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Our Picks For The Best $5,000 Used Cars
Posted Jan 27, 2014
Looking for a great used car but have only a few thousand bucks to spend? $5,000 represents a common starting point for many budget-conscious buyers (and also a few penny-pinching parents when they go looking for quality used cars for their children).
We challenged the AOL Autos and Autoblog editors to find a great, versatile used car or SUV for $5,000 or less. Although you might think the options would be limited, there are actually a wealth of solid vehicles out there that can easily be had on such a budget.
Head on through to see what they found.
Some may scoff at my pick of the 2004 Subaru Impreza WRX, questioning the car’s reliability after 75,000 miles, but take it from the guy whose current vehicle offers a driving experience about as exciting as the tan color of its paint: reliability isn’t everything.Chris McGraw (Associate Multimedia Editor, AOL Autos) - 2004 Subaru WRX
The WRX offers a lot of what I want in a vehicle for only about $5,000. A 2.0-liter turbocharged engine gives the car 227 horsepower, and the all-wheel drive and manual transmission makes it a blast to drive.
In addition to that, the WRX offers 27 mpg on the highway, which really isn’t awful, especially when compared to other vehicles of its era. So, sure, you could go out and get a more reliable car, but I can almost guarantee you won’t be having as good of a time.
Used Subaru Impreza WRX Listings
All Used Subaru Listings
If you've only got $5k to splash out on a new ride, it's probably fair to make a few more assumptions: you need thrift and practicality, ideally with a dollop of fun thrown in to round out the package. Enter the 2002-2004 Ford Focus SVT. With its long-lived, sharply creased New Edge Design, it still looks credibly fresh, and with a three- or five-door hatchback shape, its utility is as obvious as it is unassailable.Chris Paukert (Executive Editor, Autoblog) - 2002-2004 Ford Focus SVT
The SVT Focus has a slick-shifting six-speed manual from the German gearbox specialists at Getrag paired with a willing 170-horsepower 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder. That may not sound like a lot of motivation in today's era of mega-powered hot hatches, but it's quite light, and besides, this is a car about balance, not brawn. Given a good once-over by Ford's Special Vehicle Team, it's been blessed with a commensurately stiffer suspension that's smartly tuned for back road antics, yet it's still everyday livable.
Look for a good, clean example - these are finesse cars, with a lot of attention paid to their tuning from the factory. Aftermarket "improvements" like larger wheels and lowered suspensions tend to have a deleterious effect on handling and overall driveability, and many of these discount funsters have been cropped hard and maintained indifferently, so take your time and seek out a good one - with $5k in hand, you can afford to be a little choosy.
Used Ford Focus SVT Listings
All Used Ford Listings
So you’re looking to spend down-payment money for a used car. Capping your budget at $5,000 may seem like a difficult constraint at first, but it’s probably a lot more money than you need. There are plenty of great cars in good shape for five grand or less, but a Volvo 740 or 940 sedan is a quietly brilliant choice.Dan Roth (Associate Editor, Autoblog) - Volvo 740/940
First, they are tough, tough cars. The running gear is reliable and unburstable. The bodies are very rust resistant, even factory undercoated, and because we’re not talking wagons, you’ll save a bundle. Nobody wants the sedans, despite the fact these cars tick a lot of boxes: rear-wheel drive, available turbocharged engines, manual transmissions in the 740s if you look hard enough, easy DIY and a base of enthusiast support to help you figure it out and a healthy aftermarket for upgrades, too.
These are still safe, solid cars, and the ’92-on models will have the Volvo Side Impact Protection System, further enhancing crash protection. The last time I bothered to look, a perfectly sorted, exceptionally well-maintained 940 sedan could have been in my driveway for $2000. That leaves plenty of room for the aftermarket swaybar upgrade, a maintenance slush fund and even a higher performance camshaft. Oh, and a pushrod V8 is a common swap that easily tucks under the hood.
