Buying a car, either new or used, can be a significant expenditure. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average new car price in March 2018 was $35,285, up nearly $2,000 from the previous year. However, just because the new car average price is over $35,000 doesn’t mean a good quality used car cannot be found for under $21,000.
Now is perhaps the best time to research used cars, as a plethora of vehicles come off leases while late-model sedans are hitting the dealerships. Higher new car prices and the popularity of crossover SUVs and trucks have put a dent in new car sales. The resultant discounting has produced a decrease in used car values.
With so many options that face a buyer today, shopping for a car can seem like a daunting task. One factor that complicates the process is deciding between buying new or used. With a new car comes the satisfaction of driving a brand-new vehicle off the lot and the pleasure of the new car's interior smell. There is also the peace of mind that comes with a full manufacturer's warranty. However, the buyer of a used car can benefit from several years of owner feedback, expert ratings, and depreciation to find a great value.
The following are 21 of the best cars of the 21st century as rated by journalists, industry experts, and car owners, all priced under $21,000.
21 2011 Ford Mustang
Considered one of the best cars in the 60s when it launched the “Pony” class of automobiles in 1964, the Ford Mustang is still a good buy in the 21st century. A used 2011 GT model can be purchased for less than $15,000.
After nearly a decade of only minor powertrain changes, in 2011, the Mustang was updated to compete with the more powerful Camaro. The new DOHC, 3.7-liter V6 and the 5.0-liter V8 producing 412 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque replaced the old SOHC engines. Both five-speed gearboxes were changed for six-speed transmissions. With aluminum-block engines and other weight-saving measures, the GT500 models also produce an extra ten horsepower.
20 2018 Toyota Camry
While the 2017 Camry had a reputation for being easy to drive, trouble-free, and a good value, the redesigned 2018 model is even better and one of the best in the midsize car class. US News named the Camry the 2018 Best Midsize Car for the Money and the 2018 Best Midsize Car for Families due to its family-friendly features and its outstanding crash test scores.
A used model that can be purchased for under $16,000 includes a host of advanced safety features, a standard navigation app, and an updated infotainment system. The Camry also got a boost in performance over the 2017 model thanks to more powerful engine choices, with 25 more horsepower in four-cylinder models and 30 more in V6 models.
19 2012 Chevrolet Camaro
Most car enthusiasts would put the Camaro, which was first released in 1967 to compete with the Ford Mustang, into the “Pony” car category. However, the 2012 model might be better placed in the muscle car class.
After a seven-year hiatus, the Camaro was rereleased in 2010 with more power than its rivals, the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Challenger. In 2012, Chevrolet added more power by offering a 3.6-liter V6, a 6.2-liter V8, and a supercharged version of the 6.2-liter V8.
The Camaro SS produces 426 horsepower (400 horsepower with the automatic transmission) and the all-new 2012 Camaro ZL1 with the supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 generates 580 horsepower. Those aren’t “Pony” car numbers. All three engine choices upstage the competition from Ford, Dodge, and Hyundai.
18 2017 Subaru Legacy
The Subaru Legacy wouldn’t be the first choice of a buyer looking for high performance stats but it is an excellent selection for the owner who wants a car with safety features, family conveniences, and good fuel economy. The utility vehicle provides the room and comfort of a midsize sedan in a package that includes an all-wheel-drive system as standard equipment. Equipped with a 2.5-liter flat-four that generates 175 horsepower coupled to a continuously variable transmission, the Legacy is rated at 36 mpg on the highway. Buyers on a budget may want to consider purchasing a 2015 Legacy, the year Subaru made significant revisions to the model. Many of the features are the same as those found in the 2017 model.
17 2016 Chevrolet Impala
In the large sedan class, the Chevrolet Impala is a good choice. It has been the perennial winner of Kelley Blue Book’s Best Buy award in the full-size car category. US news named it their 2016 Best Large Car for Families and 2016 Best Large Car for the Money. The attractive front-drive sedan has a well-appointed interior with plenty of cabin space, a comfortable ride, and offers features like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and as well as an LTE Wi-Fi hotspot as standard equipment. An Impala LTZ with a 305-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 and acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds can be found for under $17,000.
16 2016 Dodge Charger SXT
While the SXT lacks the performance of a HEMI equipped Charger, it also doesn’t command the high resale price. Both the Charger SXT and SE come standard with a 3.6-liter V6 that produces 292 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque (the optional Rallye Group generates 300 hp and 264 lb-ft), which is better than average for a large, full-size traditional 4-door sedan.
The SXT delivers decent fuel efficiency with an EPA-rated 18 MPG in the city and 27 MPG on the highway for the all-wheel drive (AWD) and 19/30 MPG for rear-wheel drive. Motor Trend wrote: “…offering plenty of cargo room, passenger room, and technology. Although the performance may not be where we would like, it likely won’t be a hindrance to those buying the SXT.”
