Karl Brauer, executive analyst at automotive research firm iSeeCars. An automotive journalist for more than 25 years, he is a jury member for both the North American Car and Truck of the Year and the World Car of the Year awards. iSeeCars.com
Cars are so well-made these days that most will provide 150,000 miles of service without any serious problems. In fact, it’s increasingly common to reach 200,000 miles without any major repairs. That means you can buy a used car with 50,000 to 90,000 miles on its odometer and reasonably expect to get another 100,000 miles out of it—but only if you select the right used car. Pay a mechanic around $100 to perform a pre purchase inspection…and spend around $40 on a CarFax report (CarFax.com) to weed out most cars that have been involved in serious accidents or floods. Here are today’s best used cars for $10,000 or less…
Best small sedan/hatchback under $10,000: 2014 Toyota Yaris. If your goal is to buy the newest, lowest-mileage well-made car that you can find for less than $10,000, the Yaris is the place to start. For that price, you often can find a well-maintained Yaris that is just two years old with less than 40,000 miles on its odometer. The car likely still will have around two years and 20,000 miles left on its drivetrain warranty. The Yaris isn’t fast—its 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine produces a modest 106 horsepower (hp)—nor is it roomy or well-appointed, but what it lacks in flash and high-end features, it makes up for with fuel economy and reliability. The Yaris is available as a hatchback or sedan and gets 30 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city, 36 on the highway.
Alternative: The 2014 Hyundai Accent is another reliable, affordable small-car option. The Honda Fit is excellent, too, but you’re unlikely to find a 2014 with low mileage for under $10,000.
Best midsize sedan under $10,000: 2010 Toyota Camry. The Camry is among the best-selling cars in the US for a reason—it has a well-earned reputation for outstanding quality and reliability even by Toyota’s lofty standards. You could very reasonably expect this car to provide 180,000 to 200,000 trouble-free miles, potentially more. Camrys hold their value well, but $10,000 should be enough to buy a 2010 with perhaps 80,000 miles on its odometer—there’s an excellent chance that such a car has at least another 100,000 miles left in it. The Camry is not distinctive or sporty in any way—this is not a car for enjoying the thrill of the road. But if you’re searching for reliability, fuel-efficiency, a soft, quiet ride and a cabin that doesn’t feel cramped at a reasonable price, it’s hard to do better. The base 2.5-liter, four-cylinder model provides 22 mpg city/32 highway.
Best full-sized sedan under $10,000: 2010 Buick LaCrosse. This Buick cannot quite match the comfort, quality and amenities of a true luxury make such as Audi, BMW, Cadillac or Lexus—but it comes closer than you might imagine, and Buick’s lower-brand caché means that LaCrosses can be bargains on the secondhand market. For around $10,000, you might find a 2010 with perhaps 70,000 miles on it. A 2010 Lexus ES 350, a comparable car, would likely cost $14,000 or more. The LaCrosse provides the smooth, quiet ride that luxury-sedan buyers expect…it looks upscale inside and out…and it is surprisingly fun to drive—the base three-liter, six-cylinder engine delivers a robust 255 hp. Fuel economy is 17 mpg city/26 highway.
Alternative: The 2010 Hyundai Azera is another spacious, well-made, well-equipped near-luxury sedan available in this price range, though its interior does not feel quite as stylish and upscale as that of the LaCrosse.
Best sports car/convertible under $10,000: 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata. Miatas are reliable and a blast to drive, thanks to their light weight and wonderful handling. Like most convertibles, these two-seat roadsters tend to be handled gently and driven mostly when the weather is nice, so there are plenty of seven- and eight-year-old Miatas that still have less than 70,000 miles on their odometers. Fuel economy is very good by sports car standards—the two-liter, 158-hp, four-cylinder engine delivers 21 mpg city/28 highway.
Best midsize SUV under $10,000: 2008 Honda Pilot. With gasoline prices so low, gas-hungry SUVs are in great demand this year, so it is tough to find great deals either new or used. The Pilot is no exception—to keep your purchase price below $10,000, you’ll probably have to buy one that’s around eight years old with perhaps 110,000 miles on it. (And perhaps even a few more miles or a year older if you want an all-wheel-drive model.) But you’re going to pay up for any SUV these days, so you might as well pay up for a great one—and the Pilot is that. It is more comfortable and reliable than just about any other vehicle in its class. It’s surprisingly nimble and fun to drive for a three-row, eight-passenger SUV, too. The 244-hp, 3.5-liter, six-cylinder engine provides 16 mpg city/22 highway.
Best compact SUV under $10,000: 2011 Kia Sportage. If you want to spend $10,000 on a well-made SUV that has less than 100,000 miles on its odometer, your best bet is to sacrifice size. The 2011 Kia Sportage offers only two rows of seats (for five passengers) compared with the Honda Pilot’s three-row, eight-passenger capacity…and 54.6 cubic feet maximum cargo room, compared with the Pilot’s 87.6 cubic feet. But the Sportage is sporty, stylish and reliable—and even in this year of steep SUV prices, it is possible to find a 2011 model with perhaps 80,000 miles on it for around $10,000. (You might have to settle for one with a few more miles on it if you want an all-wheel-drive model.) It’s economical by SUV standards, too—the base model’s 2.4-liter, 176-hp, four-cylinder engine delivers 22 mpg city/31 highway. The Sportage was updated for 2011, with improved styling and a more powerful and fuel-efficient engine, so it’s worth searching for a 2011 rather than settling for a 2010.
*The used-car prices cited in this article assume a vehicle is in very good condition…is purchased through a private seller…and is the base model. The prices are final sales price estimates, not initial asking prices, so some negotiation might be required. Prices might reasonably be higher if the vehicle has high-end options…unusually low mileage…or is purchased from a dealership.
**Fuel-economy figures apply to vehicles’ base models with automatic transmission.