By Nick Kania • August 26, 2015
To many, the world of car-buying can seem complicated, unknown, and downright scary. With so many makes and models to choose from at an enormous range of prices, it’s hard to figure out how far your money can really go. A good starting point is $5,000 – at this price, you can find a car to suit almost any need, provided you do your research beforehand.
A lot of people I know have qualms about buying a used car. They worry about reliability, warranties, scams, and other things of that nature. While these are very real threats, all of them can be prevented with time and some careful fact checking. If you don’t feel like looking into it and would prefer the peace of mind that comes with buying a new car, I don’t blame you. With dealers preparing to roll out fresh models, August is one of the best times to buy new, so act fast!
On the other hand, if you’re a bit adventurous and really want to see how much car you can get for your dollar, look no further. The used car market is rich with deals on vehicles for every need you can imagine. Five grand goes a long way with used cars, so if you’re in a monetary bind, you’re not completely out of luck.
A few broad recommendations apply:
Luckily for you, we have compiled a list of some of the best cars to look for in several categories. Keep in mind, car-buying is very subjective. Our suggestions are based on reliability and functionality but remember: every individual car is different. That being said, let’s get started!
If you’re a daily commuter and want a simple, utilitarian, and reliable car to get you to work every day, you have a ton of options. Four doors, good gas mileage, and an automatic transmission is easy to come by.
First choice: Honda Civic (2001 – 2005) or Toyota Corolla (2000 – 2006)
It’s a dead tie between these two cars, as both are bulletproof, simple, and can be found in vast numbers. The 2003 Civic is rated at a combined 29 MPG, while the 2003 Corolla is good for 28 MPG. Both have four cylinder engines and four-speed gearboxes. On this one, it’s up to your personal preference.
Winter driver’s choice: Subaru Forester (2002 – 2008)
This car can be a bit tougher to find, but if you live in a place with lots of snow, you’ll be glad you have it. Subaru is reputed for its reliability and its all-wheel-drive system, which lets you to drive through blizzards like it’s still mid-July (trust me, I drive a Subaru and live in New York). You’ll take a hit on gas mileage – the 2004 non-turbo Forester is rated at a combined 21 MPG, but you’ll have more space and won’t get stuck easily.
A family car should have enough space for sports equipment, suitcases, groceries, and kids. SUVs, minivans, and station wagons get the job done just right.
First choice: Dodge Grand Caravan (2001 – 2007)
This generation Dodge Grand Caravan and its Chrysler counterpart the Town & Country can still be seen everywhere. They’re spacious and very reliable. Most importantly though, there are a lot of them, meaning you have wiggle room when trying to find a good deal.
Alternative choice: Ford Explorer (2002 to 2005)
For those that dislike the implications of driving a minivan, there’s the Ford Explorer. This generation of Explorer has three rows of seats and comes with solid reliability. Although there are a few different engine choices, don’t expect good gas mileage. The upside is that an Explorer will get you through weather conditions that a minivan may struggle in.
For those that do city driving or deeply care about the environment, an eco-friendly car is in order. Such a car should get excellent gas mileage and should use a fueling method other than basic petroleum.
First choice: Toyota Prius (2003 – 2009)
The Toyota Prius is practically the poster-child for hybrid cars everywhere. While a Prius can actually be pretty expensive new, they’re dirt cheap when used. The 2004 Prius gets a combined 46 MPG and comes with that great Toyota reliability we’ve come to know and love.
Enthusiast’s choice: Volkswagen Golf TDI (2000 – 2006)
This car can be difficult to find and will likely come with increased repair costs (German parts). Regardless, there’s no arguing that it’s simply a really cool car. Golfs have always had timeless styling, and this one packs a diesel engine that gets a combined 38 MPG. If you’re car savvy and want something unique, consider the Golf.
Some of us like a little quality in our interiors, a little leather on our seats, and a flashy brand name on our cars. That’s perfectly okay, but remember that you’ll likely get less for your money buying a used luxury car. Expect higher mileage and more expensive repairs in this category.
First choice: BMW 325i (1998 – 2007)
Whatever your opinions on BMW, this car is great. It’s one of the most reliable BMWs made in a very long time, evidenced by the number of models in this generation you can still see on the road. Additionally, BMW likes to make their cars sportier, meaning it’s fun to drive! Just be ready for the repair bill to have the same problem as the Volkswagen – European car parts are pricey.
Domestic choice: Cadillac CTS (2003 – 2007)
If you’re an American car person or you just want lower repair costs, consider the Cadillac CTS. This generation was made right when Cadillac decided to start changing its image as an “old man’s car,” so the styling isn’t quite outdated. The engine is also a sizeable V6, making it a sporty sedan much like the BMW.
If you’re a sports car enthusiast, you’ve been waiting for this section the entire time. Let’s make this clear – in this price range, you simply aren’t going to get something reliable and fast. You’ll have to pick one; if you choose fast, you’ll end up buying somebody’s modified drift machine that has about 10 more miles to go until it falls apart. Seriously, if you want your car to be fast, modify it yourself. Instead, just shoot for a car that’s fun to drive. You’ll be happy you did.
First choice: Mazda Miata (any year)
I’m sure every car person saw this one coming. There’s a reason for that – the Miata is cheap, handles like a dream, has a great gearbox, is reliable, and has a convertible top. It seriously covers all grounds, and there are so many of them around that you can find one in any price range. If you decide you want it to be faster, consider dropping a Chevy engine under the hood – just Google “monster Miata” to see what I mean.
Sensible choice: BMW 3 series (1982 – 1993)
Okay, so maybe a two-seater convertible that’s about the size of a living room sofa doesn’t quite do it for you. You might need something a bit more…practical. If that’s your situation, think about the famous e30 BMW. It has back seats, a well-made interior (if taken care of), decent features, and a reliable engine. Oh, and it’s a blast to drive – it’s pushed by the rear wheels, the gearbox is a dream, and the in-line engine makes for awesome balance.
This list is pretty comprehensive, but like I said: each individual car is different, so make sure you get your choice checked out by a professional. Look through forums for common problems by model year so you can watch out for some things on your own as well. If you have the luxury of choice, stick to the later model years in each generation, as those are the times when the manufacturer has sorted out most issues. Don’t let these warnings scare you; do your homework and you’ll find used-car buying to be both incredibly fulfilling and financially responsible!
Nick Kania Nick is our summer editorial intern who attends St. John’s University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. You’ll likely find him drinking his third cup of coffee somewhere, thinking about faraway places and how to get there.