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Top 10 Cars for Smart People

Many new readers have been asking me for car advice recently, and there have also been some useful discussions on the matter in the Money Mustache Forum.

I find myself typing out the same list of recommendations over and over again, so I thought the best strategy would be to dig in, do some up-to-date research, and lay down the law on exactly which cars are most worth owning.

There are two things that matter above all else in car selection these days: Fuel economy, and passenger/cargo space.  Depending on your personal taste, you can then sort the winners based on things like acceleration, ground clearance, color, smell, style, NHTSA safety test results, or other things. But the important thing to note is that all of these traits are available even in fuel-efficient cars, so all gas hogs can immediately be ruled out. Note that I didn’t mention “price”, because thankfully, the fuel-efficient cars are usually the less expensive ones anyway, so you automatically win by prioritizing efficiency.

“But what about reliability?” you are asking. “My uncle had a Ford F-150 that lasted him 46 years, but my cousin had a Honda Civic that was always breaking down. So I only buy Ford Trucks now”.

The key to finding a reliable car is to throw away all the anecdotal personal stories that you might have heard, and look  to a source that actually collects this data from thousands of people. The two best places to get this information are Consumer Reports magazine, and Phil Edmonston’s Lemon-Aid Used Car guide. Both of these are useful publications, and for this article I have consulted both and done my best to combine the results.

At my local library, I found a copy of the latest edition of Phil’s book. I was pleased to note that he has become even more crotchety and demanding of cars in the decade since I last read his stuff, which is exactly what you want in a car reviewer.

Lemon-aid guide collects reliability data from its millions of readers and also from government agencies. Since Phil Edmonston lives in Canada, much of his research is done there. That country is an ideal testing ground for cars, since the demanding driving conditions really bring out any reliability problems.  The book then sorts the cars into five categories: Recommended, Above Average, Average, Below Average and Not Recommended.

The vehicles are further broken into classes like “Small, Midsize, Large, SUV, Sports Cars, Pickups”. Since these are North American classifications, where even a “Small” car is big enough to fit five of me comfortably (just over 6’0″ and 180 lbs), the Small category is the only one a sane person could rationally consider except in the case of very large families, physical disabilities, or business use such as construction or delivery. (If you need more cargo space occasionally, just add it temporarily).

To add a second perspective, I bought you a subscription to the Consumer Reports website (consumerreports.org), and read all of the used car guide articles there. Consumer reports is a great organization, but they are still a bit too “Consumer” oriented for my tastes. Most notably, they only have reliability data on the most recent 10 model years of cars, while for many Mustachians, the newest car they would consider is more than 10 years old. I mean come on, it’s 2012 now, meaning a 10-year-old car is a 2003 model year. I consider that to be “almost brand new”.

They also fail to point out the fact that all but the smallest cars (and virtually all trucks) are stupid choices for the average person. A car is not a luxurious salon for you to lounge in while you flaunt yourself to the world. It’s a handy machine that helps you get to very distant places on those rare occasions that you are too much of a wussypants to bike there. Over time, these occasions will become more and more rare, meaning you will be using a car less and less as you get your life in order. If you choose wisely, your next car might be the last gas-powered vehicle you need in your life!

But boiling it all down, the following list contains the fairly recent used cars that best combine reliability, fuel efficiency, cost, and hauling and handling performance.

There are some real shockers on this list – for example, I never would have guessed that the Hyundai Elantra would score above the Honda Civic in statistical reliability, and many people don’t realize that Volkswagens are some of the most trouble-prone cars around in the pre-2006 model years likely to be considered by readers here. Read through the list and then I’ll try to calm you down and dry your tears afterwards.

Recommended

Honda Fit (2009+)
This is a jack-of-all-trades car that combines fancy style, high cargo and passenger space, and a 35MPG highway rating. The latest model is pretty new, however, so it’s one of the most expensive options here (about $12,000 for a 2009 with 36k miles).

 

Hyundai Elantra Touring (2007-2009)
The Elantra Touring is a nice choice for those who need an even bigger wagon. It delivers at least 31MPG highway, is available with a manual transmission, and a 2009 model can be had on the used market with low mileage for about $11k.

 

Mazda3 (2006-2009) Similar to the Honda Fit, but available a few years older which saves some cash. A 2006 is worth about $7900 with 60,000 miles.

 

 

Suzuki Sx4(2007-2009) Useful for those who drive mostly on steep snowy/dirt roads since this car has a cool driver-selectable all-wheel-drive system. With 24MPG city/30MPG highway, you definitely pay for the all-wheel-drive, although it’s still better than Subaru’s mileage ratings. Should be $7900 for a 2007 with about 65k miles.

 

Toyota Echo (2000-2005)  This car is a dorkier looking mechanical cousin of both the Toyota Yaris and the Scion Xa Hatchback that I own. All are solid, versatile cars (although the hatchback design available with Yaris and Scion is more useful). A 2005 with 75k miles is worth about $6400 for the Scion, $5200 for the Echo.

Toyota Yaris (all years)

 

 

 

Yeah! It’s the Mustachemobile!

Scion xA/xB/tC/xD (all years) – Scions are great cars. Designed right down to the last detail for funky usability, they are built by Toyota, but with 95% less High-Waisted-Pants-Grandma attitude. My 2005 has displayed 100% reliability for me over the past four years.. but oops, that’s another one of those anecdotal stories you should ignore.

Above Average

Honda Fit (2007-2008) – same as above, but there was an earlier model available during these years which isn’t quite as advanced. Still a great car, and the lower price makes up for the lack of bling compared to the 2009+ models.

Toyota Prius (2004-present) – a roomy and practical hybrid that is good at almost everything. For heavy commuting, the approximately 50MPG fuel economy justifies paying a bit more for this car, but the premium on the used models is surprisingly small – 2004 models with under 100k miles go for around $7500 these days.

