9 Best Used Cars that Fit Your Budget

So, it's time to get another set of wheels under you. The one you're driving is just clapped-out and it's not worth dumping more money into it, but you can't help but be appalled at the idea of going $15k in debt for something that's already a few years old. You want to spend maybe a third of that amount and still get something decent and reliable, even if it's got some miles on it already.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways you can go about this, if you don't mind a vehicle that's showing some signs of wear. After all, the average age of a car on the road today is 11.8 years, meaning that the overall reliability of all kinds of vehicles is going up and there are some especially long-running, dependable cars and trucks that skew that number upward.

What are some options? Follow along while we count down to our top pick.

9. Ford Focus

2017 Ford Focus

Source | Wikimedia Commons

Introduced way back in '98 as a replacement for the good old Ford Escort, the Focus has gone through a few different iterations over the years, and is available in coupe, sedan or station wagon styles. Available with engines that range from a tiny 1.0 liter 4-cyl up to a 280 hp 2.3 EcoBoost 4-cyl, the Focus is a fun little car that offers comfort and economy along with a chassis and suspension that lend themselves to being tossed around corners. Sporty versions of the Focus can get up to 60 mph in around six seconds, and still deliver upwards of 30 mpg on the highway. Just be aware that later versions of the Focus have a rep for transmission problems; you may want to look for one with a manual gearbox.

8. Dodge Grand Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country

A silver minivan in a parking lot.

Source | Wikimedia Commons

Yes, we know that Chrysler minivans got a bad reputation for many years' worth of transmission problems. That's all pretty much ancient history now, though, and later-generation minivans from Mopar worked through a bunch of those bugs. The mid-2000s models were available with Chrysler's ingenious Stow & Go seating, with seats folding down into wells in the floorboard for a totally flat floor, and you can find Grand Caravans and T&Cs with about every option you might want. If you don't mind the residual stigma of dorkiness that minivans still have for some people, you can be looking at a solid, comfortable, roomy vehicle that can rack up way more than 200k miles on the odometer and still keep going.

7. Mazda 3

2007 Mazda 3

Source | Wikimedia Commons

The Mazda 3 is another of those economy sedans (or hatchbacks) that's a little on the blah side, but it's also super reliable, economical and even fun to drive. Even the mid-00s models were designed with a sophisticated suspension for nimble handling, adequate power from a 2.3 liter 4-cyl and fuel economy around 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway. With the right maintenance and driving habits, a Mazda 3 is the kind of car you can expect to get plenty of trouble-free miles out of.

6. Dodge Dakota

Source | Wikimedia Commons

We wanted to get at least one truck in here, but since Japanese trucks generally command top dollar even in ragged condition, the Dakota is worth a mention. The Dakota was a tried-and-true platform, and the 2nd-generation model is a solid choice. Its baby-brother-to-the-Ram styling still looks good today, and like Japanese trucks, the Dakota was made to work. The 3.9 liter truck V6 is the way to go on these; it was essentially the 318 V8 without those extra cylinders. The pushrod, cast-iron engine was a little unrefined, but torquey and strong, with a reputation for running until the end of time. Dakotas are roomy and comfortable trucks and can be found at reasonable prices.

5. Kia Optima

Kia Optima

Source | Wikimedia Commons

Admittedly, it took the folks at Kia a few years to work out the kinks on their product line. By the late 00s, though, the Kia Optima was a winner. It was safe, comfortable and pretty technologically advanced, with styling that was handsome (if a bit bland). If you're in the market for a Kia Optima, it's best to look for the 2.7 V6, which offers enough of a horsepower edge over the four-banger to be worth it. The base model is well-equipped, but the EX trim offers niceties like an eight-way power driver's seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather upholstery and upgraded stereo. Down sides: a little short on power and no more than about 28 mpg highway.

4. Subaru Outback

Source | Wikimedia Commons

Now in its sixth generation, the Outback started way back in the mid-90s as a derivative of Subaru's Legacy wagon. Outbacks are favorite of people living in New England, Colorado and other snowy climes, and for good reason: they're incredibly sure-footed offroad and incredibly reliable. Newer models are loaded with all bells and whistles, like a CVT transmission, backup camera, lane management, accident avoidance and a whole lot more, but mid-2000s Outbacks can be had at the under-$5k price point. They feature Subaru's tried-and-true flat-four engine and deliver better-than-average fuel economy, and have the bank-vault build quality you've come to expect from a Subaru. Plus, the wagon version is big enough that you can shove a couch into it if you need to. It's a great compromise between the comfort and drivability of a sedan, along with the toughness of a real SUV.

3. Toyota Corolla

Source | Wikimedia Commons

Yes, the Corolla has about all the personality and charisma of a toaster oven. Yes, it's the choice of countless middle school teachers, middle managers and middle-income folks everywhere who just need a dependable, economical ride. There's a good reason for that. With Toyota's ZZ-series inline-4 engine, the Corolla is super cheap on gas, comfortable and nearly bulletproof. If you aren't concerned about looks or image or cars-as-status-symbols, the Corolla (now in its 12th generation) is the epitome of slam-the-hood-and-forget-it Japanese reliability.

2. Honda Element

A silver and grey Honda Element parked next to a bush.

Source | Wikimedia Commons

The boxy, oddball styling isn't for everyone, but the Element (available from 2003-2011) has a spacious interior that can be configured several different ways. Assembled in Honda's East Liberty, Ohio plant, the Element was available with FWD or AWD drivetrains and featured rear-hinge door arrangement that did away with the B-pillar for ease of entry and exit. Its rugged interior was designed to be cleaned easily, making it perfect for hauling dogs or sports gear or a loveseat or any of the other things that SUVs are built for. With 25 mpg highway and 20 mpg city, the Element won't clean out your bank account when it comes to fuel economy, either.

1. Toyota Avalon

Toyota Avalon

Source | Wikimedia Commons

Toyota models like the Camry have long had a reputation for dependability, and you probably know that Lexus is Toyota's longtime premium brand. You can think of the Avalon, then, as being a Lexus Jr. of sorts. The Avalon is built in American plants with the tastes of American drivers in mind, and it's available with all the options and creature comforts you'd expect in a Lexus. Solid build quality, adequate performance, comfort, plenty of interior room and great fuel economy make any pre-2007 Avalon a great choice as a daily driver or a road-trip car.

There are plenty of great vehicles out there for under $5,000 and there's a little something for everyone. So whether you're after a reliable commuter car, something spacious for the family, or a reliable work truck, you can do it on a budget.

Let us know in comments what your best budget buy is.

Last updated February 11, 2021