Making the decision to purchase a used car is a serious decision that shouldn't be taken lightly. With so many options available online these days, the process can be overwhelming, to say the least. But not all used cars were created equal, as all automotive manufacturers have good years and bad years in terms of design, reliability, and functionality.
Although it's possible to save money by finding a well-maintained older car, oftentimes, used cars have been neglected by their previous owners once their warranties ran out of time or miles. It's very important to first put in the time necessary for doing solid research in the decision of what car you want, and then, once you've decided which car you want, it's even more important to be very patient and find the exact right unit that checks all the boxes. Definitely, don't ever buy the first car you go see.
Begin by doing research at home and deciding the purpose for which your car will be used. Is it going to be a daily driver? A road trip commuter? A weekend hobby? A truck with four-wheel drive or a coupe with all-wheel drive? Performance fun or stately daily driving?
The next step is to create a list of good options that meet as many requirements as possible. But with so many choices, that list can grow pretty big pretty fast. To help make your decision easier, keep scrolling for 20 of the best cars available on today's secondhand market.
20 Subaru WRX STI
When it comes to reliability, performance, and all-around utility in the form of a sedan, it's hard to beat the Subaru WRX in its rally-inspired STI form. While the huge rear spoiler says "sports car," the simple interior says "functionality."
The STI is lightweight and powerful, with razor-sharp handling and legendary reliability thanks to its stout turbocharged 2.5L boxer engine and racecar-derived drivetrain.
The "bugeye" STI pictured above was the first generation to reach US shores, making it highly sought after and especially difficult to find in stock form. Most examples have been tuned or modded extensively, but a low-mileage, lightly modified bugeye STI can be found for $15,000-18,000. Though with the extensive aftermarket support available for Subarus, rougher examples can be had for the amateur mechanic who's looking to spend significantly less.
19 Mk4 Volkswagen Golf R32
VW's string of Golf and GTI models are ubiquitous and popular throughout the world and for good reason. With a functional interior, a boxy but attractive exterior, and a roomy interior, a Golf or a GTI is usually a great choice for a used car shopper. But for those looking to spend up to $20k, the step up to the R32 is a no-brainer.
Upgrades for the R32 over the standard GTI include a VR6 engine, Haldex-based all-wheel drive, a six-speed transmission, upgraded suspension components, and highly bolstered Recaro front seats. R32s also feature a unique exhaust that additionally contributes to so few owners finding the heart to sell their cars on the open market. But if you find a well-maintained example with documented service records, even slightly higher mileage shouldn't scare off a potential purchase. For a solid car with less than 100K miles, expect to pay around $15,000-17,000.
18 E36 BMW M3
Many critics of VAG products point to MK4 Golfs, GTIs, and Mk1 TTs as the heyday of reliability for the brand. Similarly, many BMW enthusiasts today lament the deterioration of dependability in recent offerings, especially with regard to electronic gremlins. The E36 M3 is perhaps the last BMW with simple electronics that also retains traditional BMW features like a straight-six engine and perfectly balanced handling.
Desirable options on an E36 M3 include "Vader" seats, lightweight wheels, and a sunroof delete (or slicktop).
Fans will inevitably argue over the pre-1995 OBD1 engines or the larger displacement S52s with OBDII compatibility, but luckily, their traits can be combined—a common mod for E36s is to swap the intake from an S50 onto the S52 engine, improving low-end grunt in the larger, later model engine. E36 M3s run the gamut because their drivetrain lasts so long, but mid-level examples typically run about $10,000-15,000 dependent on condition and ownership.
17 Subaru WRX
Of course, if the differential controls, the intercooler sprayer, and the spoiler on an STI seem a little overboard, a regular WRX is always a good choice as well. The lesser performance stats of the standard WRX actually enhances its reliability, and in hatchback form with Subaru's legendary all-wheel drive, they can be even more utilitarian while offering a less harsh ride. MPGs are superior as well, though the WRX does only have a five-speed.
