Buying a used car is a bit of adventure. Unless you personally know the seller and the car, it’s history and maintenance record, then you are playing the percentages.
Any used car search will involve a check on the vehicle’s history, which you can search by the Vehicle Industry Number (VIN) at vehiclehistory.com. But before you get to researching a specific car that has made it onto your short list, do your research.
A smart place to start is with Consumer Reports (user vs motor oil) , which groups some of its recommendations based on price. I complied a list of these five recommendations based on input from Consumer Reports, J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study and Initial Quality Study (IQS), and my own test drives.
Pontiac Vibe: 2006-2009: Less than $10,000
It may seem like a strange pick. After all, Pontiac is out of business. That’s true. But that is also the point. Because Pontiac is out of business, values of Pontiacs have gone down, even the ones that were proven to be reliable and dependable.
The Pontiac Vibe was built through a joint-venture between General Motors and Toyota. The Toyota version of the Vibe was marketed at the Matrix. And both vehicles were essentially five-door versions of the ultra-dependable Toyota Corolla. Yes, underneath the Pontiac skin beats the heart of a Corolla. If you live in a snow state, see if you can locate an all-wheel-drive version. But you might have to be patient. People who bought these cars aren’t anxious to sell.
Kia Soul: 2011-2013: $10,000–$15,000
The Soul looks a bit quirky, and Kia has not been a leader in overall quality, but it has been a huge winner for the South Korean brand. In fact, dealers pretty much sell these cars as soon as they land on their lots.
The Soul is recommended by Consumer Reports, gets a five-star (out of five) rating on “overall quality” from J.D. Power’s IQS. The Soul is a fun ride, and combines a small size with an elevated seating position. It’s rear space behind the second-row of seats also makes the Soul a handy utility vehicle.
Kia’s resale values are not as strong as some other brands. But in the used market, that works to the buyer’s advantage.
Hyundai Elantra: 2014-2015: $15,000-$20,000
The Elantra is a classy looking sedan, and Hyundai has quietly become one of the industry’s quality leaders.
This car has terrific interior fit and finish, good room in both front and rear seats and achieves 38 mpg on the highway. The Elantra also packs more standard equipment than rivals like Honda Civic and Corolla. Hyundai was clearly trying to over-achieve on this car, and they did.
Mazda CX-5: 2013: $15,000-$20,000
The CX-5 flies very much under the radar. Almost unanimously praised by the automotive enthusiast magazines for handling and driving fun, the CX-5 is much lesser known than better sellers like the Hondas CR-V and Toyota RAV4. But that’s good news for the used car buyer looking for a reliable, and fun, compact crossover.
Mazda’s 2.0 liter direct-injected SkyActiv engine is one of the best in the industry and helps achieve some real performance characteristics without slaughtering fuel economy–a very respectable 29 mpg combines city and highway driving, according to fueleconomy.gov.
Lincoln MKZ: 2009-2010: $10,000-$15,000
Lincoln may not be the first car you think of when shopping used cars, but this venerable Ford premium brand is not about Town Cars and limos any more. The MKZ was, and is, built on the same assembly lines as the Ford Fusion.
The Lincoln did not sell that well, owing primarily to so-so marketing, and the perceived weakness of the Lincoln brand. But this is a solid, reliable car, and you can find them equipped with all-wheel-drive, as well as a reliable V6 engine and a premium interior.