Best methods for gauging the reliability of used cars
May 29, 2014 8:39 PM   Subscribe

So I'm in the market for purchasing my first ever (used) car. I'm definitely a planner, but I'm having a bit of difficulty gauging how reliable a used car will be. There are tons of resources whenever I just google the car model + year, but I have no idea how reliable these reviews are or whether they're statistically significant. Want to get a bit more info besides my friend's first-hand accounts of their car problems, but I'm having trouble with this. Any recommendations for websites or tools to help me parse this data? For what it's worth, I'm looking for a small, manual car under ~$9000 in the PNW.
posted by aleatorictelevision to Shopping (24 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Low mileage Japanese cars are a good bet.
posted by w0mbat at 8:55 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

You mean for certain models, or a specific car?

In general, almost any Honda or Toyota is incredibly reliable. Specifically, the best way to know about a certain car is to have it inspected by a mechanic you trust. If you don't have one, find the one on Yelp with the best reviews.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:11 PM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, don't forget to factor in the cost of repairs. If a Honda or Toyota does break, the parts are very cheap. Not so much with a BMW or Mercedes or Volvo.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:12 PM on May 29, 2014

Toyotas and Hondas, as mentioned above, are reliable and relatively cheap to repair. Nissans are balls-expensive to fix the simplest things.
posted by notsnot at 9:19 PM on May 29, 2014

Best answer: This should be your bible: Consumer Reports annual overview.

Note that this article is just over a year old, so the prices are lower now.
posted by intermod at 9:41 PM on May 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Came here to say what intermod just said. Consumer Reports annual overview.
posted by Alterscape at 9:55 PM on May 29, 2014

In addition to reviews of the specific make and model, ask the seller details about the maintenance. I've had great luck purchasing single-owner cars with meticulous maintenance records, and bad luck with a "great" car with no track record on maintenance.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:05 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

My experience has been that the Japanese makes, nthed from above, are your best bet. I have not found Nissan repairs to be expensive contrary to notsnot. (15 years combined owning Nissans, also have owned a Honda and Volvo).
posted by fieldtrip at 10:16 PM on May 29, 2014

First, I'd say that since you live in the Pacific Northwest, Subarus are a dime a dozen, will run until the heat death of the universe if cared for properly, and have all-wheel drive. They're ubiquitous up there for a reason, and can be probably had for fairly cheap.

Secondly, what you want is a used car inspection from a mechanic with a factory certification from the manufacturer of the car you're interested in. Dealers are a good place to have this done; most dealers will charge about $100-150 for an inspection. This entails basically putting the car up on the lift and running through a basic checklist - checking the suspension and steering for wobble, looking for rust and body repairs, checking the fluids for any obvious signs of contamination, and other general checks such as driving it around the block a few times to check for transmission problems and the like. What it usually does not include, but you should pay extra for, is a compression and leakdown test. Those are two tests that check the quality of the seals in the engine, the surest sign of the condition of the engine. If the engine passes a compression and leakdown test with flying colors, you can be sure that engine will run for a good long while before needing to be taken down for rebuilding. The total, all in, will probably be about $250, but it's a bargain compared to what it would cost for a complete engine rebuild.

Any reasonable private party should agree to taking their car to their local dealer or factory certified mechanic for these tests if you agree to pay for them, if they don't, walk away. Most dealers will have these tests done as a matter of course, ask to see the paperwork from the tests, they should have it on hand. In both events, Google should be able to tell you what a "good to great" result from the compression test should be, and leakdown test results should be no higher than 10-15 percent.
posted by Punkey at 10:16 PM on May 29, 2014

Beyond individual reliability, Consumer Reports is pretty good, but for the price you're looking at, it's hard to go wrong with "Buy Japanese". There's a few exceptions (Dodge Neons are pretty durable, for example) but really, I'd just buy a used Impreza and call it a day.
posted by Punkey at 10:24 PM on May 29, 2014

This is the approach I used to buy our last car, modified for ours needs and a bit less data.

Definitely worth look through! If you want a copy of the spreadsheets mentioned in the article, memail me. The link to them in the article is unfortunately broken.

We ended up getting a 2011 Ford Fiesta and I love the thing. Great on gas, reliable, great safety ratings and a manual to boot. Its lots of fun to drive. I was kind of surprised with how our data turned out, I really wanted a Subaru on paper but the Fiesta made way better financial sense for us at the time with the lower gas mileage and being able to buy cash instead of financing.
posted by snowysoul at 11:15 PM on May 29, 2014

That's a decent amount of dollars available for a used Honda, Toyota, or Subaru (especially if you're in a PNW area with a lot of snow/ice) - as recent and low miles as possible, and make sure and have a mechanic you trust check it over.
posted by stormyteal at 11:44 PM on May 29, 2014

Best answer: I like truedelta for detailed car reliability info. It's like Consumer Reports' used car guide, but for ├╝berwonks.
posted by zippy at 1:19 AM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Most of the recommended cars you find will have automatic transmissions, and this is not a bad thing: a Toyota automatic will last the life of the car, while a clutch in the wrong hands (feet?) will wear out in ~100K miles. Clutch replacement isn't a deal breaker but it isn't cheap.
posted by mr vino at 4:15 AM on May 30, 2014

Agree that it's a good idea to check out Consumer Reports, and that Honda and Toyota are paragons of reliability.