Ford Focus (2005-2009) This one’s an interesting hack on autobuying. The Ford Focus Wagon was not a popular seller in the US, but the Focus line as a whole was the world’s best-selling car for some time including in Europe, which definitely says something. The wagon is absolutely cavernous inside – my Mum has one of these and I used it to carry a six-foot-long soaker bathtub, in its shipping crate, plus some assorted lumber and pipes home from Home Depot and I was even able to close the rear hatch. Handling is nimble and fuel economy is about 35MPG highway. Manual transmission available if you search carefully. A 2005 with 75k miles can be had for under 5k on the used market. It also comes in a smaller hatchback form (more common and thus easier to find if you don’t need the extra length of the wagon) and a sedan format (why bother, might as well get the hatchback in case you ever have to carry bikes, boxes, etc).

Hyundai Accent (2006-2009) – I had one as a rental once. A solid car, although not as useful as some of the others here. However, low resale value means it may be available at a great price.

Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe (2003-2009) – I love this car. It’s a snappy and practical tall wagon with a 37MPG highway rating. Consumer report claims the engine “drones loudly and performs poorly” but I don’t know what they are smoking. This is a quiet and fast car that is built like a swiss watch. Just avoid the automatic-transmission AWD models that are out there – slower and thirstier than the front-drivers with manual.

Honda Civic (1999-2009) – everyone loves the Civic. However, with no 5-door hatchback or wagon available in recent years, it is not as useful as other cars, unless you never need to carry large things in the back (and if you don’t, you might as well use a scooter instead!).

Mazda Protege (1999-2003) – This is a nice car, now getting very cheap on the used market due to its age. There was a Protege5 wagon available which is fairly useful.

Nissan Sentra (2007-2009)

Nissan Versa (2007+) – Another large-capacity hatchback with good all-around usefulness. A bit larger and quieter than some of the other choices.

 

Subaru Forester (2003-2009) – A tall SUV-style car with serious offroad capability. Thirsty though.

Hyundai Elantra (1999-2006)

Mazda3 (2004-2005)

Mazda5 (2006-2009) – This is actually a 6-passenger minivan (which still qualifies as a “Small car” by Lemon Aid’s standards!?). A 2006 is worth about $6800 used, and you can even get it with a manual transmission which is a great improvement on the standard American Minivan concept. At 22/27 MPG, it is not as efficient as a car, but still considerably better than the beast vans that most people get when they have kids.

Subaru Legacy, Outback (1999-2009) The MMM family owned a 2004 Impreza wagon for a few years. It was trouble-free and sporty with a good roomy cargo hatch, but it drank way too much fuel for a 4-cylinder hatchback. EPA economy rating was 22/28MPG and I rarely exceeded 30MPG even with careful driving. That’s why I ended up selling it in favor of the current Scion, which usually exceeds 40.

Suzuki Aerio (2003-2007) – Here’s an interesting choice. You can get a 2003 Aerio Wagon for about $2500 on the used market. It’s efficient, roomy, reliable, and cheap. Sure, it looks just a tad dorkier than the competition, but that’s just a way of flaunting your badassity to the world. I’d show up for Spring Break driving this yellow Aerio any day, and the volleyball game would stop and people would come running because it would be obvious that Mr. Money Mustache had arrived. Yeah baby!

Toyota Corolla (1997-2009) – this car’s name is almost synonymous with practical reliability, although surprisingly it is not at the top of the list. Still a great buy if you can find one at a reasonable price – but there’s no hatchback version available (actually there is, but it is styled differently and called the Toyota Matrix).

Average:

Mini Cooper (2008-2009), Chrysler Neon (2004-2005),  Hyundai Accent(2004-2005), Kia Rio, Spectra (2009), Nissan Cube (2009), Nissan Sentra (2001-2006), Nissan Versa (2007-2009), Subaru Forester (1999-2002), Subaru Impreza (1999-2009), Suzuki Esteem (1999-2002), Suzuki Verona (2004-2006)

Below Average:

BMW Mini Cooper (2002-2007), Chrysler Neon (2001-2003), GM Aveo (2004-2009), Hyundai Accent (2001-2003), Kia Rio and Spectra (2006-2008), Mercedes Smart Fortwo (2009), All Volkswagen Models including Diesels (1999-2006)

Not Recommended:

Dodge Caliber, Daewoo/GM Lanos and Optra, Ford Focus (2000-2004), all GM Saturn models (1999-2007), Kia Rio and Spectra  (2000-2005), Smart ForTwo (2005-2008), Subaru WRX/STI (2002-2009), Volkswagen Diesel models (2007-2009).

Surely many of us have experienced results that don’t match what is listed above. Don’t take that as an insult to your car, and even the lowest-ranking cars can deliver good results when cared for properly. These are simply the collected results of thousands of drivers telling us which cars have experienced the most failures in real life. From very reliable sources.  So if you’re shopping for a replacement car some day in the future, you should be able to use these statistics in your favor.

There are many other smart options out there, especially among older cars such as the 1992-1994 Honda Accord Wagon. But the people who shop in those older car ranges usually are experienced enough not to need an article like this one in the first place.

This list is intended a quick-and-dirty guide to help save people who might otherwise find themselves buying a $20,000+ new car on credit because they don’t know which used cars are reliable.

Shop well, and you can join the Top 10% – those of us who laugh at the other 90% of Americans who impoverish themselves daily with their tragic vehicular choices.

Further Reading:

MMM Forum discussion on efficient used cars for families.

Another one where people are considering whether 3 kids in bulky car seats can fit in the back of various vehicles (aka “3 across seating”).

 

  • CJOttawa March 5, 2015, 12:22 pm

    Big MMM fan. I saw this article come up over on the MMM forum and thought to check in.

    I see there’s little written about the 1999-2006 Elantra in the above article – just a heading with no write up.

    If you’ll allow me, I want to put in a plug for the 2001-2005 models. They have quite a cult following including several forums dedicated to them: http://www.elantraxd.com/forums/forum.php

    Check the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyundai_Elantra#Third_generation_.282000.E2.80.932006.29

    The third generation Elantra is code named “XD” from about 2001 (in North America) to 2003. “XD2” is 2004-2006. Both are very similar.

