Nothing beats the feeling of driving a brand-new car off the lot. But if you want great value and more features than your budget allows, consider buying used. In fact, if you choose wisely, the only thing you’ll give up when you buy a used car is that new-car smell.

The average new car loses about half its value in the first three years of ownership, says Mel Yu, CR’s automotive analyst. Buying a used car means that the previous owner took that financial hit.

CR’s survey results show that cars in general are very reliable today, easily clocking in 100,000 miles or more before needing any major repairs. If you take the necessary precautions when buying a used car from a recent model year, chances are good you’ll end up with one you can drive for years to come without needing to do much more than change the oil.

MORE ON OWNER SATISFACTION AND CAR RELIABILITY

Perhaps the most compelling reason to buy used is that it can put premium features and luxury within reach of those who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

“Going the used-car route can let you step up to a model that’s more luxurious, better equipped, and more enjoyable to drive,” says Jake Fisher, director of CR’s auto testing.

To show you how much more car you can get by buying used, we selected eight new models—all well-rated by CR—and came up with two 3-year-old used alternatives, one in the same category and the other a step up in luxury. (See “New vs. Used: What You Get for the Money,” below.)

The best way to start any search for a great used car is to consult our ratings and choose models that have high owner satisfaction and reliability ratings as well as a strong road-test score when tested new. Then, as you narrow your search, be sure to do the following:

Take a test-drive. There’s no substitute for getting behind the wheel. Note any unusual vibrations, squeaks, and rattles, and search and sniff for mildew or mold. (See “Beware the Flood of Flooded-Out Cars.”)

Check the title. Make sure the seller has the actual title. Many states will note on the title whether the vehicle has ever been seriously damaged, been repurchased under a state lemon-law program, or had another problem. But a title may not have this information for a variety of reasons, so get a vehicle history report for any car you’re considering. If the seller doesn’t have the title or won’t show it to you, consider a different car.

Check the vehicle history report. These reports—from companies like AutoCheck and Carfax—may indicate whether a vehicle has ever been in a crash, and show maintenance records and the number of owners a vehicle has had. Even if the seller provides a report, obtain one from another company; the sources of information they rely on can vary. An incident might not appear on a vehicle history report if, say, an owner hasn’t reported it to an insurer or the police. It can also take months for an incident to show up on a report, if at all.

Hire a mechanic. “Have a mechanic experienced in auto bodywork and accident repair give the vehicle a detailed inspection,” says John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic. If the seller won’t let you have the car inspected, walk away.

Check for recalls. Make sure the car you’re considering doesn’t have a known, unfixed safety defect. Go to nhtsa.gov/recalls and enter the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) to see whether any recalls are pending. Recall-related repairs are free but must be done by a dealer that sells the brand of vehicle being recalled.

Contact the previous owner. Check the title or ask the dealer for the contact information. Previous owners can tell you how the car was used—commuting? Uber?—and about any mechanical or other problems they experienced.

For more tips on how to buy a used car, go to CR.org/usedcars.


New vs. Used: What You Get for the Money

If you’re shopping for a 2018 car that’s well-rated by CR but you want a thriftier option or even a luxury upgrade for the same money, we offer these smart alternatives from the 2015 model year. Automatic emergency braking (AEB) and forward-collision warning (FCW) are available on all the new cars listed and on used models as indicated.

See our complete list of cars with advanced safety systems.

Small Cars

Hyundai Elantra

New: Hyundai Elantra

Price as tested: $20,090
Pros: Relatively roomy, easy-to-use controls, fuel economy
Cons: Engine noise, ride, front-seat comfort
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional

Read the Hyundai Elantra road test.

Smart Used Alternatives

Toyota Corolla
Price range:
 $13,375-$17,225
Pros: Ride, fuel economy, interior space  
Cons: Lackluster handling, interior quality
Safety systems: AEB/FCW not available

Honda Accord
Price range:
 $17,225-$25,575
Pros: Roomy interior, driving position, handling, fuel economy
Cons: Distracting LaneWatch side camera
Safety systems: FCW optional


Midsized Cars

New: Nissan Altima (V6)

Price as tested: $31,610
Pros: Relatively roomy, easy-to-use controls, acceleration
Cons: Handling agility, ride
Safety systems: AEB/FCW standard

Read the Nissan Altima road test.

