Updated on 06.15.15

The Best Used Cars for Simply Getting Around

Jon Gorey

Sometimes, you just want to get from Point A to Point B -- cheaply and reliably.

2012 Nissan Leaf

At under $10,000, a used 2012 Nissan Leaf is a reliable and cheap option for daily commuting or running errands. Photo: Elias Motors via Facebook

It’s expensive to buy and own a car — the American Automobile Association (AAA) pegs the cost of owning a vehicle at a whopping $8,698 a year. But most of us need one to get around; in much of America, it’s just a fact of life.

Still, that doesn’t mean we need an expensive car. While AAA takes into account everything from insurance to tires, the lion’s share of that annual expense comes from the depreciation of the vehicle (your car payment) and loan interest.

Buying a basic, reliable automobile — or better yet, a used version of the same — is a great way to meet your transportation needs while making a big dent in that yearly expense. After all, why pour so much money into something that, unlike a home or your retirement savings, is all but guaranteed to be a losing investment?

The Simple Dollar’s Best Used Cars for Getting From Point A to Point B

With that in mind, we’ve compiled our first annual list of the best used cars for simply getting around. We placed a premium on reliability and fuel efficiency — you want to get where you’re going cheaply and without problems. We also considered safety and overall quality ratings, but disregarded data related to design and performance.

We’ve focused only on 2012 models. This is for two reasons:

  • First, there’s enough data to judge their reliability (in the form of JD Power & Associates’ 2015 Vehicle Dependability Study) and compare apples to apples, so to speak.
  • Second, buying a three- to four-year-old vehicle often makes the most sense financially — you won’t suffer the steep depreciation hit you experience with a new car, but the vehicle probably has many good years (and miles) ahead of it. In fact, some things may still be covered under warranty.

Dependability and quality ratings are based on studies performed by JD Powers and Associates; prices are based on Kelley Blue Book’s fair purchase price for a base model with common options such as air conditioning and power windows. (Jump down for a full explanation of our methodology.)

Best Used Car Under $10,000

Because our rankings are weighted to reward reliability and fuel efficiency, the 2012 Nissan LEAF, Nissan’s plug-in electric vehicle (PEV), took top honors among all the other cars on this list — at any price. That said, a fully electric plug-in isn’t for everyone.

The LEAF shines for those who need a cheap, reliable way to go back and forth to work each day or run errands around town. It could be the ideal second car.

But with a limited range of just 73 miles, it’s unlikely to replace the family sedan for road trips or weekend getaways — at least, not until electric charging stations grow more commonplace. (It’s also worth noting that federal tax credits don’t apply to the purchase of a used electric vehicle, according to Edmunds, and the battery of any all-electric vehicle will likely need a costly replacement down the road.)

2012 Nissan LEAF

Price: $9,244
Overall score: 38.6
  • Dependability: 19 (out of 20)
  • MPG: 106 city/92 hwy
  • Quality: 4 (out of 5)
  • Safety: 5 (out of 5)
  • Raw score: 47.8

Best Used Cars Under $15,000

Not surprisingly, this is the big sweet spot for a reliable, no-frills ride. If you’re looking for a dependable, fuel-efficient way to get from Point A to Point B — with just enough room for a couple of kids and groceries — you shouldn’t have to pay more than $15,000.

Small Japanese cars (and Toyotas in particular) dominate this genre, with one notable exception: Your best bet for a cheap, reliable ride among American-made cars is the 2012 Chevy Malibu. For those who crave a bit more elbow room or luggage space, the Malibu is also one of the larger cars on this list, but boasts surprising fuel efficiency for its size.

2012 Honda Civic Sedan

Price: $10,752
Overall score: 23.6
  • Dependability: 19
  • MPG: 28 city/36 hwy
  • Quality: 4
  • Safety: 5
  • Raw score: 34.4

2012 Toyota Prius Hatchback

Price: $14,877
Overall score: 22
  • Dependability: 18
  • MPG: 51 city/48 hwy
  • Quality: 4
  • Safety: 5
  • Raw score: 36.9

2012 Toyota Corolla

Price: $12,284
Overall score: 21.7
  • Dependability: 19
  • MPG: 26 city/34 hwy
  • Quality: 5
  • Safety: 4
  • Raw score: 34

2012 Toyota Yaris 5-Door Liftback

Price: $11,074
Overall score: 21.7
  • Dependability: 17
  • MPG: 30 city/38 hwy
  • Quality: 5
  • Safety: 4
  • Raw score: 32.8

