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Best & worst used cars

Great choices for every budget—and models to avoid

Published: February 2014

Photo: Hyundai

Every year it becomes more difficult to shop for a used car. Prices have been at historic highs, even for models with high mileage and seemingly excessive wear. And with so many vehicles from which to choose, it can feel overwhelming to find a car that drives well and will hold up down the road.

The lists below shows you the best small cars, sedans, and SUVs in four price ranges. Every car on this list performed well in our tests whenit was new and has had above-average reliability for the model years shown, based on our latest  Annual Auto Survey. Each vehicle also came standard with electronic stability control (ESC), a proven lifesaver, during the years indicated, unless otherwise noted. Consider these the used cars we would 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.

Less than $10,000

Small cars


With its 44 mpg overall, the Prius is the most efficient non-plug-in five-passenger car you can buy, plus it has plenty of room and a nice ride. Reliability has been first-rate. The Scion xB has standard ESC and is a great city car, with compact dimensions and easy access, and the Vibe and Matrix twins are quite versatile. For the Prius, Matrix, and Vibe, look for one with the optional ESC.

Sedans

The economical, efficient, and comfortable Sonata has a nice ride, secure handling, and a peppy four-cylinder engine that returned 23 mpg overall. For something sportier, the Acura TSX is responsive, quiet, well-finished, and enjoyable to drive.

SUVs

The Highlander has a nicely finished, quiet, and comfortable interior, along with a strong V6 engine. Handling is secure, but it leans more toward comfort than sportiness. The smaller Mitsubishi Outlander has sportier handling and can be found with a third-row seat.

$10,000-$15,000

Small cars


The Fit’s forte is its amazing cargo-carrying versatility. Yet it’s also fun to drive, with great fuel economy and excellent reliability. For a little more passenger room and almost every creature comfort, check out the Kia Soul.

Sedans


The Mazda3 has precise and responsive handling, refined engines, and a comfortable ride, although it can be loud on the highway. The Skyactiv 2.0-liter engine, which arrived for 2012, provides an impressive 32 mpg overall. For something more luxurious, try the Infiniti G35, one our favorite sports sedans, with its super handling, potent V6, and easy controls.

SUVs


The upscale MDX offers seating for seven, a strong and refined powertrain, a pleasant ride, and agile routine handling. The smaller RAV4 has an optional but snug third-row seat, and both the four- and six-cylinder engines get impressive fuel economy. For a more refined alternative to the Toyota, the CR-V has a strong four-cylinder and a nicer interior.

$15,000-$20,000

Small cars


These are as roomy and comfortable as larger, more expensive cars. The Elantra combines nimble and secure handling with a fairly comfortable ride. The Impreza sedan and hatchback both offer standard all-wheel drive along with sporty handling and a great ride.

Sedans


Both the four- and six-cylinder Camry deliver impressive fuel economy (26 and 27 mpg, respectively) along with a comfortable ride, a roomy cabin, and superb reliability. For even better gas mileage, the Camry Hybrid gets 34 mpg overall and 41 on the highway. A sportier alternative is the Acura TL, which has long been one of our favorite sedans to drive.

SUVs

The Lexus RX is comfortable, nicely finished, and extremely reliable. The hybrid version gets good fuel economy. The Forester is more utilitarian but handles well and has an excellent ride. Access is easy, and the view out is the best among SUVs.

$20,000-$25,000

Sedans


The Avalon is one of our favorite cars for a long trip; it has a quiet interior with limo-like rear leg room. The Lexus LS is even more posh, with a superb ride and top-notch reliability. For more driving excitement, the Lincoln MKZ handles responsively, rides well, and has generous power, but it has a somewhat low-rent interior. It’s based on the Ford Fusion, which in hybrid form returns an impressive 34 mpg overall.

SUVs


If you want a midsized, three-row SUV with the best fuel economy possible, look no further than the Highlander Hybrid. At 24 mpg overall, it matches the fuel economy of many smaller SUVs and even some midsized sedans. It has a sumptuous interior and a smooth ride. The Pilot delivers sharper handling, and its comfortable third row brings the seating to eight.

Steer clear of these troublesome vehicles

Mini Cooper

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 X5 (6-cyl.)

Ford Flex (3.5L EcoBoost)

Chevrolet Cruze (1.8)

GMC Acadia

Chevrolet Impala

Lincoln MKT (EcoBoost)

Chevrolet Uplander

Mercedes-Benz GL-Class

Chrysler PT Cruiser (nonturbo)

Mini Cooper S

Chrysler Town & Country

Mini Countryman

Dodge Caravan

Saturn Outlook

Dodge Grand Caravan

Saturn Relay

Dodge Journey

Volkswagen Beetle, New Beetle

Ford Explorer (V6)

Volkswagen Touareg
Ford F-250 & F-350 (diesel) Ford Fiesta  

 

   

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