    The 2004-2006 5-door hatchbacks fly under the radar; way, way less expensive than comparable Hondas and Toyotas but still an “above average” car with way, way more features.

    They’re cheap to maintain (easy for a DIYer or your own trusted mechanic) and far more comfortable than Corollas, Fits, and Civics of the era, in my experience. (better seat support, suspension etc) The 5-door hatches have 60/40 split rear seats and, even with the “fastback” sloping roofline, have cavernous cargo volume.

    All of the ones I’ve test driven had things like cruise control, “power-everything” etc. I’ve owned a 2002 and a 2006.

    I suspect they’re overlooked because this era predated Hyundai really investing in good body designers (current generation Hyundais look amazing) but they’re well past Hyundai having quality control issues; you’re getting modern reliability with only a slightly out of date look. Caveat: budget for a timing belt replacement as soon as you get one, if there’s no service history. (interference engine, 96,000km timing belt interval)

    Reply
  • GordonsGecko March 6, 2015, 7:59 am

    I bought a 2003 Subaru Forester 2.5XS last summer for $7,500. Only had 83,365 miles on it. It took me 2 months of searching, but that search time gave me the insight to know that this particular vehicle at that price was a very good value. I called the dealership (believe it or not!) and told him I’d be there in an hour, which is what it took me to drive there. Paid cash. Left home at 11am with my $400 per month 2013 Nissan Altima… and came home with my paid-for 2003 Forester. Wouldn’t trade it for anything, even though the gas mileage is not great. But, I only drive 14 miles combined each day. So, I’m not lighting too much money on fire.

    Reply
  • Doug March 8, 2015, 8:14 pm

    This topic is a popular one, and here I am back again to make another comment. While travelling in Thailand and Cambodia not long ago (retired now, because of past mustachian choices) I saw the preferred vehicle for travel was motorcycles or motor scooters. Do you think that just because you’re a family person you need a large van or SUV? Quite often, while travelling there I saw a man, woman, and 1 or 2 kids all travelling on a motorcycle! You may not wish to go that route (especially in colder climates with snow like where I live in Canada) but you could probably get by with a smaller vehicle than you think you need. What about that odd time you’re hauling a lot of stuff? Look at the comments above, including a few I posted, there are many comments about using a trailer.

    Reply
  • Joe Average March 10, 2015, 9:44 am

    Just bragging here today really. Bought a ’99 Malibu over the weekend for $1500. 140K miles. No major problems. A few little ones. The hood noise pad is coming apart. GMPartsDirect has OEM replacements for ~$50. Needs a vacuum hose on the engine. Less than $20. Interior fan control needs a spot of solder (common problem well documented on YouTube and Chevy forums). Bought a set of spark plugs I plan to install this weekend. Interior is clean/upholstery is tear free, A/C is cold, tires are super, paint is good, engine and transmission are solid, etc.

    I bought it from a close friend – and I know how he takes care of his vehicles. It will be a good family hauler for many years yet. 200K miles will be no challenge. I would not be surprised if it lasted past 250K miles. These cars are common (spares are cheap) and came in about a dozen different trim levels and rebranded versions – Buick, Chevy, and Pontiac. My Grandmother had the Buick Century version a few years ago. It was only barely nicer.

    Overall this car is about as exciting as a mayonnaise and bread sandwich. but it’s about (financial) utility, not impressing anyone. After driving it a few days I am really liking this car though. Comfortable, quiet, smooth. Not ashamed to drive it anywhere and call it mine! ;) We’ll probably take it on a family vacation this summer.

    Mileage looks like 31 MPG on the highway, maybe mid-20s in town with a light foot.

    Great thing about $1500 cars is that they hold their value pretty good if they are well cared for. Will likely be worth $1500 for several years to come if well maintained and clean.

    Reply
  • Alison March 12, 2015, 12:37 pm

    Thanks to this article we bought ourselves a 2005 Focus wagon with only 48K miles on it and a good price for it too! We love the car!

    Reply
    • boilerbugle July 1, 2015, 5:18 pm

      Learned to drive stick in my parents 01 focus wagon, the thing was banana yellow, I drove it off and on until 2011. One thing I didn’t like, was it felt like you were driving a refrigerator box. In any kind of weather, rain, wind, snow, the backend was all over the place. Is this how the newer models handle? Maybe it was just me…

      Reply
  • jedwin March 30, 2015, 6:36 am

    MMM, I’ve been secretly enjoying your blog without comment but now feel compelled to on this subject. I was a car dealer for ~30 years and I must say I have a different take on what constitutes an economical vehicle. Nothing it seems has planned obsolescence so accurately built in as automobiles. That means they all break. Often. Some brands seemed more reliable than others in the past but that can and does change at a moments notice and they are all much more homogenous now. The real cost, unless you drive a zillion miles a year, is the cost of repairs and purchase. Get yourself a mechanic who loves to work on a certain brand. I’ve seen Honda starters for instance that cost $400 while the same rebuilt available for a small GM sedan is $25. The same can be true for every part on the car to a greater or lesser degree. But the disparity is tremendous. Same goes for labor rates. Ask around in your town, the same names will come up over and over. When you find an honest mechanic who works “reasonably” ask him what he recommends. Go with that and don’t be brand conscious. That few miles per gallon difference will soon be accounted for…

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache March 31, 2015, 12:19 pm

      Sure, service is an important factor Jedwin – in fact, that’s how this article was created: by selecting the cars which on average need the least service. Consumer Reports and Lemon-aid see a lot more data than even a car dealer of 30 years.

      Purchase of a good used car: $6-8k. Fuel for this car over 10 years: $10-15k. Insurance: $2-8k. Registration: $1-4k. Repairs and tires: $5k or so?