Smart Used Alternatives

Kia Optima
Price range:
 $14,550-$22,725
Pros: Simple controls, smooth transmission
Cons: Fuel economy, rear visibility
Safety systems: AEB/FCW not available

Lexus ES
Price range:
 $28,725-$30,500
Pros: Fuel economy, quiet interior, comfortable seats
Cons: Distracting infotainment interface 
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional


Luxury Midsized Cars

Lincoln MKZ

New: Lincoln MKZ

Price as tested: $41,990
Pros: Handling, ride, quietness
Cons: Visibility, snug interior
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional

Read the Lincoln MKZ road test.

Smart Used Alternatives

Audi A6
Price range:
 $28,475-$41,625
Pros: Powertrain, handling, ride, quietness
Cons: Controls take getting used to
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional

BMW 5 Series
Price range:
 $28,675-$42,500
Pros: Quick and fuel efficient; handling, ride, quietness
Cons: Controls take getting used to, tight rear seat
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional


Large Cars

Ford Taurus

New: Ford Taurus

Price as tested: $37,885
Pros: Quiet, comfortable ride
Cons: Cramped interior, fussy climate controls, unresponsive steering
Safety systems: FCW optional

Read the Ford Taurus road test.

Smart Used Alternatives

Chevrolet Impala
Price range:
 $13,525-$22,375
Pros: Handling, ride, braking, quietness, spacious cabin and trunk
Cons: Limited rear visibility
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional

Buick LaCrosse
Price range:
 $15,550-$24,600
Pros: Ride, quietness, fit and finish
Cons: Visibility, tight driving position
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional


Small SUVs

Nissan Rogue

New: Nissan Rogue

Price as tested: $29,920
Pros: Roomy interior, nice ride
Cons: Noisy engine, bland driving experience
Safety systems: AEB/FCW standard

Read the Nissan Rogue road test.

Smart Used Alternatives

Mazda CX-5
Price range:
 $17,200-$24,100
Pros: Agile handling, fun to drive, generous features for the money
Cons: Somewhat noisy cabin
Safety systems: AEB optional

Kia Sorento
Price range:
 $17,050-$29,275
Pros: Roomy, easy to park, intuitive controls, third-row seat
Cons: Mediocre handling
Safety systems: AEB/FCW not available


Midsized SUVs

New: Honda Pilot

Price as tested: $39,585
Pros: Roomy interior, visibility, smooth powertrain
Cons: Clumsy handling, touch-screen radio
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional

Read the Honda Pilot road test.

Smart Used Alternatives

Toyota Highlander
Price range:
 $25,775-$39,525
Pros: Strong reliability, roomy interior, pleasing drivetrain
Cons: Interior trim can look cheap
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional

Acura MDX
Price range:
 $32,850-$39,300
Pros: Well-rounded upscale SUV, fuel economy
Cons: Lacks agility, frustrating controls
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional


Luxury Small SUVs

New: Acura RDX

Price as tested: $38,990
Pros: Smooth and powerful drivetrain, seat comfort
Cons: Ride, rear visibility, annoying controls

Read the Acura RDX road test.

Smart Used Alternatives

Audi Q5
Price range:
 $31,425-$46,600
Pros: Comfortable ride, agility, quiet interior
Cons: Tight rear seat and cargo area, rear visibility
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional

BMW X5
Price range:
 $37,100-53,825
Pros: Luxurious and quiet, confident handling
Cons: Some annoying controls, notably the shifter
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional


Luxury Midsized SUVs

New: Infiniti QX60

Price as tested: $51,920
Pros: Plush, roomy, quiet, easy-to-use controls
Cons: Lacks agility, poor rear visibility
Safety systems: AEB/FCW optional

Read the Infiniti QX60 road test.

Smart Used Alternatives

Buick Enclave
Price range:
 $24,600-$33,450
Pros: Lots of interior space and flexibility, good third-row access, quiet and comfortable ride
Cons: Fuel economy
Safety systems: FCW optional

Audi Q7
Price range:
 $39,050-$50,575
Pros: Comfortable front seats, roomy, fit and finish
Cons: Engine drone, complicated controls
Safety systems: AEB/FCW not available

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.