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Choosing the Best Used Car For You

A row of used cars for sale near me is shown.

At some point in their driving history, nearly everyone has spent time searching “used cars for sale near me,” whether motivated by budget, practicality, incentives, or simple convenience. But used cars have a certain stigma about them, all the same. Who knows what the previous owner did to the vehicle, in the vehicle, or with the vehicle? What sort of mechanical horrors are hidden under the shiny paint job and polished engine components? Will your hard-earned money be wisely invested, or have you just signed up for heartache, sorrow, and an enormous bill from the repair shop every few weeks?

Over time, we have learned to do our research before putting any sort of money towards a used product. The internet affords ample opportunity to learn about fakes, frauds, and failures in all sorts of products. And your searches for “the best used car” have likely turned up thousands of opinionated lists from a variety of resources- some highly reputable, and others that seem to have appeared from nowhere. But how do you know which of these lists is accurate, and which have received a quiet incentive from auto manufacturers? How do you know what the best used car really is? The secret, of course, is to narrow down the search based on what you want and what you need. Because the best used cars to buy are those that will last and serve your needs. So let’s look further into how you can determine which cars fit that bill based on some important categories.

The Best Used Cars Based on Reliability

For many of us, the definition of the “best” used car is one that is in our budget, of course, but more importantly, that it will last a long time. No one likes going to the service shop. It’s a huge hassle, and it gets expensive quickly. And if you’re not nearly as concerned with the make, model, or year of your future vehicle so much as how much it may cost in repairs, the studies conducted by sites such as iSeeCars.com might be of particular interest.

In their “Best Used Cars at Affordable Prices” study, iSeeCars experts were able to create a ranking for used vehicles based on reported reliability from 2011 to present, and a safety rating of at least 4 out of 5 stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. With over 6.1 million cars analyzed, their reports feature a sample set that lends a particular credence to their overall results. The results of the “Best Used Passenger Cars Under $10,000” analysis found the 2012 Honda Civic as the ultimate winner, followed by the 2011 Honda Accord and the 2012 Chevrolet Impala. “Best Used SUVs Under $15,000” was won by the 2012 Ford Expedition, with the 2012 Honda Pilot coming in second, and the 2012 Acura MDX in third.

Another nationwide analysis involved the longevity of vehicles, rating them by segment, the percentage of currently driven vehicles with over 200,000 miles of experience, and a comparison to the overall average within that segment. For example, within the “Large Sedan” segment, the Toyota Avalon reigns supreme, with 2.6% of the vehicles having over 200,000 miles, which is 2.2 times more than the segment average. And the Honda Civic swept the “Small Sedan” category, with 2.3% of the car lasting over 200,000 miles, which is 5.8 times more than the segment average.

A dark grey 2012 Chevy Impala is driving over a bridge, shown from a slanted angle.

Choosing a Vehicle Based on Value

Every single non-billionaire car shopper has a limit on what they’re willing to spend on a vehicle. And all car shoppers, billionaires or not, are aware that there’s a massive difference between “price” and “value.”

Automobile review sites such as Kelley Blue Book and Consumer Reports have their fingers on the pulse- or at least the opinion- of the nation in this regard. Not only do these sites personally review the vehicles in-house, but allow owners of the vehicle to weigh in on their experiences. Combine these factors with a subjective list of safety features, trims, options, engines, fuel efficiency and prices, and the result is a collective understanding of value as a vehicle that offers more reliability, comfort, and “cool stuff” for the money.

The Kelley Blue Book list for the “Best Used Cars Under $15,000: 2020 Edition” features vehicles spanning the 2014-2017 model years. The 2016 Toyota Camry tops the list, with its winning combination of reliability, comfort, style, safety features, and fun technology. The 2014 Honda Accord comes in second place, with its highly respectable fuel economy and standard features that are accommodating to nearly everyone’s needs. And in third place is the 2015 Honda Civic, which spans the sedan, coupe, and hybrid versions, all of which hold a strong rating for reliability, safety, and especially fuel efficiency.

Nearly every vehicle segment and price bracket is covered in the used market, from SUVs to wagons to trucks, and price points from under $1,000 to well above the $30,000 bracket. While your personal preference of make and model may differ, lists such as these are incredibly helpful when determining if you’re on the right track towards purchasing a great value, or if you should just throw that money in a hole.

Selecting a Vehicle Based on Repair Costs

A red 2015 Honda Civic is driving past blurred trees.

The truth about any vehicle is that repairs are inevitable. Even with regular maintenance and a light workload, every machine eventually needs tuning up. And CarMD.com analysts have focused their research on this exact scenario. Their research is based on the frequency of the “Check Engine” light coming on, compared to the reason it came on, and the cost of the fix. This could be something as embarrassing as not screwing the fuel-filler cap on tightly after filling up, which has a $0 fee to fix, all the way to a complete engine replacement, which averages a mind-bending $7,150.

To get this information, CarMD’s analysts reviewed the number of trips to the service shop for “Check Engine” light-related issues per vehicle, then compared that to the cost for repairs related to encouraging that light to turn off. The data is sourced from vehicles model year 1996 to present, with over 14.4 million in-use vehicles analyzed for the 2020 report.

The leader for vehicles in recent surveys was the 2017 Honda CRV, with the lowest reported “Check Engine” light frequency. Even better, the most common repair for this alarming signal was to change the engine oil and filter and reprogram the powertrain control module. In second place is the 2017 Subaru Outback, which simply required attention to the fuel cap. This was also the case with the 2016 Lexus NX, which earned third place honors.

The Best Used Car to Buy

So what is the best used car to buy? Well, that depends on your overall definition of “best.” For some, that is strictly based on reliability, and the vehicle’s ability to get from Point A to Point B for many years to come. For others, value is the key, with reliability being only part of the overall equation. Others look at the “best” vehicle as one that will require rare and inexpensive repairs. And we have given you some great options to consider that fit these categories. But the rest is up to you; it all depends on what you are looking for in your new-to-you used vehicle.

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