      To throw in my own anecdote, I’ve never needed dealer service even once since I switched to reliable cars in 2003. I just change the oil and other consumables following the schedule in the manual, keep driving to a reasonable level, and a single 10-year-old car can last for many decades. I’m sure I will get fed up with gas-burners and switch to an electric car long before my Scion actually dies.

      Reply
  • Stutz April 10, 2015, 3:50 am

    Sometimes people’s standards and needs are relative. Describing the Subaru Forester as having “serious offroad capability”, for example, sort of depends on one’s perspective. Unless you consider serious off-roading to be little more than the occasional jaunt down a bumpy logging road, then you might quickly find yourself wishing for a little more ground clearance the first time you attempt to actually leave the road in an unmodified one.

    For me, camping is a quality-of-life necessity. In a vehicle, this requires the ability to haul lots of gear and have some bona fide off-road capability, so I’ve got a 2003 Ford Ranger FX4. Luckily my wife and I live 5 minutes from work and carpool in her vehicle, so I feel more than justified in keeping my truck.

    Reply
  • D$ April 18, 2015, 1:01 am

    Trip M! Thanks for the article. This combined with the poo pooing of AWD and the guest scooter article has inspired me to change my vehicle fleet. Getting a Toyota echo (stick) and selling my motorcycle and picking up a scooter.

    Reply
  • Joe Average April 20, 2015, 8:40 am

    Don’t know if anyone has mentioned this yet or not but beware of cheap cars owned by cheap owners. I think alot of the favorites called out in this article might be considered “cheap cars” by some consumers and thus neglected. They are luxury cars so they aren’t “important” enough to be pampered. Cheap owners might neglect them for 150K miles and then sell them off to a hapless second or third owner faced with alot of repairs. Shop carefully, have a mechanic check it out, and build a good business relationship with your mechanic so he actually charges you $15 for a $15 repair when you are being an uneducated owner asking for his/her help.

    I’ve owned a few of these cheap cars owned by cheap owners over the years and spent a fair amount of money and time – mostly time since I do all my own repairs – fixing all the things that the previous owner(s) neglected and used up. In most cases if you can do repairs yourself – the repairs to right the wrongs won’t be that expensive. One old ’91 Hyundai grocery getter needed a thermostat, and several feet of new vacuum lines. It also needed a good scrubbing as the previous owner used it for a garbage can. Still don’t know why ALL of the vacuum lines were mixed up so badly. Took a week of study and testing to sort it out in my driveway. Same with an S-10 pickup. Garbage can truck that was never serviced regularly so the engine had few oil changes. 20K miles later and oil changes every 3K miles and it runs great. And I could tell stories about dozens more cars I’ve owned. Bought cheap, fixed, driven for a while, and then resold. I drove for free for a long time this way.

    Sometimes PO’s (previous owners) let multiple things go until they cause related problems. They drive on bad shocks until they ruin the tires (cupping), wear out the wheel bearings and the suspension bushings prematurely. I had one car years ago whose shocks (shock absorbers/McPherson strut assemblies) were so bad for so long that the car had developed cracking in the steel where the suspension bolted to the chassis. That car was scary it was so unsafe. Nearly killed me when the balljoints failed one day. Sent that one to the crusher.

    There are those people who buy a cheap car and drive it until it dies and just junk it. My mailman is an example. Then there are the people who buy a car (at any price) and declare that they won’t make any repairs that exceed the resale value of the car. I see this more as a means to justify a vehicle replacement than just math. A repaired car that might last another five years after an expensive repair is another five years you don’t have vehicle payments or any costs besides operating costs. I was raised with a version of this mindset and the whole family replaces cars many, many times more often than my wife and I do.

    I judge whether the car as a whole is worthwhile to me to repair regardless of what the resale value might be. The Kelly Blue Book rates the resale value based on primarily the popularity of the vehicle. Is that particular make and model valuable b/c alot of people want that make and model? There are some really great but unpopular cars out there. They don’t ooze the right kind of “cool” so they aren’t in demand. Otherwise they are good transportation. Look around. There are some steals in the “uncool” category. We Americans seem to be an exceptionally fickle bunch of consumers.

    Okay the muffle bearing just wore out. Do I replace the vehicle? No. I replace the muffler bearing and drive on. I have a grocery getter vehicle that is nearing 300K miles. I have already decided that since the rest of the car is clean/presentable inside and out – if the engine lets go (needs replacement) – I’ll replace the engine and keeping going down the road. Most cars don’t wear out completely at the same moment in time. If you are making repairs with quality replacement parts along then those replacement parts ought to last nearly as long as the factory installed part IMHO. Yes if you neglect everything then everything collectively will seem like too much to repair at once and you’ll want to replace the entire vehicle.

    No, the cut price replacement alternator won’t last as long as the factory alternator which lasted 15+ years. In fact years ago when I was working at a discount auto parts store we were seeing alot of the cut rate parts coming back within a year. Who wants to deal with the same vehicle problems annually?

    Reply
  • CJOttawa April 24, 2015, 2:56 pm

    @ Joe Average:

    Couldn’t agree more about “cheap cars owned by cheap owners.”

    I’ve been to a few auto-wreckers lately pulling parts for my own car and I note that the high end cars (Jaguar, Mercedes) seem reasonably well maintained (no garbage in them being a telltale sign). The beaters – the c.2002 Chevy Cavaliers – are just messes… old burger wrappers, personal effects, clothing. I think it wise to suspect the owners didn’t bother with routine maintenance.

    On that note, I test drove a number of budget, used cars and settled on a 2006 Elantra after my mechanic indicated it was “90% perfect.” The previous owner(s) seemed to have invested in regular maintenance and it showed.

    A previous car of mine – 1992 Toyota Tercel – needed an engine rebuild. Even though it was an econobox, my mechanic (same one for the last decade) said he’d buy the car from me if I didn’t want to fix the engine because, overall, it was in stellar shape. Darn thing lasted me another 4 years and 150,000-200,000km on that engine rebuild.

