Demand for some used cars increased recently as disruptions in Japanese auto and parts production led buyers to seek alternatives. But you still can find good deals for around $6,000 or less -- if you choose carefully and negotiate well.
Check the mileage. Search for used vehicles that were driven significantly less than the typical 15,000 miles per year. Asking prices tend to be more highly correlated with a used car’s age than its mileage, but it is lower mileage that tends to be the better indicator that a car still has a lot of life left in it.
Sign up with Carfax for background checks on particular cars (www.Carfax.com, $44.99 for reports on up to five vehicles). Carfax compiles data on vehicles from more than 34,000 sources, including service centers, mechanics, insurance companies and motor vehicle agencies based on the vehicle identification number. This service is not perfect, but it can help you weed out many problem vehicles that have been involved in accidents or have lengthy repair histories, odometer rollbacks or other red flags.
Helpful: Be wary of used vehicles that Carfax says have been registered in more than one state over the years. Sellers sometimes move cars from state to state to hide serious problems in their history, such as salvage titles, which typically are issued when a vehicle has such major problems that an insurer has deemed it a total loss.
Get the vehicle’s maintenance records. Car owners who have comprehensive maintenance records tend to be car owners who take good care of their cars. Ask for maintenance records even if you buy from a dealer.
Get a prepurchase inspection. Expect to pay a mechanic $100 to $200 per inspection. Make sure it includes a road test. If you don’t already have a mechanic you trust, ask friends for recommendations.
Among the most reliable used car options for around $6,000 or less...
2003 Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix. The Vibe and Matrix are sister cars, built in the same factory and differing only in the nameplates attached to them. Whatever it is called, this is a reliable, fuel-efficient five-door hatchback with so much interior room that it sometimes is referred to as a small station wagon or even a mini-SUV.
Price: Base models in good condition from 2003 are selling for an average of $5,880, compared with an original manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) that started at $14,670. Fuel economy: 25 miles per gallon (MPG) city/30 highway.*
2005 Hyundai Elantra. The Elantra has been a terrific high-reliability, low-problem car ever since its 2001 redesign. It offers excellent fuel economy with a smooth ride and well-designed interior relative to other cars in its class. The 2005 Elantra is perhaps the newest well-made vehicle that is likely to sell for less than $6,000 with reasonably low miles.
Price: The base model sedan is selling for $5,520 on average, compared with an original MSRP that started at $13,599. MPG: 21 city/29 highway.
2002 Toyota Camry. Despite some recent well-publicized Toyota recalls, arguably no vehicle matches the Camry when it comes to offering solid build, quality, dependability and a quiet ride at a reasonable price. A 2002 redesign brought additional interior space, a more powerful engine and a smoother transmission, among other improvements.
Price: Base model 2002 Camrys now average $5,930, compared with an original MSRP that started at $18,970. MPG: 21 city/29 highway.
EXTRA: Here’s a great list of the best new cars under $20,000.
2003 Ford Crown Victoria. Crown Vics provide the comfortable, safe driving experience that big-car buyers crave. They hold up very well as they age, and they were made in such large numbers in the past decade that there are plenty of used ones available, keeping resale prices and parts prices relatively low. Many Crown Victorias are used as police cars and taxis. That’s a testament to their durability, but you probably don’t want to own one that was driven as hard as cabs and police cars tend to be, so check the Carfax report to confirm that the one you select has always been in private hands.
Price: Currently, 2003 base model Crown Victorias sell for an average of $5,610, down from an original MSRP that started at $23,705. MPG: 16 city/23 highway.
2001 Mazda Miata. The sporty two-seater Miata offers possibly the most fun top-down driving experience you can find for a reasonable price. It also is quite reliable and relatively fuel-efficient. Many Miatas have been sold, so there typically are plenty of used ones to choose among. They hold their value well, however, so you might have to buy a car that’s more than 10 years old to get a Miata in good shape for under $6,000. (For around $8,000, you should be able to find a Miata that’s a few years newer.)
Price: Base model Miatas from 2001 are selling for an average of $5,270, down from an original MSRP that started at $21,180. MPG: 20 city/25 highway.
2002 Honda Odyssey. The Odyssey has been the best minivan on the market since its 1999 redesign. It is well-made, reliable and roomy. Its crash safety scores are hard to beat, and its hideaway third-row seats are very easy to fold and unfold. The only downside is that 1999 through 2004 Odysseys experienced automatic transmission problems at a higher-than-normal rate, leaving some owners with repair bills in excess of $3,000. Before buying a 2002 (or 2003 or 2004) Odyssey, confirm through service records or Carfax reports that it received the recall procedure meant to address this problem. (Honda offered an extended transmission warranty on 1999 through 2001 models, but it is no longer in effect.)
Prices: The 2002 Odyssey LX base model currently averages $6,140, down from an original MSRP that started at $24,250. MPG: 16 city/23 highway.
2004 Hyundai Santa Fe. The extremely reliable, well-designed Santa Fe stands out as the clear bargain in the pricey SUV pack. The only downside is that models with the 2.4-liter base package engine are a bit underpowered. They might struggle to tow a trailer or carry a full load of passengers up a steep incline.
Price: A 2004 base model Santa Fe is likely to cost around $6,060, but expect to pay perhaps $1,000 more for one with the larger 3.5-liter engine. Base models had an original MSRP starting at $17,999. MPG: 18 city/25 highway.
2003 Ford F150. The versatile, durable F150 has been the best-selling truck for many years, so there usually are plenty of used ones to choose among at competitive prices. Its ride and handling are better than those of most pickups, too. Trucks are designed to endure rough use, but it’s best to seek out one that has been babied. Examples of how to spot problems: If there’s little life left in a pickup’s rear springs and shocks, it will sag when parked on a level surface. If it drifts rather than holding a straight line during your test drive, or if there are significant dents or scrapes along the lower bodywork and/or the major underbody components, it could mean that the truck has had a hard life of hauling or off-road driving and is best avoided.
Price: The F-150 has been offered in a wide range of different configurations, but the 2003 XL base model is among the most recent that is likely to be available in good shape for less than $6,000, with an average sales price of $5,230, down from an original MSRP that started at $19,125. MPG: 14 city/19 highway.
*All fuel economy figures in this article reflect the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates for new vehicles. The fuel economy of a used vehicle could be significantly lower.
Source: Karl Brauer, who has 17 years of experience as an automotive journalist, including a recent stint as editor in chief and a senior analyst at the car information site Edmunds.com. Based in Santa Monica, California, he was the first Web-based journalist to be named to the jury of the prestigious North American Car and Truck of the Year award.