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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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)
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)
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.
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”).
I always buy near new cars with high milage and look after them. So far its been a great way to go. I get them at half price, they are often less than two years old and well serviced as the warrantee requires it. I then get 6 years of great motoring and pass them on to my children.