Illustrations shows how to get the most used car for your money.
Illustration: Señor Salme

Three-year-old cars are the Goldilocks of the used-auto market. They’re new enough that drivers can get contemporary features, safety systems, and updated styling, and expect the vehicles to run well for many more miles. Yet they’re old enough that previous owners have borne the brunt of most of the depreciation. In fact, these cars typically sell for about half of what they cost when they were new. And thanks to the popularity of leasing, there’s a steady stream of low-mileage, high-quality models for shoppers to choose from. (Read about the 2015 sweet spot for used cars.)

Our annual Reliability Survey compiles problems reported by CR members for more than half a million vehicles. Analysis of the data reveals how reliable an older model has been and allows us to make predictions about how well a new model is likely to hold up. (Check out the used cars you'll love, arranged by price point.)

More on USED CAR BUYING

For this article, CR has adapted the Overall Score we give to new cars into a special Overall Score for 3-year-old used cars (arranged here by price, starting at under $15,000). It combines our testing data from when the vehicles were new with reliability and owner satisfaction data from owners who have lived with these cars. This way we can give you the most accurate picture of a vehicle’s quality and value for its age.

And things really can change. Some used cars that earned only mediocre road-test scores when they were new may stand out now as attractive options because they boast high reliability and owner satisfaction ratings.

An example is the Toyota 4Runner. Crafted primarily for off-road adventures, this SUV didn’t perform well in CR’s road tests. But owners tell us they like the way it balances 4x4 capability with on-road drivability—plus, it has top-notch reliability.

Shoppers should look for models that have a high used-car Overall Score, which means they have a good road-test score and respectable reliability and owner satisfaction ratings. Value shoppers should then look for those models whose prices have depreciated more than their competitors’. That may mean a more affordable price and more car for your money now.

Take the Chevrolet Impala. This highly rated large sedan excels as a used-car buy because depreciation makes it the most affordable car in its class. 2015 models start near $12,000; most rivals start above $14,000.

We’ve picked 10 of the best values from our used-car ratings, representing choices in several price categories and body styles. Look through our comprehensive ratings charts and you’ll find plenty of other good options there as well.

Used Cars You’ll Love

We carefully curated these 2015 models from more than 200. In doing so, we looked at CR test and survey results as well as value (based on how much these cars cost now vs. other models in the class). Each is much less expensive than a comparable new car and should provide many reliable years of service. The list isn’t exhaustive; there are other good options out there, too. So review our ratings, especially for models that CR has recommended. More information on these—and all rated models—can be found at CR.org/cars.

Under $15,000

2015 Scion xB used car

2015 Scion xB

Used price range: $13,775-$14,200

CR’s take: Despite its compact footprint, the xB has a very roomy cabin with a backseat that can genuinely accommodate three adults. The 2.4-liter engine is relatively powerful, but its fuel economy is mediocre. Reliability has been stellar for the 2015 xB, the last year it was made.

Best version to get: Not many choices here, only for transmission and wheels. 

What owners said: Survey respondents praised how easy it is to get into and out of, and its comfort, handling, and power. But some said the small gas tank limits its range.

See the complete Scion xB road test, ratings, and pricing.


$15,000-$20,000

2015 Honda Accord used car

2015 Honda Accord

Used price range: $15,100-$22,275

CR’s take: The Accord is comfortable, roomy, and efficient. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine returns an excellent 30 mpg overall. And the driver’s seat is uniquely suitable for all heights, short to tall, because it can be easily adjusted.

Best version to get: Pick the EX-L for its convenience and safety features. Stick with the four-cylinder engine, which is cheaper than the V6 and more efficient.

What owners said: They praised its acceleration, handling, fuel economy, and value. But noise was a recurring negative.

See the complete Honda Accord road test, ratings, and pricing.

2015 Mazda CX-5 used car

2015 Mazda CX-5

Used price range: $14,725-$19,825

CR’s take: Practical and fun, with a roomy, versatile interior. But a firm ride and loud cabin detract from the experience.

Best version to get: Skip the tepid 2.0-liter engine for the more responsive 2.5-liter. The midtrim Touring offers the best blend of price and equipment. If you stretch to the top-trim Grand Touring, you’ll also get advanced safety features.

What owners said: Feedback on ride varied—pay attention to it when you take a test drive. A typical comment: “This vehicle is very responsive and agile, similar to the Mazda 3 and the MX-5.”

See the complete Mazda CX-5 road test, ratings, and pricing.


$20,000-$25,000

2015 Lincoln MKZ used car

2015 Lincoln MKZ

Used price range: $17,850-$24,700

CR’s take: It has a luxurious, quiet interior, and ride and handling rival some high-end European sports sedans. But rear-seat room is limited.

Best version to get: The base model is a good buy, though for a bit more you can get the efficient hybrid. Look for models with the Reserve Equipment Group, which includes blind-spot warning.

What owners said: Acceleration, fuel economy, handling, comfort, and luxury amenities are high points, though some criticized how difficult the car is to get into.

See the complete Lincoln MKZ road test, ratings, and pricing.

2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport used car

2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

Used price range: $16,100-$22,125

CR’s take: This five-passenger SUV is roomy and comfortable. It has a composed ride and a quiet, well-finished cabin packed with standard features.

Best version to get: Stick with the 2.4-liter engine; the 2.0T turbo’s power looks better on paper than it works on asphalt. The rearview camera is a must, and it’s available with upgrade packages.

