Call it what you like: used, pre-owned or new-to-you. The fact is, forgoing a brand new car for a slightly older one can save you lots of money. Well, so long as you don’t end up with a lemon…
To steer clear of used-car headaches, you’ll need to do research before stepping foot in a dealer lot. One of the best places to start is a J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study -- which measures the overall dependability of cars by analyzing problems reported by original owners over the course of three years. Combining this data with the independent evaluations of professional auto reviewers will give you a clear picture of what you can expect from a potential new ride.
To help you get started, we’ve analyzed J.D. Power’s latest study -- which deals primarily with cars from the 2007 model year. Paired with the reviews collected and condensed by U.S. News & World Report, we’ve identified some of the best and worst used cars available. Of course, the list also covers cars manufactured before and after 2007. But these model-year vehicles are from the same generation cycle as those studied -- so, for the most part, they’re largely the same.
Best Used Cars
2004 – 2009 Toyota Prius
If green commutes top your list of priorities, there’s no better choice than the Toyota Prius. When it debuted in 2001, it provided an impressive EPA-estimated fuel economy of 41 mpg -- with many drivers reporting even higher real-world figures. Best of all, the Prius’ outstanding fuel economy doesn’t come at the expense of performance. Test drivers report that it’s adequately powered and comfortable to drive. Plus, the Prius’ spacious cabin and cargo hold make it practical for everyday use. Mother Proof writes: “A car that's better for the environment, easy on the fuel budget and has all the necessary features, plus a few extras? And room for five? That car's a winner in my book.”
2007 – 2009 Honda CR-V
For over a decade, the Honda CR-V has provided compact SUV shoppers with one of the best combinations of safety, utility and affordability in its class. Typical of Honda, the CR-V also stands out for its superb history of reliability, but not its ordinary looks or road performance. Drivers, however, don’t seem to mind -- the CR-V drives well and provides enough passenger and cargo room to meet most needs. In recent years, Honda has improved the CR-V’s exterior design and included a host of modern gadgetry to keep pace with other top-selling models, like the Toyota RAV4 and GMC Terrain. According to Kelley Blue Book: “Few vehicles do as many things as well as the CR-V. As practical as a backpack, this benchmark crossover is an easy, one-size-fits-most car choice.”
2006 – 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Since its introduction in 1990, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has been a winner. It’s sharp looking, features a quality-built interior cabin and has the performance chops to leave more expensive cars in the dust. Other two-passenger convertibles blast from 0 to 60 mph quicker, but few can match the Miata’s thrilling handling dynamics -- especially at this price point. The cherry on top is its superb history of reliability and optional power-retractable hard top (available since 2007). Drivers who can live with the MX-5 Miata’s limited passenger space and cargo room won’t find anything much more satisfying. “The Mazda MX-5 Miata remains the quintessential affordable two-seater, and holder of the sales record for two-door, convertible sports cars,” writes New Car Test Drive.
2005 – 2009 Buick LaCrosse
The Buick LaCrosse has come a long way since its debut in 2005. While these days it’s renowned for its sharp looks, Lexus-level refinement and athletic spirit, five years ago it was knocked for its ordinary design and pleasant, yet unexciting, performance. The LaCrosse did, however, win praise for its more practical features -- like its comfortable cabin, smooth ride and stellar history of reliability. Just don’t expect gimmicks. Automobile Magazine writes: “Clean styling, genuine refinement, and rewarding driving experience aside, the LaCrosse is still a vehicle best appreciated by those with fairly conservative automotive tastes.”
Worst Used Cars
1998 – 2010 Volkswagen New Beetle
The Volkswagen New Beetle is a modern take on the old-school classic popularized in the1960s. While its cute, quirky design won the New Beetle loads of praise when it first debuted in 1998, it hasn’t changed much since (though a convertible body style was introduced in 2003). Meanwhile, rivals have become more comfortable, functional and attractive. Combined with VW’s questionable record of reliability, buying a New Beetle -- used or new -- just doesn’t make sense. “That it has survived this long -- practically unchanged since 1998 -- is something of a miracle,” writes The Washington Post. “But even miracles run their course. This one is near the finish line.”
2006 – 2010 Suzuki Grand Vitara
The Suzuki Grand Vitara has never been a viable contender in the class of affordable compact SUVs. Its specs looked impressive when it first debuted in 1999. However, test drivers quickly realized that its performance lagged behind the competition, and its interior was subpar too. After a redesign in 2006 and subsequent updates, the Grand Vitara has improved. But compared to class leaders like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, it still leaves much to be desired. “In too many ways, the 2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara is average, though it feels solid and will get you from point A to point B in good shape,” writes CNET. “As a tech car, it gets outstripped by the competition.”
2004 – 2010 Mitsubishi Galant
In one form or another, the Mitsubishi Galant has been around since the late 1960s. And though its survived nine product generations or redesigns, it’s pretty much always been a mediocre car -- marred by a lack of refinement and ho-hum performance. Recent models are praised for their improved comfort and passenger room, but chintzy materials and a lack of features still prevent the Galant from besting competitors. “Compared to its chief rivals…it's lacking in practicality and missing a few key features -- which keeps it from being a top choice in this segment,” writes Edmunds.
2004 – 2010 Chevrolet Aveo
Introduced in 2004, the Chevrolet Aveo doesn't offer much more than the satisfaction of knowing that you got it cheap. Test drivers say it's underpowered and bland-looking. Fuel economy is just okay for its class. Though it performs well in government crash tests, the Aveo lacks much of the accident avoidance and crash protection equipment that comes standard in other affordable small cars. "Despite its weaknesses, the Aveo does cover all the bases: It's comfortable, reasonably scooty, fuel-efficient and easy to drive,” explains About.com. “It simply doesn't cover them nearly as well as its rivals." Hopefully the upgraded 2011 Aveo RS will be better.
Note: Though we've found some of the best and worst used car models out there, individual cars can vary. To make sure the car you have your eyes set on will keep you smiling for many years (and miles), turn to a certified mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection (PPI). Ranging in price from $100 to $200, a PPI can help you determine whether a car is in good running condition or a clunker.