lexus ES (2007-08)
A cavernous backseat, Honda’s usually responsive reflexes, and 23 mpg (25 mpg in 2011-12) from the four-cylinder engine make the Accord a perennial crowd pleaser. Ample room for five adults and stellar reliability make the Camry a no-brainer choice. The similar ES takes the Camry formula and adds luxury appointments, road-trip-worthy front seats, and a hushed cabin.
Lexus RX (2006-08)
Toyota RAV4 (2009-11)
The RX is the go-to upscale SUV for used-car buyers, with its almost-never-leave-you-stranded reliability, plush seats, and a luxury ride. The hybrid offers that plus 23 mpg overall. The RAV4 is the rare small SUV to offer a V6 engine. It’s a budget hot rod, and some came with a kid-friendly third-row seat.
Toyota Camry Hybrid (2012-13)
Infiniti M (2009)
With its composed ride and handling, and class-leading 38 mpg, we think the Hybrid is the best Camry available. The Infiniti M is reliable, luxurious, and fun to drive, whether it’s powered by the strong V6 or snorting-bull V8.
Lexus GX (2006-07)
Nissan Murano (2011-12)
Toyota Highlander Hybrid (2009)
A rock climber in a tux, the GX takes the off-road capability of a Toyota 4Runner and wraps it in Lexus luxury. The Murano has long been one of our favorite SUVs, with secure handling and a rich interior. The roomy three-row Highlander Hybrid delivers compact-car fuel economy and Lexus-like refinement—at a nonluxury price.
These models, listed alphabetically, are the worst of the worst. They have multiple years of much-worse-than-average overall reliability, based on 2004 through 2013 models, according to our Annual Auto Survey. Each one has at least three model years of reliability data.
BMW 330i, 335i
Jeep Wrangler (4-door)
Chevrolet Cruze (1.4T)
Chevrolet Uplander, Venture
Mini Cooper S
Chrysler PT Cruiser
Chrysler Town & Country
Dodge Grand Caravan
Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 (diesel)
Ford F-250 and F-350 (diesel)
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