15 2016 Kia Optima
Although the styling is similar to the 2015 model, the Kia Optima was redesigned for the 2016 model year, which earned it a Kelley Blue Book Best Buy in the midsize category. The new design included a stiffer and lighter chassis with a marginally longer wheelbase and increased width. The front end of the Optima retained the Tigershark grille, but the adaptive HID headlights were new.
In addition to the roomier exterior and refreshed interior styling, the 2016 Optima got more sound deadening, an improved suspension, and a new engine. Three engine options were offered for the 2016 Optima, highlighted by the new, 1.6-liter, turbocharged inline-four producing 178 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque.
14 2017 Mazda 6
The 2017 Mazda 6 is an excellent choice for the budget-minded buyer looking for that sports car feel. It has outstanding driving dynamics, a luxurious cabin, and an outstanding safety score. However, a buyer may also consider purchasing the 2018 model for a few dollars more, but still less than $21,000.
The midsized sedan was refreshed for 2018 with two new trim levels, a larger touchscreen display, redesigned seats, and standard dual-zone automatic climate control. Although Mazda’s base engine is lively, the newly optional turbocharged four-cylinder producing 250 horsepower is even more powerful. Perhaps the improvements to the 2018 model and the lower mileage of a new car make it a better choice.
13 2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid
As gas prices climb (and they almost always do), an alternative to the traditional internal combustion engine becomes an attractive option. The hybrid version of the 2017 Ford Fusion is one of the best in its class, featuring an updated four-cylinder, 2.0-liter iVCT Atkinson-cycle engine paired to an electric motor and coupled to an eCVT automatic transmission. The hybrid uses regenerative braking to recover up to 95 percent of expended energy.
The Fusion Hybrid can accelerate up to 85 mph using the electric motor only. All four trim levels are fuel efficient, with an EPA-estimated rating of 43 MPG in the city and 41 MPG on the highway. Mazda has also added an advanced EcoGuide system providing real-time coaching to drivers who are looking for even better fuel economy.
12 2017 Volkswagen Passat
The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) awarded the 2017 Passat an overall safety score of five stars (out of a possible five stars). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) selected the Passat for their Top Safety Pick+ award when it earned a Good score in all tests and an exceptional advanced rating on the front prevention test.
The Passat is perhaps the most underrated family sedan on the market. It offers remarkable room and a nice blend of performance and economy from its 1.8-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. A used 2017 Volkswagen Passat can be found for less than $18,000.
11 2017 Hyundai Sonata
The Sonata owns the distinction of being the first of its kind to offer both Android Auto compatibility and Apple CarPlay. However, more important was the addition of the Dynamic Bending Light (DBL) option on Limited trim models. The DBL safety feature provides superior road illumination by rotating the headlights in the direction of a curve as the driver turns the steering wheel.
While the base engine is a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder rated at 185 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque, Hyundai equipped the 2017 Sonata Sport 2.0T and Limited 2.0T with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged engine rated for 245 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. The Sport 2.0T model can be found for less than $21,000.
10 2017 Buick Encore
Based on the Chevrolet Trax, the five-passenger crossover is the core of Buick’s three-crossover lineup that also includes the popular three-row Enclave and the midsize two-row Envision. Beginning with the 2014 model, the Encore has posted strong owner satisfaction and reliability ratings in Consumer Reports surveys.
The 2017 Encore is equipped with a base 1.4-liter, turbocharged, inline-four engine, producing 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. In the Encore Sport Touring model, a direct-injected 1.4-liter turbo with automatic engine stop/start, producing 153 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, is available along with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive.
While the higher-end 2017 Encore trim levels with options may exceed the target $21,000, buyers can opt for an equally reliable older model like the 2014 version that sells for around $16,000.
9 2010 Toyota Highlander
A survey conducted by iSeeCars.com asked owners which cars they kept for ten years or more and placed the Toyota Highlander and its hybrid variant in two of the top three spots. Perfect reliability ratings from Consumer Reports over the past decade confirm the findings. The Highlander’s cabin features luxurious materials and its ample insulation filters outside noise. It has a convenient reclining and sliding second-row seats. However, a higher trim level is required to get a third row of seats.
The 2010 Toyota Highlander offers a comfortable ride and a fuel-efficient base engine, making it one of the best midsize SUVs of the year. A 2010 Highlander can be purchased for less than $15,000, well under our target price of $21,000.
8 2013 Subaru Forester
The 2013 Subaru Forester is an ideal choice for buyers who want an upgrade to a vehicle with more room, all-weather capability, and just the right amount of technology. All versions include a USB port, an auxiliary audio input jack, Bluetooth hands-free calling, and music streaming. An optional All-Weather Package for 2.5X Premium models includes heated exterior mirrors, a windshield wiper de-icer, and heated front seats.
Although the Forester was plagued with reliability issues before 2011, they were resolved in later models. Since 2012, the Subaru has placed well above average in electrical system, brakes, transmission, and most other departments. Both the 2013 and the 2014 editions offering four-wheel drive utility can be found starting at $16,000.