2012 Scion xD

Price: $12,161
Overall score: 20.8
  • Dependability: 19
  • MPG: 27 city/33 hwy
  • Quality: 4
  • Safety: 4 (not rated by the NHTSA, but named a 2012 “Top Safety Pick” by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
  • Raw score: 33

2012 Honda Fit

Price: $11,986
Overall score: 20
  • Dependability: 17
  • MPG: 27 city/33 hwy
  • Quality: 5
  • Safety: 4
  • Raw score: 32

2012 Chevrolet Malibu

Price: $13,030
Overall score: 19.5
  • Dependability: 18
  • MPG: 22 city/33 hwy
  • Quality: 5
  • Safety: 4
  • Raw score: 32.5

2012 Scion tC Coupe

Price: $13,590
Overall score: 17.8
  • Dependability: 18
  • MPG: 23 city/31 hwy
  • Quality: 3
  • Safety: 5
  • Raw score: 31.4

2012 Toyota Camry

Price: $14,630
Overall score: 17.4
  • Dependability: 17
  • MPG: 25 city/35 hwy
  • Quality: 4
  • Safety: 5
  • Raw score: 32

Best Used Cars Under $20,000

When you get above $15,000, we’re no longer talking about just getting from A to B. These vehicles offer something just a bit more — more cargo or passenger space for large families, or even just some extra oomph. But they still rank among the most reliable and affordable 2012 models.

Perhaps the most surprising entry here is the Chevy Camaro  — an iconic sports car, but not everyone’s idea of a sensible automobile. But it received the highest overall dependability rating in JD Powers’ study, gets admirable fuel efficiency for a muscle car, and sports a 5-star safety rating.

2012 Toyota RAV4

Price: $15,492
Overall score: 15.5
  • Dependability: 17
  • MPG: 22 city/28 hwy
  • Quality: 5
  • Safety: 4
  • Raw score: 31

2012 Kia Sportage

Price: $15,270
Overall score: 15.4
  • Dependability: 18
  • MPG: 20 city/27 hwy
  • Quality: 4
  • Safety: 4
  • Raw score: 30.7

2012 Chevrolet Camaro

Price: $18,036
Overall score: 14.9
  • Dependability:  20
  • MPG: 19 city/30 hwy
  • Quality: 3
  • Safety: 5
  • Raw score: 32.9

2012 GMC Terrain SUV

Price: $17,584
Overall score: 14
  • Dependability: 19
  • MPG: 24 city/32 hwy
  • Quality: 3
  • Safety: 4
  • Raw score: 31.6

2012 Nissan Murano

Price: $18,229
Overall score: 12.9
  • Dependability: 18
  • MPG: 18 city/23 hwy
  • Quality: 5
  • Safety: 4
  • Raw score: 31.1

2012 Toyota Sienna Minivan

Price: $19,346
Overall score: 10
  • Dependability: 18
  • MPG: 19 city/24 hwy
  • Quality: 3
  • Safety: 4
  • Raw score: 29.3


Methodology

Dependability scores are out of a possible 20, from JD Power & Associates 2015 Vehicle Dependability Study, in which car owners were asked to rate and report problems with their 2012 vehicles over the past three years across four categories: Overall Dependability, Powertrain, Body and Interior, and Features and Accessories. For our purposes, cars had to score 17 or better to be considered.

Quality ratings are from JD Power & Associates’ 2012 Initial Quality Study, where 5 is the best score.

Miles per gallon (MPG) scores were calculated by adding EPA city and highway fuel-efficiency estimates and dividing by 10. (So a car with 25 city/35 highway mpg would score a 6.) The highest possible score is 20.

Safety scores refer to the National Highway & Transportation Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) overall safety ratings for 2012 models, where 5 is the best rating.

Prices shown are the “Fair Purchase Price” according to Kelley Blue Book — or what you should expect to pay, after some negotiating, at a used car dealership — in the Boston area for June 11, 2015.

Figures reflect the base model (e.g., for the Honda Civic, we looked at the DX model with manual transmission). Prices assume a car is in good condition or better, with 50,000 miles on it, and includes such common comforts as air conditioning and power steering, but not other extras.

That said, if you’re really just looking for a reliable engine attached to some wheels, you can often save about a thousand dollars or more by buying a bare-bones model without A/C, cruise control, or power locks and windows. But take it from someone who lived without power steering for six years: It’s well worth it!

Tips for Buying a Used Car

Even an inexpensive car is one of the bigger purchases you’ll ever make. It’s also one that, like a mattress or couch, is likely to have a major impact on your day-to-day life because of how often you use it.

That means it’s critical to invest some time researching your purchase.