    Yup, sometimes you get a peach. Buy smart, get a thorough inspection, avoid the lemons.

    Reply
  • TomTrottier May 4, 2015, 10:48 pm

    At the library, you can also consult older copies of Consumer Reports & LemonAid for assessments of much older cars/trucks.

    They also ID the trouble spots so you or your mechanic can look for problems.

    Reply
  • Brian June 24, 2015, 8:32 am

    This is a great post! I bought a 2003 Toyota Echo after reading it. I wonder if you could update the post, though? Or maybe write a whole new post every year or two with the then-current best cars?

    Thanks MMM!

    Reply
  • Chris Richard G August 1, 2015, 9:14 am

    Hi MMM and community,
    I love this article! I’m in the market for a used car and definitely want MMM approved.. only problem is, this article is now 3 years old. I’ve looked for something similar and more up-to-date in the forums without much luck.

    Can anyone some updated top cars for smart people? Or weigh-in on whether the list still applies?

    Main difference now is it’s hard to find these years with low mileage nowadays.

    Reply
  • BrookeS August 4, 2015, 1:33 pm

    I have a 2009 Toyota Yaris Hatchback (a red one, just like the picture!)

    I can confirm that it gets great gas mileage (I commute about an hour each way to work — I know, not very mustachian of me — and I have to fill up only about once a week. And that’s with a ten gallon capacity.) It has also been very reliable, and I have never had any issues with it. Great car. I think we paid about 10k for it, and now it’s paid off. :)

    Reply
  • Kim Krumhar August 29, 2015, 2:47 am

    Just some perspective on Jetta diesels – I bought a 2000 Jetta TDI with 20,000 miles on the odometer in 2001 and brought it back to California with me where it served as my daily driver between San Diego and Los Angeles every day for 8 years. I’ve racked up 505.,000 miles on the car to date and it looks and drives as new to this day. It was dead reliable, gets 48 highway and 40 in town – but you cannot neglect regular maintenance on these cars and need to be dead sure your mechanic understands turbo diesels, or your car will be trashed and junked in 2 years. People with no experience with these cars take them to private mechanics, chain stores or worse for maintenance after the warranty expires – and bad things start happening, or they skip the timing belt. Stick with dealer maintenance or a German mechanic and the cars will go forever. The engine has never been touched and still uses no oil, and a recent compression check indicated well within manufacturer’s specifications for the 1.9 liter engine. The car also pulls a loaded 3/4 ton trailer, without effort.
    I changed the clutch and turbo at 390 K, had the body shop respray the car per original paint spec and replaced the windshield 2 years ago to keep it going a while longer – so the car still looks great. One complaint I have about the car – the cup holders were poorly designed !

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  • Paige September 17, 2015, 7:04 pm

    Can anyone tell me why smart cars are not recommended? My family and I are in need of an efficient, cheap car (and automatic transmission) and they seem to be among the best price for the mpg. I don’t know a lot about cars, so what am I missing?

    Reply
  • Gavin February 9, 2016, 4:10 pm

    Found this on the local craigslist: http://kansascity.craigslist.org/cto/5431194663.html

    1993 Toyota Tercel <- Gas Saver! – $1500 (KCK)

    condition: good
    cylinders: 4 cylinders
    drive: fwd
    fuel: gas
    odometer: 142000
    paint color: blue
    size: compact
    title status: clean
    transmission: manual
    type: sedan

    For your consideration is a 4-door sedan 1993 Toyota Tercel DX with 142,XXX miles, 1.5L inline 4cyl engine, 5-speed manual transmission that averages 35.5 MPG (see pictures for more information). The car is equipped with a CURT hitch, Jensen DMR2116 single din stereo, matching 13' wheel covers, 5 full size GOODYEAR TRAC GRIP tires and a spare.

    This car will be an excellent compact mode of transportation for a first time driver, families, commuting business persons, hipsters, college kids, mustachians, singles, couples, moms, dads, anyone looking for a reliable vehicle that is a gas sipper with low insurance premiums, and is often times less desirable to local car thieves and opportunists.

    MUSTACHIANS!!! I loved it. Almost made me go get it. But I think I still want a Prius.

    Reply
  • Kerrie McLoughlin February 22, 2016, 8:41 am

    And you would recommend what for your readers who choose to have a big family? I drive a Ford E350 but I breastfeed for 14 years, cloth diapered and did a whole ton of other eco-friendly shit so I can justify my crazy ride. I also usually have at least 8 people in my 12-passenger van at a time, and often fill the dang thing up, so there’s carpooling for you.

    Reply
  • Kerrie McLoughlin February 22, 2016, 8:44 am

    P.S. I think that anyone with 2 kids driving a Suburban is a moron. I also think people who buy huge houses and don’t have the people to put in them are morons. We have 7 people in 1,800 square feet and are super comfy. I’m just finding you for the first time and am excited to check out your site!

    Reply
  • Kim February 24, 2016, 3:48 pm

    Although this is an older article, I wanted to say that Suzuki Aerio’s are horrible in the snow.

    They’re quite low to the ground and require much smaller tires. They get stuck easily in 3″ + of snow.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache February 25, 2016, 8:46 am

      Hi Kim – I’m not sure why this would be – what type of snow tires were you using on that car?

      According the MFG specs The 2007 Aerio has 5.9″ of ground clearance (more than a Subaru Impreza’s 5.7″). It takes 15″ wheels which are a bit small by modern standards but you could bump up the radius by using slightly taller profile tires in winter as well.

      If you were just gathering these results using the all-season tires that came with the car, I’d re-evaluate because tire quality is a much bigger factor than ground clearance when getting around in snow.

      Reply
  • Jonathon March 8, 2016, 3:00 pm

    I’m curious as to how the cost of a car rolls into your annual financial planning after you’ve achieved the goal of retiring early. I’m pretty new to your blog so I haven’t had the chance to completely thumb through all of your topics. But after retirement, whats the strategy for purchasing a new car and recouping the money afterward? Is this something you’ve already spoke on, or did I miss it in this article? What about other big purchases, such as your children’s eventual college, or their first car, etc?