Used Volvo 740 Listings
All Used Volvo Listings
When considering a good, reliable and versatile used vehicle, a Jeep Wrangler may not be the obvious initial choice that springs to mind, but hear me out. For those who live in sunny climes, the Wrangler has a removable top that, while seemingly invented to torture unwitting victims by being ridiculously irritating to put up or take down, can turn it into a convertible at a moment's notice. And for those who in places where snow may be present, it's got four-wheel drive to help get you out of the driveway and an all-around excellent heater.Jeremy Korzeniewski (Senior Editor, Autoblog) - Late 1990s Jeep Wrangler
I happen to live in an area with lots of wide-open spaces, plenty of easily accessible trails and even some mountains to climb. A few hours away sits a range of snow-capped mountain peaks, and just a few hours in another direction is the beach. That makes a Jeep Wrangler tough to beat when it comes to versatility in my neck of the woods, and even if it hardly excels at many day-to-day tasks, such as commuting or grocery runs, it certainly can perform those roles when pressed.
With the vehicle chosen, all that's left to do is pick a model year. A bit of internet sleuthing informs me that it's not terribly difficult to get either a loaded YJ-era (1987-1995) Wrangler with the legendary 4.0-liter engine and a hardtop or a base model from the TJ era (1996-2006) with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine at our self-imposed $5,000 budget. If it were my spending my own hard-earned money, I'd hold out as long as possible to get a decent early TJ with the 4.0L, even if it meant getting a Wrangler with more miles or giving up on a hardtop. The torque-rich straight-six mill is worth the extra effort, and I could always save up some extra money in the following years on upgrades since the aftermarket loves itself some Jeep Wrangler just as much as I do.
Used Jeep Wrangler Listings
All Used Jeep Listings
I'm in complete agreement with Mr. Korzeniewski here.Adam Morath (Multimedia Director, AOL Autos) - Late 1990s Jeep Wrangler
After my hand-me-down Crown Victoria station wagon limped its way into the automotive graveyard about ten years ago, it was time for my first proper car purchase. The budget was set at $5,000 and the siren's call of a mid-'90s V6 Camaro RS proved too much for a freshly minted 20-year-old college student to pass up.
Needless to say, I'd do things a bit differently now.
As many of my colleagues have pointed out, five grand can afford you a lot of car. Responsible buyers might consider a used small or midsize sedan with a reliable reputation like the Toyota Corolla or Camry. Either would be a great choice, if a bit uninspired.
While I've matured since that misguided 6-cylinder purchase of my youth, I admit I'd still look to squeeze some fun out of our budget. It may take a bit of searching and negotiation, but for my money I'd go with a well-loved Jeep Wrangler with about 100,000 miles on the odometer.
In many ways, a Wrangler is the perfect vehicle for my home state of Michigan: unrivaled 4x4 capability for snowy winters and top-free fun for humid summers. Sure, the ride is rough, but if you can find a Jeep TJ for the price, you'll be riding a comparative coil-spring cloud over earlier YJ models.
Of course, what makes Wrangler a truly great used vehicle isn't its ride or reliability, rather its rugged good looks that only improve with age. By my estimation, there aren't many cars that actually look better with a tear in the seat or some rust on the rocker panel, but Wrangler wears its welts with distinction.
An SUV, convertible and icon, all in one? I'm sold.
Used Jeep Wrangler Listings
All Used Jeep Listings
I am not a smart man, which is why if I had five thousand dollars in hand and the task of buying a used car, I would find a third-generation Subaru Legacy Outback SUS that fits the budget.John Neff (Editor-in-Chief, Autoblog) - 1998-2003 Subaru Outback SUS
SUS stands for Sport Utility Sedan, which was a variant of the Legacy Outback wagon and was sold only in North America for a couple of generations. The obvious difference between the SUS and Outback wagon is that it isn't a wagon, so why would anyone choose its deficient utility over the wagon? There is no good reason. You should choose the wagon, or avoid the Legacy Outback altogether with your $5,000. There are plenty of other vehicles that are more reliable and less expensive than these Legacys with their raised suspensions, complex all-wheel-drive systems and unusual, flat boxer engines. It appeals to me on the grounds of quirkiness and rarity, which are two factors that always point towards the heart of trouble.