What owners said: “One of the most comfortable vehicles we have ever owned.” “Great handling and very responsive power.” Comments about ride and seat comfort were mixed.

See the complete Hyundai Santa Fe Sport road test, ratings, and pricing.


$25,000-$30,000

2015 Infiniti Q70 used car

2015 Infiniti Q70

Used price range: $29,050-$33,800

CR’s take: It was updated for 2015, freshening the appearance and adding safety systems. It’s very quick, with a 330-hp V6, and its handling is quite agile, but the ride is firm. Interior quality is top-notch, and the rear seat is roomy.

Best version to get: Stick with the standard V6. Models with the Technology package gain safety and driver-assist systems.

What owners said: Owner satisfaction wasn’t a standout overall, but survey respondents thought quite highly of the driving experience. One owner described it as “comfortable and safe.”

See the complete Infiniti Q70 road test, ratings, and pricing.

2015 Toyota Highlander used car

2015 Toyota Highlander

Used price range: $22,050-$32,200

CR’s take: This three-row SUV’s appeal lies in its family-friendly nature, frugal mileage, and pleasant driving experience. It handles responsively, absorbs bumps well, and has generous interior space.

Best version to get: The XLE is nicely equipped, but you’ll have to find a Limited to get advanced safety features.

What owners said: “We love this car. It has a very quiet and comfortable ride, lots of power, and nice styling inside and outside.” “The Highlander is probably the best vehicle we have ever owned.” But opinions on seat comfort and noise varied.

See the complete Toyota Highlander road test, ratings, and pricing.


$30,000+

2015 Mercedes-Benz E350 used car

2015 Mercedes-Benz E350

Used price range: $29,050-$33,800

CR’s take: The E-Class has long been a benchmark luxury sports sedan, combining a feeling of substance and class with enjoyable handling. Luxury trims have a smooth and cushy ride, but the Sport trim is considerably firmer. 

Best version to get: The diesel and the 3.5-liter gasoline-powered V6 are both fantastic. Check for models with the Premium I package for comfort features and the Driver Assistance package for safety equipment.

What owners said: “This has got to be the gold standard for midsize luxury car ride.” “With the six-cylinder engine, this car’s acceleration is great for quickly getting on the interstate. Smooth and powerful.”

See the complete Mercedes-Benz E-Class road test, ratings, and pricing.

2015 Lexus RX 350 used car

2015 Lexus RX 350

Used price range: $27,275-$32,500

CR’s take: This is a refined, quiet, and plush SUV. It pampers the driver with a comfortable ride, luxurious appointments, and a soothing demeanor. The 3.5-liter V6 provides strong acceleration and an impressive 21 mpg overall. 

Best version to get: Look for models with the Luxury package, which adds many features, including blind-spot warning.

What owners said: Most owners said they liked the acceleration, comfort, and handling. “It’s like sitting in your living room if your living room had great surround sound and firm, supportive seats.” “Easily the most comfortable SUV on the market.”

See the complete Lexus RX 350 road test, ratings, and pricing.


Best Overall

2015 Toyota Prius used car

2015 Toyota Prius

Used price range: $15,850-$18,000

CR’s take: The regular Toyota Prius is the most efficient car you can buy that doesn’t have to be plugged into an electrical outlet. This perennial reliability champ is also the best overall used car based on our new ratings. It has plenty of room for five, a flexible hatchback design, a comfortable ride, and very secure handling. The 2015 model year marked the end of the generation and the high point for that Prius generation.

Best version to get: The basic Prius Two will satisfy most buyers. The Advanced Technology package adds several advanced safety and driver assist systems.

What owners said: “Great, reliable car that’s fun to drive and reasonably priced. If you want performance, get a BMW, but if you want a wonderful ‘get around town’ car with lots of cargo space that gives actual high mpg, you can’t beat the Prius.”

See the complete Toyota Prius road test, ratings, and pricing.


The 2015 Sweet Spot

Cars evolve over time, gaining features, efficiency, and safety through redesigns and updates. For car shoppers, a 2015 model can be a meaningful step up without springing for a brand-new one.

Our chart shows the Honda Accord EX from three model years: 2010, 2015 (a 3-year-old used car), and the current 2018 version. We chose a four-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission.

2015 Honda Accord
2015 Honda Accord
2010 Honda Accord EX2015 Honda Accord EX2018 Honda Accord EX
Original MSRP$24,630$25,030$27,470
Used Price Now$10,200$17,800N/A
Engine/MPG2.4-liter, 177-hp 4-cyl., 23 mpg overall. 0-60 mph: 9.8 sec.2.4-liter, 185-hp 4-cyl., 30 mpg overall. 0-60 mph: 7.7 sec.1.5-liter, 192-hp turbo 4-cyl., 31 mpg overall. 0-60 mph: 7.7 sec.
Entertainment

CD player, XM Radio, Bluetooth phone, AUX input.

All 2010 features plus Pandora-compatible, BT audio, USB input.

All 2015 features plus Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, HD Radio.

SafetyStandard: Antilock brakes, electronic stability control, daytime running lights, side-curtain airbags.Standard: All 2010 features plus rearview camera.


Optional: Forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning.

Standard: All 2015 items plus adaptive cruise control, auto high-beams, lane-keeping assist.


Optional: Blind-spot warning.

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