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache March 8, 2016, 3:25 pm

      Hey Jonathon,

      I don’t have a specific strategy for one-off expenses, but that’s kind of the luxury of an early retirement funded by your own investments: you have a big chunk of capital right there to use for whatever you want.

      As long as the expenses aren’t such a huge percentage of your total savings that they would make a big permanent dent, you can just take life as it comes. For example, since I don’t drive a huge amount I currently have a car worth about $5,000 that will easily be in like-new condition 10 years from now. If I ever need a new one, I’ll pay for it with savings.

      College is bigger of course, depending on how many kids one has and your strategy for paying for it. But I definitely wouldn’t buy a kid a car – that’s something I would like him to decide for himself if it’s even needed and then pay for it with his own earnings.

      Reply
  • sea March 12, 2016, 4:40 pm

    We had a 1998 Civic hatchback for years, until it got totalled. We loved that car. Reliable and stable as heck, and plenty of room in the back for hauling stuff. I constantly amazed people at how much I stuffed in the back of that thing. I was so sad when I totalled it

    Reply
  • Marcus Lehman March 31, 2016, 4:34 pm

    Don’t know if anyone can help me, but I’m reading this article as I try to transition into a more efficient car–but the top of this list cars don’t have trailer hitch packages! I have a 5 x 8 trailer great for hauling just about anything I should be allowed to do to a house–maybe 2500 on the heaviest load. Is there anything out there in the hatchback family that can do this, or should I keep my old SUV around just for those trips?

    Reply
  • Adam April 19, 2016, 10:01 am

    Hello all,

    I am about 2 years into the moustache game and trying to reduce spending on all fronts. At the end of 2015, I looked at Mint and found that we had spent $3300 on fuel! We have an immaculate 96 4runner, that we got for $4000, about half its market value.

    We live in Bike friendly victoria BC, where we ride to work, walk around town, ect. The truck is used to get to the surf, which is between 1 and 1.5 hours away on pavement. The last 2km of the drive are on a 4×4 only former logging road, hence the truck. (the dirt road will be fixed this summer..)

    So here i am, after an epic el nino surf season (soo pitted), feeling like a dummy for using all that fuel. I have been harping on my wife to let us sell the runner and get a fit of the same value. She is concerned that with the new baby and our golden retriever, we will not have enough space. So I am suggesting that we get a fit and keep both vehicles for 6 months. insurance here is about 900 a year, so i would be loosing the 450 in insurance plus some depreciation on the runner. Every KM we drive in the fit we save %58 percent on fuel over driving the runner.

    Any advice would be great! Should we do the two car shuffle for 6 months to ween my lady off the idea that we need a huge SUV, or just pull the cord and swap straight across? Or as a third option, keep both forever and only use the runner for big road trips and 4×4 access only type stuff?

    There is also a second child somewhere in the next 2 years…. so theres that. Also looking forward to getting a Tesla model 3.. used.

    Reply
  • Michael May 8, 2016, 8:37 pm

    Hello all! My first post here. I love this site and community. Huge fan so thanks for everything. I’m graduating from college and looking to grow out my moustache to its full potential. As a grad gift my parents have offered to help me buy a car by putting $15,000 towards a car (super lucky blessed privileged me). I couldn’t me more shocked and greatful, BUT I wasn’t thinkong I would even spend close to that amount for my first vehicle. I live insist Michigan but I will be commuting to work via bike all year. I do plan to use a vehicle mainly for visiting family and taking rock climbing road trips, etc. do y’all have any recommendations for how I should best navigate that 15,000? I am thinking of just buying a “Recommended” car but just at a more recent year which would bring its value up. Thanks for all the mustache wisdom!

    Reply
  • ColoradoGal July 25, 2016, 2:31 pm

    Was happily surprised to see the Yaris make top of your list…I’m seriously considering getting one, due to the amazing reliability/price, but have concerns about FWD. I’ve done some research and Consumer Reports claims FWD with snow tires beats AWD with all season tires….but I’m wondering- anyone live in a 6months/yr snowy town with hills driving a fwd with snow tires? I’m hauling precious cargo (2 kiddos), and want to get the right car And a safe choice for us as well…

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache July 26, 2016, 7:33 am

      You’ll be fine! Just do your best to design some of the car-dependence out of your life, because cars and blizzards are a bad combination no matter what you’re driving (unless it’s a snow cat ski groomer). It sounds like you live in a really high mountain town, which are usually pretty compact in footprint.

      Reply
  • Rudiger July 26, 2016, 2:10 pm

    You should update this article for 2016 and beyond. For example, the Volkswagen Golf/GTI has been in Car and Driver’s 10Best[1] for ten years (every year since 2007).

    [1]: http://blog.caranddriver.com/dynasty-building-the-longest-winning-streaks-in-10best-cars-history/

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache July 26, 2016, 3:35 pm

      I think it could use an update, but not to add Volkswagen!

      Car and Driver is great at measuring engineering, performance and style.. but they don’t pay much attention to what REALLY matters – reliability and maintenance costs in a car’s 10th through 20th years of life.

      Reply
      • higginst July 26, 2016, 5:59 pm

        LOL I would love to read the magazine that did focus on those things! Oh wait I have; this blog and LemonAid!

        A lot less glossy pages and ads for penis enhancements though :(

        Reply
  • CJM September 12, 2016, 12:49 pm

    Haha, thought you might find it funny to know MMM that the google search term that lead me back to this post (I am a fan of the blog already and have read this post a couple times before) was “how to buy a used sports car without problems”

    I know, I know, not very mustachian of me you might say, to be buying a sports car. You’re right but I’ll try to explain myself…

    Before I discovered the blog and my desire for early retirement I signed on to a discounted employee lease program with my employer (none other than the Canadian manufacturing plant for the sister car of the #1 recommended car for smart people). So the (not exactly cheap) lease I got was a 2015 civic SI. It’s incredibly fun to drive and as someone interested in cars I appreciate the performance, but I think I would like to do better than my current 50% savings rate. When my lease ends in a year I am considering buying a lightly used car with similar performance, so I have been investigating these options to see if I can avoid an abused tuner/rally car but save money in the used market.