But as I said before, I am not a smart man, and have always wanted one of these automotive anomalies to call my own, complete with a decklid spoiler and gold trim. For five thousand dollars, I could probably only afford a high-mileage example from the car's first generation on sale between 1998 and 2003, which means it would wait until I had owned it for a month to die an irreparable death. At that point, I would probably wish I had just bought a Honda Civic.
Used Subaru Outback Listings
All Used Subaru Listings
Even though a 2002 Volkswagen Jetta GLS TDI Wagon with a five-speed manual never earned a spot on anyone's dream car list, I'd argue that it is a near-perfect used car for someone seeking a well-rounded daily driver that hits solid base runs in every measurable category.Michael Harley (West Coast Editor, Autoblog) - 2002 Volkswagen Jetta Wagon TDI
Volkswagen diesels have always commanded a premium, new and used, because they are well-built, designed to be comfortable and functional. Like its GTI and Golf siblings, the Jetta is sporty, easy to maneuver and its design ages well. The Wagon builds on those attributes by adding a huge dose of utility on the interior and a useful roof rack for toting oversize loads. Plus, wagons simply look cool.
The Jetta TDI boasts a 1.9-liter turbodiesel rated at just 90 horsepower, but the number to focus on is its 155 pound-feet of torque. When the powerplant is mated to a traditional five-speed manual gearbox, the 3,000-pound vehicle becomes downright entertaining to drive regardless of the passenger load.
In terms of fuel economy, the EPA rated the five-passenger wagon at 35 city/45 highway, which means driving with a light foot on a road trip will have you flirting with 50 mpg. Plus, the tank-like little German earned 5-star NHTSA crash test ratings. The Jetta TDI Wagon is inexpensive to purchase, fun-to-drive, versatile, frugal and safe — what more can you ask for?
Used Volkswagen Jetta Wagon Listings
All Used Volkswagen Listings
Whenever someone I know is looking for an affordable used car, the first two words out of my mouth are always the same: "Honda Civic." In terms of reliability, Honda's stalwart compact simply can't be beat, with models from the past couple of decades easily rolling well into super-high-mileage territory with little issue. My father, for example, has a 1997 Civic EX sedan as his daily driver, and it's still solid as ever, now with over 250,000 miles on the odometer.Steve Ewing (Senior Editor, Autoblog) - 1999 Honda Civic Si
But if you're looking for something really special -- and don't mind looking for a needle in a haystack -- get your hands on the '99 Honda Civic Si coupe. This is, perhaps, one of Honda's most magnificent creations, combining all of the quality and reliability of the fourth-generation Civic with a 16-valve, 160-horsepower VTEC engine. Low weight, a superb chassis and fantastic steering make the Si a real honey to drive, not to mention the fantastic five-speed manual gearbox and dizzying 8,000-rpm redline.
The trick with the Civic Si, though, is finding one. The Civic itself may be a dime a dozen on the used market, but the Si can often be a rare bird in some markets. But if you find yourself eyeing a low-mileage, clean example (tints, wings and body kits don't add to your street cred), you'd be a fool to pass it up.
Used Honda Civic Listings
All Used Honda Listings
Honda engineers always blow my mind with the amount of interior space they create in their smaller vehicles. The Honda CR-V, which is a small crossover SUV is a great example of this phenomenon. The interior and trunk have tons of space for people and cargo, making it an excellent choice if you have a small family and/or take frequent road trips.Michael Zak (Consumer Editor, AOL Autos) - 2002 Honda CR-V
The second-generation CR-V is based on the Honda Civic, giving it a true labeling as a "crossover" for its car-like underpinnings. The car's exterior redesign represented a much smoother and contemporary appearance than the first CR-V, while Honda's iconic I-VTEC 4-cylinder engine provided fuel economy numbers that were much more like a sedan than a larger SUV.
This CR-V is blessed with Honda's legendary reliability, meaning even if you purchase one with 100,000 miles on the odometer, it should last at least an additional 100K. Safety is also big with this vehicle, as it received great marks in both IIHS and NHTSA crash tests. In fact, my dad was able to walk away from a nasty wreck in which he hit a patch of black ice and rolled upside down into a ditch. That was the only reason that CR-V didn't make it to 300,000 miles.
Used Honda CR-V Listings
All Used Honda Listings
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