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Personal Picks: Best used cars under $20,000

Consumer Reports News: July 20, 2011 10:08 AM

Recent water-cooler discussions have had our cost-conscious staffers debating the best used cars. While we often discuss cars we lust for, we focused our attentions on the models we would seriously consider buying based on our testing, personal experience, and subjective intangibles. Here are our personal picks on used cars under $20,000.

Jeff Bartlett:
For a family commuter, I would be tempted by a Ford Fusion or Honda Accord. Each with a four-cylinder engine delivers good fuel economy, with decent road manners, and ample comfort and convenience. The Fusion can often be found for a great price, but the added space and sharper lines of the Accord would have me leaning in that direction. Either would provide good safety protection compared against typical, new small cars at that price point adding appeal to shopping used.

David Champion:
In this price bracket, I would choose a 2007 (or hopefully 2008) Acura TL. These were the last years of the previous generation, which, I think, had great performance, good fuel economy, and a beautifully trimmed roomy interior. I also think it’s a good looking car (which is surely not the case with the current generation). The previous model had all the bells and whistles I need and great reliability. As we have said many times in the past, the last year of a car design is usually the most reliable.

Eric Evarts: With gas prices in my area hovering relentlessly over $4 a gallon, and no end in sight to my long commute, I’d love to find something more fuel efficient and cheap to run. I also want good handling, creature comforts, a roomy back seat for older relatives, some cargo space for occasional hauling all-wheel-drive to get home up my hill in the winter, and a little bit (not too much) of ride height, which helps me plan ahead when driving. All this has had me looking at first-generation Toyota Highlander Hybrids for a while now. But until recently, they’ve crossed well over the $20,000 threshold. As the wagon version of an older Camry, these Highlanders were still built with Lexus-like quality. They’re Goldilocks sized, and even available with an occasional-use third-row seat, and can even tow a reasonable $3,500 pounds. Now that prices are coming down, maybe it’s time for me to start looking harder.

Tom Mutchler: There’s no more practical family car than a minivan. And $20,000 will buy you a 2008 Honda Odyssey EX-L. I’m very familiar with the Odyssey because I’ve owned two of them--a 2005 and a 2010. It’s roomy and well-appointed, with sharp steering that makes it fun to drive. The EX-L gets leather trim--easier for cleaning up messes--and a backup camera came with the navigation system in that year. Six fit inside comfortably and there are seats for eight.

Mike Quincy: I’m a big wagon fan. I understand that minivans are the best family vehicles ever made, but I want something a little smaller. So I searched for a Honda CR-V and found several 2007-2008 models that fit our price criteria. I think the CR-V is a good compromise of space and efficiency. I realize that all Hondas are pretty noisy on the highway, but the CR-V’s excellent reliability history makes up for some of the car’s downsides. But I’d also expand my options by looking for a Subaru Outback wagon, which I find a bit more comfortable and quieter than the CR-V. It is easy to find a number of 2007-2009 Outbacks under $20,000. Most model years have above-average reliability in our surveys, too.

Jim Travers: This one is a no brainer for me. Make mine a 2008 Volkswagen GTI, with four doors and a six-speed manual please. A quick Internet search turned up several low mileage examples in my area, and within our budget. With room for four passengers (five only if you like grumpy riders) and hatchback practicality, the GTI is both sensible to live with and an absolute hoot to drive. Reliability has improved to average, and our tested GTI returned a not too shabby 27 mpg overall fuel economy. What’s not to like?

For more used car choices, see our best used cars under $20,000 report.

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