Value-minded consumers know that buying a reliable used car is often the best choice but that finding one takes research. Here we identify the proven Best of the Best in nine categories. They're vehicles with multiple years of above-average reliability, covering 1999 through 2008, that scored well in our tests when new.
Toyota and Honda vehicles dominated the majority of the nine categories, demonstrating consistent reliability and performance. But some recent domestic models are also worthy choices, including the Buick Lucerne (V8), Ford Fusion, and Mercury Milan.
Reliability data are derived from our Annual Auto Survey, which generated responses about more than 1.4 million new and used vehicles.
In this report, we show the top used cars in each category (below), plus other good choices. Next are Models to Look For, listed by model year in 12 price ranges, our lists of Used Cars to Avoid and the Worst of the Worst (below), models with multiple years of much-worse-than-average reliability.
The Honda Civic is reliable, economical, and fun to drive. It grew with the 2001 redesign, and 2003 saw the introduction of the Hybrid model. The 2006 redesign included standard antilock brakes (ABS), curtain air bags, and a better ride. An alternative with more cargo room is the Scion xB, which also has standard electronic stability control.
The Accord has been a very reliable used-car choice. The 2003 redesign made it quieter and more agile, and it received standard ABS. Standard ESC arrived on V6 models in 2006 and on all models with the 2008 redesign. The Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan have very good reliability, tested well, and are very affordable.
The ES has been very reliable through its many generations. This quiet and comfortable sedan was redesigned in 1997 and 2002 but got a stronger, more fuel-efficient engine in 2004. ESC became standard in 2007. The Acura TL and TSX are sportier alternatives.
Since 2003 the M has been a reliable model, but the 2006 redesign made it comfortable when cruising the highway and on twisty roads. The V6 is strong, and the interior is well finished. The Lexus LS is a more luxurious choice.
The slick shifter, nimble handling, and good performance make the affordable and reliable Miata fun to drive. ABS became standard with the 2006 redesign; look for the optional ABS on older models. A practical alternative is the Subaru WRX, which gives great performance along with standard AWD and four doors.
Toyota's first-generation Sienna is refined, but the third-row accommodations are snug. In 2003 a redesigned Sienna went on sale. It is roomier and more powerful, and it's available with AWD. Reliability has been very good overall. The Honda Odyssey isn't as plush but has better handling.
Introduced in 1996, the RAV4 was the first car-based SUV. It was agile and comfortable but small and underpowered. The 2001 redesign brought more power and a roomier interior. ESC arrived in 2004. For 2006 Toyota added an available third row. Throughout its life the RAV4 has had stellar reliability.
Introduced in 2003, the Pilot is roomier than its MDX sibling and less expensive. It's roomy and refined, delivers good fuel economy, and has flexible seating for eight. Crash-test results are impressive, and reliability has been excellent. The Toyota Highlander is a good choice with an optional third-row seat.
Honda's pickup rides and handles like a sedan but delivers the utility of a truck. The V6 engine is smooth and responsive, and the cabin is nicely detailed and easy to access. The in-bed, weather-tight, and lockable trunk is a plus. Opt for the Tundra if you need more towing or off-roading capability.
These have multiple years of much-worse-than-average reliability among 1999 to 2008 models. Listed alphabetically.