Best Cars And SUVS To Buy For The Money
David Collins10-minute read
PUBLISHED: March 11, 2022 | UPDATED: December 12, 2022
Since its outbreak in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted nearly all aspects of human activity, and the U.S. automotive market is no exception. New car production was interrupted by plant closings and layoffs, supply chain malfunctions – including a significant computer chip shortage – and economic uncertainty among new car buyers. Where there were new cars and people who wanted to buy them, the two could not come together because dealerships were closed. Even lessees were confounded when their contracts expired: “What should I do with this car if there is no place to turn it in? Can I drive it on an expired lease? How do I insure it?”
This, of course, had a massive ripple effect on the used car market, as well. Even 2 years after the most stringent economic lockdowns have eased, the U.S. used car market is still experiencing extremely high demand while the supply of available vehicles is markedly low. There are two factors giving rise to this situation. First, due to economic uncertainty, more car buyers are searching for lower cost used vehicles, pushing up demand. And second, because fewer people can or want to buy a new car, they are holding on to their existing car instead of releasing it to the used car market, thus reducing supply. The result of all of this is more demand for fewer used cars, which drives up the price across the board on the vehicle you wish to buy.
What Matters Most For Best Value Cars
The current high demand/low supply used car market makes finding value – which we’ll define as the best car possible for the least amount of money – even more difficult than ever. First, there are hundreds of makes and models to consider, each different from year to year. Break that up further by vehicle type and it can be extremely overwhelming trying to find the best car for the money. Before diving in, you can sharpen your focus with our guides to buying a used car and to what to look for when buying a used car.
In simplifying our specific search for best value in a used car, here are some factors we considered:
Low depreciation: There is only one explanation for a car that sees a smaller drop in value over time – it’s a quality vehicle that owners want to keep and used car buyers want to buy. Just keep in mind, if it has low depreciation, you’ll pay more.
Durable brands: Car brands that have endured for multiple model makeovers and sometimes decades on the road are sharpened by years of competition and consumer feedback.
“Under” various price points: As vehicles get to be 5, 10, or even 15 years old, some begin to stand out for lasting quality and durability. These cars will be highly sought after by people with a budget. We’ll look at the best cars for the money under $5,000, $15,000 and $20,000.
Availability: Some cars are more prevalent in the used market because they are big sales leaders as new cars – because people really value them. On the other hand, some cars are less prominent in the used market because the original owners like them so much they don’t want to let them go.
Vehicle type: Each of the major vehicle types constitutes its own micro-market in the broader used car realm. It’s difficult to cover them all here, but we tried to touch on the SUV, car, truck, and even hybrid classes to give examples of the best vehicles for the money in a few of these micro-markets.
Table Of Contents
10. 1998 – 2011 Lincoln Town Car
Best for: Best car under $5,000
MPG: 17 city | 25 highway
This might be a surprise pick for a used car under $5,000, but the third and final generation of the Lincoln Town Car could be a real find for bargain used car shoppers. Although it won’t have many of the technology features developed since the last Town Car rolled off the line in 2011, this car was known for its luxury appointments and smooth ride. It’s a safe, durable ocean liner that’s built on the same platform as the Ford Crown Victoria – at one time the most popular police cruiser in the United States. In fact, the Lincoln Town Car was the first production sedan in the world to receive U.S. five-star crash ratings in every category. Even the fuel efficiency figures are very respectable for a large luxury sedan.
9. 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban
Best for: Most reliable SUV
MPG: 16 mpg city | 22 mpg highway
A body-on-frame SUV, as opposed to one built with unibody construction, is almost always a large family vehicle that handles more like a truck and has excellent towing capability. It’s also better off-road than most SUVs, because it’s better able to withstand the torsional flex experienced on uneven ground. As longtime members of the dwindling large SUV vehicle category, there are few better, or more prevalent in the used car market, than the twin SUVs Chevrolet Tahoe and Chevrolet Suburban (which has a longer wheelbase than Tahoe).