    Lots of engineers and other car-interested people on this blog who might be able to give an opinion or two on cars in the lower-end sport segment. Although I’m sure I may be told to not bother and just quietly buy a fit!!

    Reply
  • Julian September 17, 2016, 8:15 am

    I used to drive BMW 7 or 5 series or Mercedes S class but have since downsized to a used 2005 BMW 3 series coupe. I can work on BMWs myself and get great satisfaction in doing so. I did like the larger sedans but they were unnecessary for a single man plus parts and gas were much more expensive. I try t0 drive only 8k miles a year riding a bike and motorcycle when I can. Ive owned the BMW for 7 years and the avg cost for parts is less than $200 a year( was only that high because I installed a lightweight fly wheel and performance clutch). If you know how to maintain them ,BMWs especially 6 cyl 3,4,5 series coupes or sedans can get 250k miles easily without any catastrophic repairs. If you dont know how to maintain them you’ll be sorry u didnt buy a boring tercel tho. For me I love to drive my 6 speed manual BMW and get so much enjoyment out of it but maybe part of that enjoyment is knowing that its not costing me an arm and a leg anymore.

    Reply
  • Jacob September 24, 2016, 4:32 pm

    Hey, I’ve come from 4 years in the future to say the links under “further reading” at the end of the article go 404 error pages. I’m bummed because kid #3 is on the way and I want to know how the question looks from a moustache-eye view.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache September 25, 2016, 8:10 am

      Thanks Jacob! I fixed those links – the bug was that when this article was written, MMM forum URLs started with “mrmoneymustache.com/forum”, and later we moved it to a subdomain so they now start with “forum.mrmoneymustache.com”. The rest of the web address was the same.

      By the way, if you ever need to search the forum, just let Google do it by typing this into your browser’s address box:

      site:forum.mrmoneymustache.com then-put-your-search-stuff-here-but-without-the-dashes

      Reply
  • Shira October 10, 2016, 1:03 pm

    Hey MMM!

    Now that it’s been 4+ years, how about a refresh!?

    I seasonally travel for my company and I can 1) rent a car and be reimbursed for all costs or 2) drive my own car and be “reimbursed” $.54 per mile…

    By driving my own car last year I made $1,500 ABOVE gas and maintenance expenses! However, I got rid of my car six months ago as maintenance fees were getting too high (it was a slowly deteriorating 1997 VW Jetta) and I wanted to try being car-free for a while.

    I love being car free and plan to continue that lifestyle for the majority of outings. However, I’d love to capitalized on getting mileage reimbursement again… plus going on road-trips, and the occasional run to costco. ;)

    …So what do you say? Are you (or anyone else with an interest in researching cars) up for refreshing this list?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  • Beardsweater October 18, 2016, 9:24 pm

    I’m still enjoying my 1990 Volvo 240. Reliable and built like a tank. A unique engine sound that is totally unique and loads of character. I’ve owned it for ten years with no plans of selling.

    Reply
  • David November 18, 2016, 7:53 pm

    I wonder how MMM feels about the Mitsubishi Mirage. It’s a Cheap subcompact hatchback with 36 MPG combined that can be obtained brand new for around 10-12k in many cases due to dealer and factory incentives. 0% 84 month financing can usually be obtained at many dealers due to how few they are able to sell which would free up capital to invest elsewhere. It has a relatively lengthy warranty which may be a little unmustachian but it is one less thing to worry about. I’m not too familiar with its long term reliability but I’d very much like to see that vehicle averaged over 10 years compared to a three year old Honda fit which was the top pick at the time this article was written.

    Reply
  • Eric January 1, 2017, 9:46 pm

    Greetings
    I just wanted to chime in and hopefully add something useful to consider. I have 2 VW diesels, a 2001 and a 2005. While I realize myself that my cars have been finicky they have both served me well for 15+ years now and I expect to own them for many years to come. What I think skews the data where reliability is concerned are electronic bugs that concern nonessential equipment. I like to tell people that “My cars run well or run badly, but they always run”.
    One of the biggest advantages to these vehicles is the online content that is available. VW owners are a quirky bunch and have the most detailed forums I have seen. Check out myturbodiesel.com and tdiclub.com. As a young fella I used these sites to do all my own maintenance and save a ton. I’ve checked on the Honda fit club and it seems mostly concerned with things like “Where should I get my floor mats?”.
    The amount of online content available for a car is an area that seems underrated. If all cars had a robust online community committed to helping each other save money on maintenance then I’d consider switching. (Not really, I love my diesels!)

    I hope there will be a Tesla club someday that will give the torque values of the ball joints and not just “How to get a ketchup stain out of your carpet”.

    (P.S We have two cars because my wife and i both work in emergency response and we can be on call and working in different areas at the same time)

    Reply
  • Koko March 23, 2017, 10:12 am

    I’m a big fan! Sold my truck several years ago and bought not so smart car but cheap PT Cruiser. It has worked out OK. Love having no car payments and savings are great. Stinky gas mileage. But I pull a lightweight camping trailer on it so all is good. Was in the market for a starter car for my son – spoiled I know but needed for several personal reasons – which he is contributing to. Just picked up a white 2005 Ford Focus Wagon ZXW SE (party mobile!) today that only had 50K on it (belonged to a dealer who used it for transporting customers and then bought by couple who wanted a mini-van b/c of more kids). Fingers crossed it works out. Thanks for the info and research, would have never considered w/o this blog.