7 2011 Lexus ES
Lexus consistently places at the top of Consumer Reports brand rankings every year and the ES sedan is one of the automaker’s best performers. Leather interior trim was standard on the 2011 ES. The new Bluetooth audio, new nav software, and phone features that were introduced the previous year carried over. The suspension is soft and compliant. Although Lexus claims the 2011 ES will accelerate from 0-to-60 in less than 7.0 seconds, the ES line is more about luxury with a smooth ride than outright performance.
The ES scored much higher than the Mercedes E-Class or the BMW 5 Series from the same year for luxury car reliability and owner satisfaction. The 2011 Lexus ES, which sold for more than $40,000 new, comes in as low as $16,000 used.
6 2012 Toyota RAV4
A versatile interior and smooth, car-like ride have made the RAV4 one of Toyota’s best sellers ever since its introduction in 1996. The overall interior space rivals that of many larger SUVs with a passenger capacity of seven and nearly 73 cubic feet of cargo room.
The 2012 Toyota RAV4 was available in front or all-wheel drive configurations and two powertrain options. The base engine is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder rated at 179 horsepower, and the more powerful 3.5-liter V6 with five-speed automatic produces 269 horsepower, accelerating the RAV4 from 0-60 mph in slightly more than six seconds. The 2012 Toyota RAV4 boasts excellent owner satisfaction stats and elite reliability ratings and sells for around $15,000, with V6 editions getting a bit more.
5 2018 Toyota Prius
The 2018 Toyota Prius produces 121 horsepower from its standard four-cylinder engine combined with two electric motors and a continuously variable automatic transmission. At the low end, the Prius’ electric motors generate almost instant power off the line. At higher speeds, the Prius strains to keep up. Of course, the most attractive feature of the Prius is its fuel economy. The hybrid powertrain gets an EPA-estimated 54 MPG in the city and 50 MPG on the highway.
The 2018 Prius mixes exceptional fuel economy with an upscale cabin and above-average cargo space. Advanced safety features include adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, a rearview camera, and a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection. The high-tech Prius comes with lots of standard gadgetry, all for a resale price of less than $21,000.
4 2013 Acura TSX
The Acura TSX, (last produced in 2014), sold for more $30,000 new in 2013 but is available for under $20,000 today. The standard TSX was equipped with a 2.4-liter inline-four that produced 201 horsepower and over 170 lb-ft of torque when mated to the five-speed automatic transmission or the six-speed manual. The sedan models had the option of a 3.5-liter V6 that generated 280 horsepower and 254 lb-ft of torque when coupled to a five-speed automatic.
The four-cylinder sedans get an EPA-estimated 22 MPG in the city and 31 MPG on the highway with the automatic, and 21/29 MPG with the manual. All TSX models come standard with Electric power steering, Electronic Brake Distribution, and Brake Assist systems. The Acura scored high marks in Consumer Reports testing primarily due to its reliable engine, brakes, transmission, and interior controls.
3 2010 Lexus RX 350
Although the RX 350 was redesigned for 2010, the changes were considered minimal and test drivers still agreed that the 2010 Lexus RX is one of the best luxury crossovers on the market. The interior of the RX 350 is one of the best-made and most plush in its class. The SUV drives and handles like a car, and fuel economy is excellent at 18 MPG in the and 24 MPG on the highway in all-wheel-drive models.
The RX 350 came standard with wood trim, nine-speaker stereo system, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. The optional sport package had a dual-screen rear-seat entertainment system, navigation, a sport-tuned suspension, and leather upholstery. The five-seat luxury crossover RX 350 is undoubtedly a car to consider in the under-$21,000 resale price category.
2 2016 Honda Fit
A subcompact hatchback, the 2016 Honda Fit was offered in 2016 with only one engine, a 1.5-liter inline-four with 130 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque paired with either a six-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic transmission. The Honda Fit’s unique feature is the flexibility of the rear seats. The Magic Seats have three different configurations that allow the bottom cushions and seatbacks to split and fold. In the standard configuration, the Fit has 16.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row. With the seatbacks folded, the area expands to an enormous 52.7 cubic feet. The resale price of a 2016 Honda Fit falls well under the $21,000 limit for this list, at an average of $16,000.
1 2016 Honda Accord
The 2016 Accord is an excellent choice for the buyer looking for a used midsize car. The Honda offers quality cabin materials, generous seating space, well-balanced handling, and is available as a two-door coupe or four-door sedan. The 2016 model received significant updates, including the addition of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a refreshed exterior, and the Honda Sensing package.
A Kelley Blue Book Best Buy winner, the Accord also rates highly for crash safety and offers a wide variety of active safety features. Depending on the vehicle's condition, features, mileage, and location, the 2016 Honda Accord price averages just over $20,000.
Sources: motortrend, cars.usnews, kellybluebook