Both are powered by a 5.3-liter V8 but Tahoe, though shorter and lighter, has 300 pounds more towing capacity at 8,600 pounds. Both scored an exemplary 74/100 for quality and reliability in a survey done by J.D. Power. With a total overhaul in design in 2015, these stalwart family vehicles were possessed of so many features and luxury amenities that consumers and reviewers had a hard time differentiating them from a Cadillac.
8. 2018 Mazda3
Best for: Best car under $20,000
MPG: 28 mpg city | 37 mpg highway
A great many quality used cars fall under the $20,000 price point, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one with more fans than the Mazda3. Known for its beautiful, functional interior, the Mazda 3 is also a fun, sporty car to drive and gets excellent gas mileage. Technology features drivers have come to expect from new cars are available on the 2018 Mazda3, including Bluetooth, audio streaming, and a 7-inch touch screen.
The standard engine is an inline 4 that gets a healthy 155 horsepower, while the Touring and Grand Touring editions get a 2.5-liter engine that reaches 184 horsepower. Manual transmission fans will be happy to hear that 6-speed manual is available for either engine. This car received a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
7. 2019 Toyota Land Cruiser
Best for: Large SUV with lowest depreciation
MPG: 13 mpg city | 18 mpg highway
A recent study by iSeeCars found that the average full-size SUV depreciates in value by 44.1% over the first 5 years. The same study found that the Toyota Land Cruiser saw the smallest drop in value over the same period, at 35.4%. While this means buyers of a used Land Cruiser will pay more than they would for any other large SUV, it also means they are getting a durable vehicle that consumers really like.
Modern Land Cruisers are a far cry from the legendary off-road beasts that gave this brand its badge back in the latter half of the 20th century. Toyota’s most expensive vehicle is a luxurious, leather-laden three-row SUV that most owners rarely, if ever, take off the road. But if they do venture off-road, modern Land Cruisers are still extremely capable, with a powerful V8 engine, body-on-frame chassis, and a precision-engineered suspension that achieves the articulation needed on extreme terrain.
6. 2010 Honda CR-V
Best for: SUV under $10,000
MPG: 21 mpg city | 28 mpg highway
One of the models that helped carve out the compact SUV segment in the 1990s, the Honda CR-V remains one of the best-selling SUVs in the U.S. While a sticking point with earlier CR-Vs was an uninspired engine, the 2010 model’s 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine boosted horsepower to a respectable 180. The drivetrain was front-wheel drive as standard, but all-wheel drive was optional. 2010 was also the first year that a USB audio port and Bluetooth became optional. Reviewer Edmunds.com gave the 2010 CR-V high marks for its suspension, handling, and braking, and out of hundreds of consumers reporting on their 2010 CR-V, 63% gave the car a rating of five stars out of five.
5. Toyota Tacoma
Best for: Best small truck
MPG: 19 mpg city | 24 mpg highway
ather than pick one particular model year, Toyota Tacoma gets a general body-of-work award due in large part to the fact that it’s been the best-selling small truck for most of the last two decades. Tremendous competition has heated up the midsize pickup market, but in 2021 the Tacoma was still dominant, more than doubling the sales of its next competitor at 252,520 “Tacos” sold. Choosing between all-wheel or rear-wheel drive, the smaller Access Cab to the roomier Double Cab, different bed sizes, and four-cylinder or V6 engine, there are literally dozens of combinations of Tacoma in any model year to meet your demand.
Tacoma can be anything from a more affordable and practical daily driver (SR Access Cab) to one of the most off-road capable trucks in this class (the TRD Off-Road package has multi-terrain Crawl Control and a locking rear differential). With nothing flashy about it, Tacoma is instead revered for its no-nonsense reliability and durability – it’s “work truck-ness.” Toyota’s well-earned reputation for quality is also emphasized by the Tacoma.