    Reply
  • Andrew Mullen May 15, 2017, 6:21 pm

    I couldn’t agree more; these are all great choices. I have been a car guru my entire life, unfortunately though, I have spent most of it buying the wrong vehicles (Jeeps, trucks, and other ridiculous stuff). Thanks for opening my eyes.

    Reply
  • Morgan September 7, 2017, 10:36 pm

    Is this list still the most current one, or are there other cars recommended 5 years down the lane?
    We are looking at getting a station wagon with a hitch to replace our van and sedan.

    Reply
  • Jake November 9, 2017, 10:45 am

    Please update this article! I’m sure that some better, frugal cars have become available in the 5 years since this article was written.

    I’m shopping for a used car. A 2014 Mazda3 Hatchback can get 40 mpg on the highway. I found one in great condition, 30k miles, only $13k. I’m thinking I should pull the trigger. It’s a lot newer than I expected to find but only $13k!

    Reply
  • Daniel M February 24, 2018, 11:18 am

    DUDE! I got a Toyota echo thanks to this article. Best car ever!!!!

    I purchased it and sniffed out that it needed a new clutch. Dropped the price by a grand and did the work myself. By doing it myself I was paying myself about $20 an hour. It was my first time replacing a clutch, so it took a hot minute. Anypoops, did that and refreshed the breaks, replaced the shocks/struts, some rubber suspension parts, axles (my fault…) and a few other things. Asking price 3100. Purchase price 2100. Parts 500. So, 2600 american moneys and I have a car that I suspect will last me about 10 to 15 years.

    Now here is where it gets interesting. I wasn’t used to driving stick. So, at a red light that turned green,I stalled and was rear ended by a full concrete truck. Welp, the car was “totaled” but operable. Managed get the trunk to close and replaced the lights. The insurance company valued the car at 4,600.

    Higher level math… Vested – Recovered = -2600 + 4,600= +2,000

    Yup 2k ahead on the Mighty Echo. No need to sell it. Mechanically Awesome and visually terrible. Sell value is non existent and the utility value is through the roof. Moves my ass at about 40 to 50 MPG(with some hyper-mileing techniques). After I’m done with engineering school, I’m just going to save save save and not buy another car. Going to try to get this car to 400k mi. We shall see!

    Thanks for the pro tip MMM! Echos are the best damn car around!

    Reply
  • Dannielle April 28, 2018, 8:29 am

    Hi Mr. Moneymustache, when are you going to do an updated list of cars? I am looking to buy one and I know you love the leaf but I am not sure it works for my lifestyle yet (not many charging stations in my area, we do road trips regularly as we live out in the boondocks and it is more cost effective than flying, etc.). Is the Honda Fit still a good option in the new models? Thanks for any input :)

    Reply
  • Heather May 21, 2018, 3:44 pm

    Good news. I am trading in my CRV for a honda fit 2012. The bad news is they are only going to give me 15k for the CRV and I owe 18.5k so it is going to hurt a little to pay the bank that extra money but I think it will be worth it to get the debt off my balance sheet. The fit I am paying cash for 8.5k so I feel good about moving in the right direction. Also, I made it a goal to ride my bike to work at least 2 days per week to start off with the goal of 5 days a week eventually.

    Reply
  • Brent July 10, 2018, 12:19 am

    Would Looove to see an updated version of this now that we’re 6 years down the road.

    Thanks for this one either way! Super helpful.

    I’m now going to get a library card in the next city over (if they’ll let me) so I can check out A new edition of the Lemon Aide book.

    Reply
  • Amber September 3, 2018, 1:25 pm

    Do you have any recommendations on minivans? We are a family of three and I watch children also and it’s needed to transport to school and etc.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache September 5, 2018, 2:03 pm

      Hi Amber! The Mazda5 is a great six-passenger true minivan that isn’t as bulky and inefficient as the heavy-duty V6 seven passenger models that dominate in the US market.

      Reply
  • Angela October 23, 2018, 6:12 pm

    For the love of g*d, update this. I’m begging you. As a busy, underpaid primary care doc in NYC with loads of student debt about to totally change my life to get FI ASAP (not retire because I wanna keep fighting health inequity), I need some guidance on cars. Despite being somewhere on the spectrum, I’ve never cared about cars and haven’t had one since my first (and only) Dodge Dynasty that my parents paid $500 for and it blew up in flames when I was 19. Fifteen years of city life later, I either have (1) no friends with cars or (2) friends that care more about status or SUVs and give bad advice. I can’t compile all this data before I move in 3 months since I have so many patient care and teaching responsibilities, so this is not a real comment, but instead, a plea. Judging by the forum, a lot of people are interested in this. I’ll buy you many beers someday if you update.

    Reply
  • Andy November 21, 2018, 10:27 am

    My 2004 Matrix has served me well (chosen because of this article 4+ years ago, my introduction to MMM) but my car is at the end of its service life. While obviously the concepts have stayed the same, I would love to see an update of this 6-year old article with recommendations of models built in the last 10 years. The researcher I’ve done is pointing me towards a 2010+ Prius, but maybe there are practical models I’ve overlooked. Also, the “discussions” link at the start of the article is dead. Thanks for all the great blog posts over the years, totally transformed my financial life.

    Reply
  • D-R November 25, 2018, 10:29 pm

    Found this post and follow up conversation very helpful and interesting. I’m wondering if any updates are planned, seeing as this is now a 7 year old post. Any new car recommendations? I’ve done tons of research on used cars in the past, but never even heard of a few of these models before this post…!

    Sorry if I’m missing something, I’m new around here.

    PS: I have a 2005 Subaru Forester that I intend to drive into the ground. It has served me well, though the head gaskets do give out at about 100,000 miles. Not a cheap fix, and not something most people can do themselves. Shop around for quotes, as I found they can vary. Aside from that nasty surprise, it’s been very reliable.

    Reply
  • Angelina Stovall-Amos February 10, 2019, 7:32 pm

    What would be the best used cars now that it’s 2019? Do you have an updated post on this?

    Reply

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