Subaru's transmissions are known to last the lifetime of the car, though, even when pushed by enthusiastic drivers on a daily basis. And with a little time spent on aftermarket modifications, a WRX can confidently push out more power without causing concern for the durability of the drivetrain. Well-documented, single-owner WRXs run from $8,000-12,000, depending on your local geography and its demands.
16 Subaru Legacy GT Spec B
One step up from the WRX and the STI in Subaru's luxury department is the Legacy line of sedans and wagon, which boast slightly more refined exterior lines and a larger, leather-trimmed interior. Many mechanical components of the Legacy are interchangeable with the Impreza and the WRX, while the Legacy GT and especially the Spec B edition feature the same engine as the STI, though with a bit more weight to push around.
Spec Bs are a limited-edition option package that upgrades the suspension and the interior from the standard Legacy GT, and as such, they command a respectable premium.
The Legacy GT wagon only came in stick shift for model year 2005, which makes it another highly desirable offering. Still, these STI's for moms and dads are in a lower price range. If they're on the market at all, they seem to be around $7,000-10,000 in acceptable condition.
15 Porsche 986 Boxster S
Sneaking in for consideration in the sporty convertible category, however, is the often-forgotten first-generation Porsche Boxster. The Boxster was first introduced to the public in 1996, a continuation of Porsche's commitment to also offer affordable performance as they did with the 912, the 914, and the 944. The Boxster, of course, was a sensation on its release, redefining Porsche's styling ever since.
Truly surprising is the current market value for first-gen Boxsters. Though critiqued for their "broken eggshell" headlights and IMS bearing issues (google it), finding a low-mileage, well-maintained example is remarkably easy. For $15-17k, it should even be possible to get perhaps a slightly higher-mileage Boxster S, which features an upgraded engine and transmission and a suspension with higher spring rates. Though mileage for an S may need to be slightly higher, that's actually a good thing, as the IMS bearing may have been previously replaced.
14 Honda S2000
The late '90s and the early 2000s seem like the last era when lightweight sports cars were a priority for auto manufacturers. Honda's contribution to the field was the S2000, another simply styled and reliable performance machine. Though the S2000 wouldn't quite match Porsche's Boxster in overall power, the highlight for Honda was the release of a super high-revving engine in the S2000.
The little 2-liter engine cranked out a seemingly low 161 lb-ft of torque, but its redline of 8,800 RPM meant total horsepower was relatively high at 247 horsepower.
Rowing through the standard six-speed's gears as power courses to the tarmac through a standard limited-slip differential is such a joy that few AP1 S2000 owners are willing to part with their babies. Still, desirable S2000s are out there, and for $12-15k, a second gen is easily found, while a first gen might demand slightly more.
13 Audi TT Mk1
The Volkswagen R32 and the GTI share many components with a fellow VAG product, the Audi TT. This little coupe's iconic style shocked the world when it debuted in 1995, and various versions of its first generation hit the market between 1998 and 2006. Overall, the most desirable is a 1.8T that puts out 225 horsepower and is paired with all-wheel drive, dual exhaust, and a six-speed transmission. The refined interior of a TT reveals the higher-end market Audi hoped to reach, with an optional Bose sound system and real brushed aluminum details. Parts availability is excellent thanks to the millions of Golfs and GTIs on the road, and good examples can be found for $6,000-7,000. Simple and cheap upgrades like a rear sway bar and a light ECU tune can pay huge dividends on the TT as well.
12 BMW 325ix
Even more electronically simple than an E36 M3 is its 3-series predecessor, the E30. The E30 is available with either four- or six-cylinder engines, in coupe, sedan, or convertible, and used examples abound. The E30 set the standard that BMW bears to this day with their slogan "Ultimate Driving Machine"—a simple, well-balanced driver's car sure to bring a smile to any face.
The most useful and affordable E30 is the 325ix, which represented BMW's first foray into all-wheel drive. Differences from standard E30s include fender flares on the exterior and a viscous limited-slip rear differential that biases 60% of power to the rear wheels. E30s are even easier to work on than E36s, but they're also rarer, given their older age. Expect to pay around $10,000-15,000 if you can even find a 325ix at all.
