Depending on where you live, owning a car is more than useful; it’s indispensable. Whether it’s the weather, lack of public transit, or the sort of job you have, finding a car may be at the top of your to-do list. Especially in the wake of the damage wrought by the pandemic, the trauma that people have suffered, and the global trend towards remote work, more and more people need a car of their own.
But cars can be expensive, and the pandemic hasn’t exactly fattened our wallets. Many of us must do a lot with a little. In our case, the problem is not such much finding a car as finding an affordable car.
You could visit Craigslist or the Facebook marketplace, sort from low price to high, and pick the first thing that still has all four wheels.
But buying a good used car is a little more complicated than that, especially when you’re trying to keep costs down—all costs, not just the initial price tag. So we will also consider other factors affecting the cost of ownership: gas mileage, the likelihood of expensive repairs, the availability of parts. A $500 Ford may seem like a good deal, but paying $50 ever week or so to refill the oil adds up.
We don’t list the “best” or “cheapest” cars here. The market changes constantly, and every locale is different. We also evaluate cars a bit differently than a site for persons seeking luxury would evaluate them.
Instead, we showcase just a few different used vehicles appealing to a few different tastes and needs so that you don’t have to spend hours reviewing listings on Facebook Marketplace. These are vehicles that we can personally vouch for.
The Subaru Outback or the Subaru Forester (2000-2010)
If you are a hiker, live in an area with snowy winters, or are an SUV fan | Price: $3,000–8,000
This is what I drive. The Outback and the Forester are nearly indistinguishable. The Outback is lower and runs a little more smoothly; the Forester gets slightly more ground clearance. But they are both very practical vehicles that are perfect for rough terrain and snowy winters.
Although they get lower fuel mileage than other cars on this list, the mileage is good for an SUV. What really shines about these models is their reliability. You will need to replace the timing belt every hundred thousand miles or so, which will set you back a few hundred dollars. Other than that, though, you shouldn’t expect to do much more than routine maintenance for these vehicles. Moreover, Subaru drivers tend to be good car owners. So even older models will probably work very well for you.
The 2009 Honda Fit
If you want extra storage space | Price: $4,000
Hatchbacks are a nice option if you need more space than a sedan offers but don’t want to spend extra money on an SUV or deal with its lower gas mileage. Hondas are roomy to begin with, and the Fit is like the Tardis: bigger on the inside. The Honda Fit is also very safe, fun to drive, gets great fuel economy, and, like any Honda, is reliable.
The Toyota Camry or Corolla (2006-2010)
If you just want a car | Price: $5,000-$8,000
If you were asked to draw a picture of a basic car, you would probably draw a Camry or a Corolla. These dominate the used-car market for good reason. Even by Toyota’s standards, they’re incredibly reliable and very affordable. Almost any local car market has these models in abundance.
The Honda Civic or Honda Accord (2006-2011)
If you like a roomy vehicle | Price: $4,000-$8,000
The Civic and Accord are, arguably, even more reliable than the Toyota options listed above. But the Civic and Accord are also roomier, have a better feel, and offer more amenities. Which of the two models is better for a particular driver tends to be a matter of taste.
The Toyota Tundra (2002)
If you need a pickup truck |Price: $6,000
Sometimes, you just need to haul things. When that’s the case, you can’t go wrong with a Tundra. Its price and reliability match its power. Unlike the Ford F-150, the Toyota Tundra won’t blink an alert light at you every day.
Each of these five used cars is likely to be more of a help than a headache. At the very least, they’re a good place to start your search. Give them a test drive and see which ones meet your needs. Your next task, once you’ve bought the car: find a [good mechanic][link to my article on finding good mechanics].