4. 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
Best for: Best hybrid
MPG: 34 mpg city | 31 mpg highway
Widely recognized as the first ever compact SUV, and consistently one of the best-selling vehicles in the hybrid SUV segment, the Toyota RAV4 introduced a hybrid engine option in 2016. This was an ingenious system that was only available on the XLE and Limited trim levels. It featured an electric motor-assisted 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine powering the front wheels, and a supplementary electric motor for the rear wheels when required. Not quite an all-wheel drive drivetrain, but acting very much like one, it was called AWDi. The 33 combined mpg of this hybrid was 8 miles per gallon better than the same RAV4 AWD with a conventional engine.
3. Ford F-150 (2004-2014)
Best for: Best full-size pickup
MPG: 14 mpg city | 20 mpg highway
As the best-selling vehicle in the United States for more than three decades, the Ford F-150 is probably doing something right. As an everyday work truck for a busy contractor, or a relatively safe budget vehicle for a teenager’s first ride, a solid sub-$10,000 F-150 is part of America’s DNA – and there are literally hundreds of thousands of them for sale at any given time. Almost all F-150s have a V8, and those with the twin-turbo V6 still get 325 horsepower. With a wide variety of options, different bed sizes, and three cab options (Standard, Supercab, or SuperCrew) the perfect set-up for any individual is out there.
2. 2018 Jeep Wrangler
Best for: Lowest depreciation of any vehicle
MPG: 17 mpg city | 21 mpg highway
While it is not even the best-selling vehicle in the Jeep lineup, the iconic Wrangler is not only the heart and soul of the company, it is an instantly recognized and admired vehicle around the world. Perhaps it’s the association as a front-line grenade dodger during WWII, the distinct boxy profile, or it’s proven aptitude on the most rugged off-road terrain, the Wrangler is a true icon.
Because of this, a cult following has grown up around Wrangler. People will drive cross country to meet with other people simply because they all own and love their Wranglers. It’s also the most customized vehicle in the world, with entire companies devoted to helping people make their Wrangler an expression of versatility and personality.
The 2018 Wrangler JL was the first of the current (it’s fifth) generation of Wranglers. Taking over where the previous JK Wrangler left off, the JL continued to give consumers more of what they’ve come to expect – state of the art technology, more luxury (but not too much), and a smoother, better handling ride on the highway – all while maintaining second-to-none capabilities as a trail and rock-climbing beast. For these and many other reasons, the Wrangler holds its value better than any other. According to research done by iSeeCars, Wrangler depreciates in value just 9.1% in 5 years (the average is 40.1%), by far the best of any vehicle.
1. Best Car For The Money: 2015 Hyundai Sonata
Best for: Overall value
MPG: 14 mpg city | 20 mpg highway
Though its parent company is in Korea, the Hyundai Sonata is a car that was designed and built in America specifically for the American market. In an extremely crowded midsize sedan class that includes legendary juggernauts like Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the Sonata by about 2015 really started turning heads for its styling, its larger interior space, and its near-luxury finishes. Of the lower-end option packages, look for the 1.6T which features a peppier turbo engine and a 7-speed dual clutch transmission. At the higher end, the Sonata Limited Ultimate and Sonata Sport Ultimate 2.0T can both be found on the used car market in the range of $15,000+. That’s pretty good value for a car that Car Gurus named the #1 Best 2015 Midsize Sedan by Value and should have 100,000 miles or more of life left in it.
The Bottom Line: Know What You’re Looking For
With so many used vehicles available today, it’s important to narrow your focus in on a certain type of vehicle before your start shopping. There are cars, trucks, and SUVs, but also small, medium, and large classes of vehicles within those groups. Finally, each model today will come in multiple trim packages from the most basic to fully loaded. You can also factor in durability – some vehicles perform better after 50,000 miles, for example – and availability in the used car marketplace. Finally, knowing your budget can qualify some cars and eliminate others. All of these factors will help you zero in on the best car you can find for the money.
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