11 BMW 135i
BMW unveiled a major shift in the company's ethos with the release of its twin-turbocharged N54 engine in its 335i coupes and sedans. Despite initial design and manufacturing flaws, the engine and its various iterations now feature in a range of BMWs.
For those looking for a powerful but classy sports car that makes a perfect designated driver, look no further than the BMW 135i.
The 135i boasts well north of 300 horsepower and 300 ft-lbs of torque and is available with a six-speed manual transmission in a small coupe package that's nonetheless a clear stylistic descendent of BMW design. Critically, some used examples still have their extended warranty coverage. Expect to push right up to the $20,000 limit for an unmolested driver, and though the mileage may be slightly high, bank on that warranty or go all out with the extensive modifications that can transform the understated coupe into an all-out beast.
10 Mazda Miata
When it comes to lightweight, sporty, and affordable, the Mazda Miata reigns supreme in the world of used cars if all that's required is a daily driver in moderate climates. The small, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive platform delivers a package that's unrivaled in reliability, simplicity, and aftermarket support. Oh, and they even make hardtops, too.
There have been so many different versions of the Miata since its inception in 1989, but the crucial elements to look for are a rust-free underside, a functioning convertible top (if you ever want to put it up), and the optional limited-slip differential. From there, a plethora of decisions remains from naturally aspirated to turbocharged to supercharged, stock or modded, and more. For under $20k, a clean Miata should be no problem to find, and there's definitely a Miata to meet every buyer's list of requirements.
9 Lotus Elise
Now, we come to the gold standard for affordable, lightweight sports cars. Lotus has come to symbolize the class as perhaps the final manufacturer to stick to its first principles: lightweight and simple, with performance prioritized over comfort. Most Lotuses still haven't depreciated enough to dip into the sub-$20,000 range, but a first-gen Elise with higher mileage in North America just might be doable. This would be recommended, especially for a confident home mechanic with the know-how to diagnose problems and source parts, but the rewards would definitely outweigh the cost. The tiny, mid-engined cars weigh in at around 1,800 to 2,000 pounds, depending on options packages, and this allows the mild power from its Toyota-sourced 1.8 liter four-cylinder to propel the car from 0-60 in 4.9 seconds.
8 Honda Civic Si
Finding a Honda Civic for under $20k barely takes ten seconds on the internet. In its seemingly infinite variations since the first model debuted in 1972, the Civic has always been synonymous with cheap, reliable transportation. Along the way, however, the Civic has also developed a reputation for being boring. While that may be true for most versions, Honda remains committed to its Si line of Civics which focus on performance, or what performance can be had out of a front-engined, front wheel drive compact car.
Still, with VTEC and an impressive suspension, the current Civic Si just set a record for fastest front engine lap at the Nurburgring, no small feat. In the used car market, though, the most desirable Civic Si has to be a sixth-gen coupe. Well maintained, clean examples are easily acquired for under $8,000, while ownership costs should be considered almost as low as possible.
7 B5 Audi S4 Avant
Upon its release back in 1997, and subsequent North American 1999 debut, the B5 Audi S4 Quattro was the fastest luxury sedan available in the world. Featuring a twin-turbocharged, double intercooled 2.7L V6 paired with Torsen-based all wheel drive that naturally biases towards the rear for increased performance, the B5 S4 in either sedan or wagon form combined performance and luxury in a package unlike anything before it.
Today, wagons are the most sought after, given lower production numbers combined with higher utilitarian values.
Like most European cars, though, when shopping for a B5, maintenance history is crucial, as these can suck up money very quickly when neglected or overly modified. Expect to pay $12-15,000 for a good B5 S4 wagon, and don't skip the pre-purchase inspection!
6 Volvo V70R
Volvo's rebuttal to the B5 S4 is the V70R, which similarly provided sports car stats in a wagon package. The stately Volvo may seem tame from the outside, but it features a transverse-mounted, turbocharged inline five engine that cranks out 300 horsepower and 300 ft-lbs of torque that are put to the ground through a six-speed transmission and Haldex-based all wheel drive. Interior options include rare Atacama leather and a rear-facing third row of seats.
