I told you so!
Anyone who has asked me which low-cost used cars are good will recognize this list. While I don’t agree with everything Consumer Reports about everything, in fact I think they’ve made a couple small errors in this selection, I do think they got it right overall. There may be a bit of confirmation bias here, but they did pick the most reliable cars, at least in my opinion. And since I’ve repaired Honda and Toyota cars for last 30 years, I think my opinion should carry some weight.
Here’s the article I came across if you’d like to read it.
And here’s a link to Consumer Reports. However, you won’t be able to read their take directly without subscribing.
Years of first-hand anecdotal experiences applied to CR’s data-driven recommendations
I’m going to apply the “Paul sort” and offer some of my opinions. I’ll put the cars in the order I think they should go in, but the best order for you may vary a bit depending on what’s important to you. You can’t really go wrong with any of these cars. However, that doesn’t mean that every Corolla is going to be a good buy, I’m just saying it’s a great car in general. Always get a car inspected before buying it.
Consumer reports says 2002-2009, which isn’t really the same car. The generations are 1998-2002, 2003-2008, and 2009-2010. That’s 3 different Toyota Corollas. That said, there’s not a bad generation of the Corolla so it doesn’t really matter. Buy the newest one you can afford. It’s that simple.
Toyota Corollas simply don’t break down. I mean sure, they can be made to fail with enough lack of maintenance or abuse. A battery can wear out and cause a no start. It can happen to any car, no matter how good it is. What I mean is that it’s really rare to see a Toyota Corolla come in on the hook. If someone asks me what used car they should by and has no other criteria, I always recommend a Corolla. Consumer Reports got this one right, 100%.
This is a great zippy little car. Once again, the Consumer Reports year range includes two different cars. The 2006-2007 had some issues with the exhaust valves tightening up before the first recommended adjustment 105K service. The later Fits didn’t, but they were also larger and less zippy. Regardless, other than their undersized 12V battery and the necessity of adjusting the exhaust valves every 30K rather than every 105K, the Fit is a very reliable car.
Consumer Reports recommends 2002-2007. This is one of the mistakes in my opinion. First, they’re two different cars. and second, DON’T BUY a 2001-2003 Prius. They were great for their day. The very first car of it’s kind! Considering that, they were shockingly reliable. They sure couldn’t compare to a Corolla though, and now they are old and very few are in good condition.
The 2004-2009 Prius is still a very good car in my opinion. Some of my co-workers will disagree though. The 2004-2005 are a little different than the 2006-2009 even though they’re all part of the same generation. I assume 2008 and 2009 aren’t on the list because they’re over the $5000 mark.
The hybrid batteries usually fail around 11-12 years, independent of mileage, so look for one with a new (not rebuilt) HV battery. Other problems include combination meter failure, ABS brake actuator failure, and multi-display failure. However, it’s possible to find a used Prius with all of this work done for under $5000. One more issue, which finally seems to be fading a bit, is converter theft. You can read a bit more about converter theft here, what to do if your converter is stolen here, and about a solution for converter theft here.
Consumer reports recommends the 2002-2005 Camry. The generation runs from 2002-2006, but I’m assuming they left the 2006 off because it’s over $5000. The Camry comes in 2 general flavors, 4 cylinder and V6. If you’re looking for a lower cost of ownership, choose the 4 cylinder. The V6 is a fine car, but fixing leaking valve cover gaskets or replacing the spark plugs is a little expensive. Also, the V6 has a timing belt that needs to be replaced every 90,000 miles and the 4 cylinder has a chain that never needs to be replaced.
They chose the 2004 – 2007 Honda Accord. The generation runs from 2003-2007. I’m not sure why the 2003 wasn’t included. It might have been due to a change in features or something. Consumer Reports seems to be concerned with features, especially safety and handling features, whereas I only really care about reliability. All of the cars on this page are basic drivers. Nothing thrilling, nothing you’ll want to have your friends come out to the parking lot to see, just basic cars to go from point A to point B.
The starter motor on this generation of Accord does fail from time to time. The ignition lock cylinder and door lock cylinders fail. It’s not particularly expensive to fix these problems, but a starter or ignition lock cylinder can leave you stuck. Other common failures are the door lock actuators. Again, not a big-ticket item.
Like the Camry, the Accord is available in a 4 cylinder and V6. And once again, you’ll want the 4 cylinder.
Consumer Reports picked the 2002-2005. The 2005 is a different car, but that doesn’t really matter. Both generations are good. I normally warn people off of buying used luxury cars. In general, if you can afford luxury, buy it new. If you can’t afford new luxury, you probably can’t afford to maintain an aging luxury car.
The Avalon is an exception though. It’s basically a V6 Camry with a larger body. It’s not all that fancy and they’re usually in very good shape. This may have something to do with the owners though. The Avalon is a car that’s usually purchased by older people. Is that bad? No! Older people have experience and know that you need to maintain a car if you want it to last. They also are usually able to afford the maintenance.
The Avalon is a bit of a sleeper in this category. Not many people are going to be searching for “Avalon” on Craigslist. You may get lucky and pick on up cheap. Just be prepared to hear, “Cool car grandpa!”, when you pull up to the party.
This was at the top of the list in the article I read, but at the bottom of my list. To be honest, it may be personal bias. I’m still a little raw about the 2001-2005 Civic, which was a massive piece of junk. Self-destructing CVTs, 2nd gear blowing automatic transmissions, cylinder head gasket popping engines, IMA batteries that can’t even go 3 years without failing, squeaking and creaking suspension bushings, and to top it all off, all the fabric peels off the doors and the roof so you can’t see out the rear window. Honda’s worst car ever.
Anyway, they didn’t choose the 2001-2005, they said 2009-2011. The generation goes from 2006-2011. These didn’t sell that well compared the the prior generation. Sales for the 2009-2011 were about 30% lower and didn’t get better until the next generation, starting in 2012. I suspect it was a delayed reaction to the 2001-2005, but maybe it was just the economy. What do I know.
They’re pretty good cars though, just avoid the CVT (although they’re nowhere near as bad as the prior generation), and the hybrid (it’s a weak design and the batteries don’t last). Also, expect the same issues with the ignition and door locks.