Best 'responsible' used car for less than $10k?
July 26, 2013 9:34 AM   Subscribe

What are the best commuter cars from the past few years that I could get for less than $10,000 today? Snowflake details inside.

My criteria in order of importance:

Automatic transmission
Low maintenance. (I'm terrible about taking cars in for oil changes, etc)
Gas mileage.
Leg room. (I'm over six feet tall)
Decent stock stereo/nice electronic gadgetry in general.

Things I don't care much about:
Luggage space/passenger space (no kids)

Basically I just want a car that's going to get me to work and back for the next five years without having to spend much money keeping it running. If I am going to splurge on anything, it would be on electronic gizmos like GPS, etc.

So what are my options? I might go a little over 10k if the car is really special, but I'd like to avoid it.
posted by empath to Shopping (31 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I have the same criteria, and I'm narrowing in on a mid-2000s Toyota Corolla. I expect it will be a thoroughly uninspiring purchase, but I just want a reliable car that will get us around for not too much money or hassle.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:39 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. Supposedly the newer Civics aren't quite as reliable as they used to be, but in my opinion it's still a great car. I've also heard great things about newer Ford Focuses, if you're thinking of something less than five years old.
posted by Sara C. at 9:41 AM on July 26, 2013

If you are using your head not your heart it's going to be tough to top the Corolla. Dear god they are boring though.
posted by Cosine at 9:41 AM on July 26, 2013

I've fit into a Yaris, Mazda2, and other similar microcars OK at over 6', so those might be options.
posted by LionIndex at 9:44 AM on July 26, 2013

Camry/Corolla is a great choice for someone who doesn't give a damn about their car other than its ability to convey you from place to place. I'm 6'2" and find the corolla to be a big snug, but manageable. Camry is pleasantly roomy, but lower mileage, higher cost, etc. Camrys are also easier to find with upgraded equipment, so sunroofs, power windows, etc. are reasonable options to be looking for if you like them.
posted by skewed at 9:44 AM on July 26, 2013

A used Ford Focus. I drove a 2008 Focus until last year and that car gave me zero problems, got fantastic gas mileage, and they have decent gadgetry options.
posted by erst at 9:50 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just looking at Carmax, '03-'04 Civics with 100K miles are coming in at just under $10K, as does a 90K mile Fit. Mazda3s come in about the same years/price/mileage as the Civic.
posted by LionIndex at 9:53 AM on July 26, 2013

I had a 2000 Corolla for twelve years and only got rid of it because of cosmetic issues. They are unbelievably reliable. I never had a single problem with it.
posted by something something at 10:01 AM on July 26, 2013


For those few times you need a little bigger car, you'll be happy you have the space. All three ride a little better than smaller cars, as well.
posted by lstanley at 10:03 AM on July 26, 2013

Husbunny who is 6' enjoys his Honda Fit VERY much. My Civic is also quite comfy. Both get great gas mileage.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:09 AM on July 26, 2013

Exactly the ones you think. Japanese small and midsize sedans, like everyone else has said.

The best way to get a good price on a used car is to not look for a specific car, but look for a specific seller. Get a list of acceptable models and wait until you find any car on the list that's being sold below market value because the seller needs to move it quickly. i.e., instead of deciding that a Camry is the perfect car for your needs and looking just at Camrys, take into account that an Accord is basically functionally identical, and so if you find a better deal on an Accord, you might want that one even though the Camry is a 1% better fit for you.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:09 AM on July 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have an '03 Civic. I get the oil changed periodically and had new tires put on it last summer. That is literally the only maintenance work I've done. It's about to go in for its 60k checkup but I doubt there will be any problems. It gets 40 mpg on the freeway (manual transmission, though, although apparently that no longer makes much of a difference). My 6'2" boyfriend has never complained about the size, either.