V70R's are rare in any iteration because their owners are so hesitant to part with them. That's a good sign, if you can find one, though, buy with confidence if you're looking at a well documented, low mileage example. With regular service intervals, these cars can live up to Volvo's reputation for reliability, but when neglected they can easily turn into a similar European-built money pit.
5 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works GP
If a performance station wagon doesn't quite sound like the right fix, how about a little two door hatch with plenty of cargo space? The modern incarnation of the Mini Cooper is produced by BMW, and hearkens back to the classic style of the original and tiny British models. Under the hood is another story, however, as these Minis are available with powerful supercharged engines and limited-slip front differentials.
John Cooper Works' Mini GP is among the most desirable Minis on the secondhand market to this date. Each one is individually numbered (415 came to the US) and also feature a sunroof and rear seat delete for weight savings. If you can find one of these for sale, expect to shell out around $13-15,000 if it remains in stock condition.
4 Toyota Tacoma
Toyota's line of lightweight pickup trucks offers a range of options for anyone who needs a more functional used vehicle. Boasting legendary reliability with pared-down essentials only, the Toyota Tacomas of the 1980s and 90s are always a good bet, with many on the market at any given time.
For the money, a 22RE engine paired to a five speed manual and 4x4 transfer case might just be the most useful truck around.
Of course, there's also the question of a V6 for a little more power, and then the choice between long and short bed, and size of cab. Even higher mileage trucks command a premium thanks to easy and cheap maintenance and a plethora of aftermarket options. Check the underside for rust, but otherwise buy with confidence. Expect to shell out $7-10,000 for a well used example, or up to $15k for a pristine unicorn.
3 Toyota Tundra
The next step up Toyota's ladder is the Tundra, with increases in size, power, and interior amenities. Late 90s to early 2000s Tundras have a smooth, classic look that combines with reliable functionality in a package that is highly sought after but also readily available. Again, a manual transmission with four wheel drive is the best combination, and an optional leather interior takes the cake.
Tundras of this era may be slightly less ubiquitous than Tacomas, and many have been beaten up and neglected - which is actually a testament to their long lives. The plethora of online forums and aftermarket modifications, from lift kits to intake upgrades, mean that finding a completely stock Tundra might be slightly more difficult, but with a budget of around $8-10,000 a sorted daily driver can be easily found.
2 Lexus IS300
Combining performance with reliability and functionality is a good way to begin the search for a used car. But sometimes a coupe or a truck don't meet all the needs, and a nice sedan can check all the boxes. The first-gen Lexus IS300 may not come to mind immediately given how the model has evolved into a much larger car in subsequent iterations, but the compact sedan boasts excellent reliability, a solid and powerful drivetrain, and interior quality that rivals even higher end European luxury brands.
The IS300 comes with a six cylinder engine and either a manual or automatic transmission.
Rear seats can fold down for plenty of cargo capacity, while the front seats are amazingly comfortable for the daily commute. Finding a low-mileage example might be slightly more difficult, as owners rarely want to sell such a nice car, and will command prices around $6-8,000.
1 First Generation Ford Mustang
Of course, sometimes reliability and functionality aren't the goal of purchasing a used car: a classic hobby project and weekend cruiser can be equally as rewarding as the feeling of enjoying the weekday drive to work. For under $20,000, a Ford Mustang in moderate condition provides classic style with an easy mechanical layout that aspiring home mechanics can hone their skills on.
Finding any old Mustang is easy, but finding a nice one is quite a bit more difficult. Aim for the first generation ranging from 1964 to 1967, with a V8 and manual transmission. Make sure to check underneath for the suspension's condition, and prioritize a cosmetically sound example, as the mechanicals can be worked on at home much easier. In the case of classic cars, you get what you pay for, and for right up near $20,000 a very nice Coupe or Fastback can be found and enjoyed for years to come.