Start with sites like Edmunds, Cars.com, and Kelley’s Blue Book, which offer invaluable treasure troves of data and expert reviews, and allow you to compare the specs of multiple models side by side. Consumer Reports also offers in-depth, authoritative reviews of thousands of cars; if you don’t have a subscription, you can often find back issues at your local library.

Also consider just how old of a car you’re willing to buy. A newer car will cost more to insure each month, while an older one may rack up more repair and maintenance costs each year. At around 60,000 miles, most warranties start to phase out, and some cars may require expensive bits of maintenance — a new timing belt, for instance — between 60,000 and 100,000 miles.

Once you’ve narrowed down a few models you like, search the inventory at nearby dealerships, and/or online classifieds such as Craigslist if you’re comfortable buying from a private seller. Here are a few more tips when it comes time to buy a used car:

Line up financing ahead of time (or better yet, pay cash).

If you can secure an auto loan from your own bank or credit union, take that to the dealership. It’s one more bargaining chip in your favor — you won’t be reliant on their loan department, and they may even try to beat that interest rate to win your business. If you can pay in cash, you’ll be a more attractive buyer – and you won’t have the burden of a car payment for the next few years.

Don’t be afraid to walk away.

Whether you’re buying from a dealership or a private seller, this is your primary bargaining chip. If you have a car that still functions, you’re in no immediate rush to buy, and you’re free to look elsewhere for a better deal. If you’re unhappy with the seller’s terms, walk away.

Don’t let the salesperson change the numbers.

Print out your research from Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book, and walk into the dealership armed with a fair purchase price for your vehicle of choice. Show them your research and make it clear that that’s what you’re willing to pay. They may try to steer the dialog away from the actual purchase price, focusing instead on monthly payments (and 72-month loans).

Don’t let them: This is just a smokescreen to disguise the true cost of the car.

Take it for a test drive.

While we’ve become conditioned to buy things online sight-unseen, a used car is a different animal. Make sure you test drive a car in various situations before buying it — to make sure it feels right to you, and to uncover any potential problems. For example, if it starts shaking at higher speeds, you’ll want to take it to a mechanic to see how serious the issue is.

Get a vehicle history report.

Obtaining a CarFax or similar report is an easy, fairly cheap way to check a car’s title and accident history using its vehicle identification number (VIN). A car that’s been in a serious accident could have hidden problems, and you don’t want to pay for them.

Shop in daylight.

Between work and kids, it can be tough to squeeze in a daytime trip to the dealership — especially if your current car goes kaput and you can’t wait until the weekend. But try to shop in daylight whenever possible.

We bought our last used car late in the evening, after work — we needed wheels, pronto — and we failed to notice a number of minor dents and scratches on the exterior. We were even mildly surprised by the color when we finally saw it in the light of day — and you don’t want to be surprised by a used car!

Give the car a thorough inspection, and/or take it to a trusted mechanic.

Kelley’s Blue Book offers some helpful advice on conducting a thorough self-inspection of any used car you’re considering; for instance, look for uneven tire wear or cracks on the engine block.

However, it you’re still unsure, you can take the car to a mechanic you trust for an inspection. It’s well worth the money to learn whether the car has any obvious mechanical flaws — and how much you can expect to pay for repairs if so. Even if the problem isn’t a deal-breaker, you still may be able to use that information to negotiate a better price.

Don’t Automatically Rule Out a New Car

Finally, it’s worth noting that buying a used car is generally your best value, but don’t just assume that’s the case — do some research.

For one thing, the sharp, first-year depreciation of new cars that you always hear about — how they lose up to 30% of their value as soon as you drive off the lot — is against the MSRP, or the retail sticker price. Hopefully you know by now that no one pays sticker price for a new car, so that figure can be a bit inflated. (Edmunds estimates that most new cars lose about 19% of their value vs. the actual purchase price in the first year. Granted, that’s still a terrible deal, but it’s not quite so bad as we often hear.)

Plus, with brands that hold their value better than others — such as Toyota or Honda — the “used” discount isn’t as pronounced, so it can make sense to compare new prices as well. This is especially true during major promotional periods such as Labor Day or Presidents Day sales, when dealers may be under pressure to meet a sales quota.

For instance, Kelley Blue Book’s fair purchase price for a 2012 Honda Fit is $11,986; the fair-market price of a new 2015 model, meanwhile, is $15,799, even before any current incentives. So by buying used in this case, you’re only getting a 24% discount — and giving up the bulk of your warranty plus four years and 50,000 miles of wear and tear on the vehicle to get it. Consider whether that trade-off is worth the savings.

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