My previous car was a Civic wagon that made it to 18 years and 200,000+ miles before the timing belt broke.
posted by baby beluga at 10:09 AM on July 26, 2013

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Hyundais. They are extremely reliable, inexpensive, and get good mileage - you may want to try a mid to late-2000s Hyundai Elantra.
posted by barnoley at 10:18 AM on July 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

We just bought a used car and did a lot of research. Honda Fit was consistently rated high in every source we checked. That's what we ended up buying.
posted by Proginoskes at 10:31 AM on July 26, 2013

When I've been in the same situation, I've gone to Carmax and just tried on lots of cars. I'm taller than you, so I sympathize. Their prices tend to run a bit high, but you're getting a car that's been checked out and has a clear title and a warranty. Here's what they have in your price range, auto transmission, near DC.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:42 AM on July 26, 2013

I'd recommend a Nissan Versa for extremely roomy leg room and head room. My '06 has given me zero problems.

Otherwise I agree with barnoley that you should consider Hyundai. Rather underrated, but they make very reliable cars, and are finally getting more recognition now that their newer models have better looking designs. Go for the Elantra – the Accent will feel too cramped.
posted by Kabanos at 10:46 AM on July 26, 2013

Civic/Corolla. The Fit still has a bit of a used premium.

Rule of thumb for reliability with the Civic over the past decade has been to pick a year towards the end of that generation's lifetime, because there's a mid-cycle refresh that tends to resolve problems from earlier years. (Check the graph here, where there are big bumps for 2001 and 2006.) So '03/04 should be fine.
posted by holgate at 10:47 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Hyundai. I have a 2003 Elantra GT hatchback. Don't drive it much anymore (got married and our main car is now a Subaru Outback) but it still runs great. I wouldn't hesitate to get a more recent model than mine.

Give your height, I'd stay away from Mazdas. It's not headroom or legroom that's the problem, it's that the windshield just isn't tall enough—to the extent that you have to lean forward when you're stopped at intersections just to see the traffic light!
posted by kindall at 11:06 AM on July 26, 2013

If you're looking at Corollas, you should also check out the Geo/Chevrolet Prizm. People think American compact cars are junk (and they're mostly, but not entirely, correct), and so the Prizm, which is mechanically identical to the Corolla, is often priced a little lower.

I wouldn't've said this ten years ago, but folks who suggest Hyundai probably have good advice--in your price range and for what you have in mind, though, I think it might be a little too early to recommend Kia.
posted by box at 11:25 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a 2004 Hyundai Elantra. I've put just over 100k miles on it. I've gone through a couple of alternators and other than that have had zero problems with it (knock on wood), despite sporadic oil changes and four or five minor wrecks.
posted by woodvine at 11:35 AM on July 26, 2013

We loved our Scion Xb. Good mileage, surprisingly lots of leg and storage room. Decent stereo, affordable. It's made by Toyota and ran very well.
posted by fyrebelley at 12:18 PM on July 26, 2013

I'm 6'1"ish and I really like my Toyota Echo (read: Yaris). I usually get at least 15 km/L (commute, and some errands), which is about 35mpg, from my 2002 Toyota Echo. I've always gotten at lest 10km/dollar. I don't remember what it was when we bought it, but I'm pretty sure it was much less than $10k CDN back in 2006. The muffler had a leak fixed, and I recently had to replace both linkages (under $300 for both), but it's given no other trouble since we bought it. I'll put on my sheepish face when I say that we bring it in for service about every 9 months.

One sits pretty high in an echo as far as pasengar cars, but I find I like it, and the roof doesn't feel low. That said, as it's light and high, you need to feel comfortable driving in wind. A co-worker said that during the time he had an Echo he'd get blown out of his lane, but that's never happened to me, and I used to commute over the skyway.

This likely fails on the stock stereo, but the car's likely cheap enough that you can get a stereo installed from the money saved being under budget which will have the right features. The stock speakers I haven't had any problems, but I listen to mp3's over bluetooth. If you can listen to anything over bluetooth without wanting to jab your ears out, the speakers will be fine.
posted by nobeagle at 12:30 PM on July 26, 2013

The Mazda 3 is usually slightly pricier than a Toyota/Honda/Hyundai, but it is also reliably rated hgher. You should be able to get a newish one for ten grand. And I fit in mine just fine at 6' 240lbs.
posted by 256 at 1:01 PM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

At $10k you are around where I was a few months ago. We were looking for a used Honda Fit.