Let me also put in a good word for Hyundai. Hyundai doesn't have the reputation of the major Japanese brands, but it's approaching them in reliability, and the parts and repairs are generally cheap. Because Hyundai still has an inferior reputation, they depreciate like crazy, which is bad news for the original owner, but very good news for anyone who's looking for a solid, low-mileage used car.

On top of that, the original 5-year, 60,000-mile warranty is transferable to the second owner (although the 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty is not). Practically nobody wants a manual-transmission car, so you can really haggle the hell out of the seller, because they know that if they don't sell to you they may never see another potential buyer.

So for less than $9,000, you should be able to pick up a recent-vintage Hyundai that still has substantial time and mileage left on the warranty. Last year, I was looking at manual-transmission cars in your price range and ended up with a three-year-old stick-shift Accent with 42,000 miles and ABS for $7,500. (At that time, a comparable Honda Fit was going for $13,000.) Now, is it as nice as the Fit? Not quite. But for $5,500 less, I ended up with a very solid little car with 18,000 miles left on the factory warranty. It's fun to drive, gets good mileage, and seems very well assembled (although it's not, by any means, luxurious), and I have no complaints. Only problem up 'til now (20,000 miles) has been a broken headlight switch, which was replaced under warranty.

One caveat if you look at Accents: Hyundai still sells a fair number of stripper models, so make sure any car you look at has A/C! A good chunk of them don't. And of course, get any car you're thinking seriously about checked out by an independent mechanic.
posted by Leatherstocking at 4:33 AM on May 30, 2014

I'm looking for a small, manual car under ~$9000

In that price range for used cars, you should avoid VW's. Period. That price range puts you in the early-to-mid 2000's, and let's just say that was not VW's finest hour.

Japanese cars are the way to go. Hondas, of course. I also have a fondness for Nissans, having owned two Maximas that we managed to put over 300,000 miles on with minimal maintenance (save for the usual consumables, including clutches)
posted by Thorzdad at 4:45 AM on May 30, 2014

For $7, you can get a one-month subscription to, which gives you much more detailed information on reliability for individual car models and years than the summary articles Consumer Reports makes available for free. (Example) (It's an auto-renewing subscription, though, so be sure to cancel it at the end of the month.)

When we bought a car last year for the first time, we started with the IIHS top safety picks for the last bunch of years, and crossreferenced this on a spreadsheet with reliability ratings from Consumer Reports and price data from to narrow down our options. For what it's worth, we ended up buying a used Toyota Corolla and are very happy with it so far.
posted by fussbudget at 4:46 AM on May 30, 2014

To make sure the individual car you're looking at is good, I'd also recommend getting it inspected by your mechanic (or one picked out of Yelp, like we did), before you buy it.
posted by fussbudget at 4:49 AM on May 30, 2014

FYI on consumer reports, most libraries have all the issues, and some libraries, like mine, have free online access for members. Worth checking.
posted by selfnoise at 6:08 AM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with the Consumer Reports and "buy Japanese" suggestions - I have a 2007 Toyota Yaris that I bought used that is approaching 100,000 miles and has required maybe $1200 in repairs (well, non-accident-related repairs) over its lifetime (and most of that was related to salt damage to the brakes, which is probably less of an issue in the PNW than the Northeast).

Check out Scions in addition to the Hondas and Toyotas - Scion is a Toyota brand, and (to paraphrase something I heard on Car Talk) they're cheap, so unimportant parts might fall off, but they're Toyotas, so they'll run forever. I suggest Scions in particular because when I was looking for a car I came across a bunch of manual Scions (I was looking for an automatic). I think they're very popular with young guys who like to trick them out and drive them hard though, so that's another consideration.
posted by mskyle at 6:37 AM on May 30, 2014

Six years ago I needed a new used car. I used to find what I wanted, in my case a used Toyota Sienna, but you could look for a Corolla, a Camry, whatever. I found one that was really cheap because of cosmetic issues, stains on carpet, stuff that didn't bother me. I've driven it almost 100,000. miles since then with just routine maintenance.
posted by mareli at 8:09 AM on May 30, 2014

Consumer Reports will have the best data on relaibility, they've been collecting it for eons.

You really can't go wrong with a Honda or a Toyota.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:12 AM on May 30, 2014

Corolla/Civic(2006 or less) or Fit(2008) will be in your price range. Consumer reports is good because it tells you what breaks and how often and known weaknesses for every year car. Before you put down money, take it to a trusty mechanic for an inspection on what needs replacement/ Obd codes, structural damages, brake/tire wear etc. Carfax is great but not everything gets reported so a mechanic will tell you the worst case
posted by radsqd at 10:53 AM on May 30, 2014

Also, this is not totally related but just a small note... I don't recommend trying to totally min-max this decision. Even very reliable cars often have weird problems; the Honda Fit is I think in the top five or so in terms of max reliability on Consumer Reports and yet there are forums full of people with weird complaints about the headlights cracking, etc: shit happens. Also, some very reliable cars may be dreadful to own from a enjoyment perspective; buy something you will enjoy if that matters at all to you.
posted by selfnoise at 12:20 PM on May 30, 2014

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