What’s So Great About Used Cars?

Shopping smart can get you a safer, more fuel-efficient vehicle than the one you may be driving now. We steer you to top choices.

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Many consumers still see a used-car purchase as a compromise. But buying a lightly used vehicle with modern conveniences, onboard entertainment, and the latest safety features can be a smart move if you know what to look for. And the average price of a 3-year-old used car is a little less than half what it would cost new, according to the latest sales data from Kelley Blue Book. Many vehicles coming off leases and returning to dealerships as used cars tend to be in good shape and have low mileage, says Mel Yu, a CR auto analyst.

Buying used might make even more sense now because many 2016 models are equipped with the advanced safety features that Consumer Reports says all models should come with: forward collision warning (FCW), automatic emergency braking (AEB), pedestrian detection, and blind spot warning (BSW).

Leased vehicles now make up nearly one-third of new-car sales. That means more than 4 million of them will become available for purchase as used cars this year, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. And there should be a substantial supply of these desirable used cars for years to come, says Patrick Manzi, a senior economist for the association. Ride-share drivers, such as those who work for Uber and Lyft, are taking advantage of the influx of quality, well-equipped used cars, says Anil Goyal, executive vice president of operations at Black Book, an automotive pricing data company. Consumers benefit by being able to hire ride-share drivers who are using these almost-new cars featuring advanced safety features.

More on Used Cars

Despite all of these selling points, some shoppers favor new cars to avoid the risks associated with secondhand vehicles. Concerns about reliability are understandable, because used cars are often out of warranty and may have been driven for tens of thousands of miles. Each one also has a unique maintenance and repair history. But our annual surveys routinely find that many cars are quite reliable even after a few years of service.

And there are ways to mitigate the risks. One way to feel more confident about buying secondhand is to get a certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle. These typically combine a detailed vehicle inspection with reconditioning by the dealership, and they’re sold with a warranty. A CPO car does cost more, but it can reduce stress for used-car buyers.

No matter where you buy, be sure to go to nhtsa.gov/recalls to see if the car has any open recalls, so that you can have the work done if necessary.

Beware of Used-Car Buying Pitfalls

Regardless of model or age, every used car has had an individual road experience and requires a close look to avoid expensive surprises. Here are steps you can take to better protect yourself:

Check the vehicle history report. Carfax, AutoCheck, and similar services can tip you off to a potential problem or questionable history. But CR has found that vehicle reports might not capture all incidents, especially those that are recent.

Look for hidden signs of crash damage. Paint that doesn’t match or uneven spacing between body panels indicates previous bodywork.

Check for flood damage. Inspect difficult-to-clean places for mud and debris, such as gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood. Check the seat-mounting screws for rust.

Push the buttons. Try out all of the car’s features and functions. This can reveal some common problems, such as air conditioning that doesn’t blow cold or a window that doesn’t work properly.

Check older tires for uneven wear. That can indicate a lack of maintenance or a suspension problem.

Get second opinion. Always pay a mechanic you trust for a bumper-to-bumper inspection before you buy.

CR’s Picks for the Best Used Cars

To arrive at these recommendations, we analyzed our road-test scores for 2016 models from when they were new to compile a list of high-scoring vehicles. We reviewed our exclusive reliability and satisfaction survey data from CR members to find out which of these cars were standouts as used vehicles. (Our Annual Auto Survey covers almost half a million vehicles of various models and years.)

Based on that data, we’ve highlighted 10 used cars drawn from several popular categories and price ranges. These models are noteworthy for both their scores and prices. Prices for each model represent the retail range, from a bare-bones base version to a well-equipped top-trim version. The most common are priced in the middle of the range.

We’ve also provided alternatives in each category. These models shined in our tests, too, and CR members reported them to be reliable used cars.

Many advanced safety systems that are now standard on several vehicles were only optional in 2016, so make sure the car you’re considering is equipped with the safety features you want.

Smart Bargains

Under $20,000

Under $27,000

Under $30,000

Specialty

Truck

Tips for Buying a Used Car

There are a lot of things you need to check when shopping for a used car. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Keith Barry explains to host Jack Rico how to evaluate a pre-owned vehicle and negotiate with the dealership to get the best possible deal.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.


Jeff S. Bartlett

A New England native, I have piloted a wide variety of vehicles, from a Segway to an aircraft carrier. All told, I have driven thousands of vehicles—many on race tracks across the globe. Today, that experience and passion are harnessed at the CR Auto Test Center to empower consumers. And if some tires must be sacrificed in the pursuit of truth, so be it. Follow me on Twitter (@JeffSBartlett).