We opted to spend just a little more and get a new car. 10k financed is around $12,000@ 5 yrs/%7 vs new $15000 @ 5yrs/%0.9 only adds ~$320 in interest. Some are even offering 0% APR.

The interest is so low on new cars that even with the lowest interest rates for a used-car loan was nearly equal to the total price of a new car when factoring in the cost of repairs / consumables (increased gas mileage! / new tires / warranty!!!! ). Plus after haggling with the dealer we got them to give us a $1500 trade-in on our shitbox 1997 Volvo that was almost a day away from being totally dead.

So, all and all, we got a new 2013 Honda Fit.

edit: I'm 6'5" and tried out some other economy/high MPG cars and found that the FIT was one of the few that I could get inside of without being too clown-car.

What was the 'killer feature' was the fold-flat rear seats.
posted by wcfields at 2:02 PM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Consider VW, though the years you're looking for weren't great ones for VW reliability, so you'll want to look for one that's been trouble-free and taken good care of. And think hard about Nissan--of the Japanese makes, Honda and Toyota (and, to a lesser degree, Subaru) are over-valued on the used market due to their reputation for reliability, and Mazda (and, to a lesser degree, Subaru) cars are more likely to have been abused by hard-driving owners. This leaves Nissan as the odd man out, and I think their cars often offer good value propositions on the used market. Finally, think about Lexus/Acura/Infiniti. These cars have a lot of high-tech stuff that can necessitate expensive repairs, but if you can find a model that's been babied by a wealthy first (and, maybe, second) owner into high mileage, there are some good value propositions out there for the beater driver.
posted by box at 6:56 PM on July 26, 2013

I have a mid-2000s Toyota Corrolla, and yes, it's a mind-numbingly boring car, but in the good way too. I've had it for 3 years, and it's got 70,000 miles (it was a rental car before I bought it) and it's only ever needed one mechanical fix (forget what it was, it was covered by the warranty). I'm pretty bad about changing the oil, but at least it has a little light that comes on at 3,000 miles to remind you!
posted by lunasol at 8:04 PM on July 26, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, I like the look of the Honda fit a lot, so I'm going to check it out.
posted by empath at 11:47 PM on July 26, 2013

One strike against the civic/corolla, especially late 80s to late 90s is that they are the most stealable cars out there. I don't know when in the 2000s this becomes a non-issue, but I would look into it if you;re thinking of going that route.
posted by lalochezia at 6:33 AM on July 27, 2013

I think it might be a little too early to recommend Kia.

Hyundai is the largest owner of Kia, and Kia vehicles share platforms with Hyundai vehicles. Not sure when this started, but recent Kias should be essentially equivalent to Hyundais. Peter Schreyer, designer of the Audi TT, is running Kia now.
posted by kindall at 10:03 AM on July 27, 2013

(Oh, yeah, current Kias are on par, quality wise, with Hyundais, which, these days, are at or very slightly below the levels of Japanese cars (Hyundai is working to overcome its old reputation for reliability, while Toyota and Honda are coasting on theirs). Older Kias, though, at least if the experience of people I know that have owned them is any guide, weren't quite there. If the OP was looking for a new car, I'd encourage him to consider Kia. But, especially considering that a used Kia was likely owned by people who were looking for the cheapest car possible, and therefore may have skimped on maintenance, I do not encourage him to consider a used one. Like I said, this will probably change in a few years.)
posted by box at 1:36 PM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

i can reliably say Honda fit should fit the bill perfectly. Honda name means reliability and it is rated best buy by Consumer reports, JD power etc for maintenance and usability.
If you want to wait couple of months, the new 2014 is coming out and should be maybe 17k max
posted by radsqd at 12:37 PM on September 13, 2013

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