With a national focus on cost-cutting, the used-car market has come roaring back into the spotlight for car buyers seeking value. Cars.com saw a record number of consumers contacting dealers for used cars on Feb. 16, and overall consumer contacts with dealers for used-cars is up 6 percent this year over last.
With that in mind, the experts at Cars.com have taken a look at the used-car market and determined their picks for the best used cars available for under $10,000.
“Used cars are a great alternative for shoppers feeling the pain of this tough economic climate. Buyers can still find quality cars without compromising their budget,” says Cars.com Editor in Chief Patrick Olsen. “It is important for car buyers to consider the entire package when choosing a wallet-friendly model. Our top 10 cars under $10K help buyers find cost-friendly options that don’t skimp on important features like safety and gas mileage. There are even some new models buyers can get into for under $10,000.”
With reliability, safety and bottom-dollar value in mind, the experts at Cars.com looked at new and late-model used cars whose retail values hover around $10,000. They crunched reliability and crash-test scores and considered standard and optional safety features, gas mileage and qualitative impressions — things such as cabin comfort and driving enjoyment. From a list of 225 contenders, here are 10 worth checking out:
2009 Nissan Versa
Besides price, the Versa’s top selling point is size. It has more interior passenger space than its competitors, making it a good choice if you want better mileage without having to downsize to a lot less car. Thanks in part to its six standard airbags, the Versa’s front- and side-impact crash scores are top-notch, and the 1.6-liter four-cylinder delivers overall EPA-estimated gas mileage in the high 20s. It would be generous to say the $9,990 Versa is sparsely equipped, but it does have six standard airbags and, as a 2009 model, an unblemished warranty.
2005 Ford Escape
The Escape became outdated a couple of model years later, but it was still competitive in the 2005 model year. Overall reliability is respectable, and the 2005 version has a larger base engine with low-20s overall gas mileage in certain configurations. Antilock brakes were standard, while optional side curtain airbags could augment the earlier seat-mounted side airbag option. Roughly one-fifth of all ’05 Escapes had curtain airbags installed. Make sure to find one thus equipped, as they constitute the difference between top-notch and woeful side-impact crash scores. Expect a modestly equipped Escape XLS with front-wheel drive, a stick shift, curtain airbags and 50,000 miles to start around $8,500.
2005 Ford Five Hundred
It never found its fan base, but the Five Hundred was one of the roomiest cars around, both in passenger and cargo space. Considering 2005 was the Five Hundred’s first year on the market, reliability isn’t bad. Overall gas mileage with front-wheel drive is in the low 20s. Antilock brakes were standard, and side-impact and side curtain airbags were optional — though, like with the Escape, the airbags’ effect on side-impact crash-test scores is significant, so make sure you find a model equipped with them. About 22 percent of ’05 Five Hundreds included the option. A base Five Hundred SE — fairly well-equipped at that — with 50,000 miles and curtain airbags should start around $10,500.
2005 Ford Freestar
Though not a class leader, the Freestar was a significant improvement over the previous Windstar, with third-row seats that disappear into the floor. Reliability is acceptable — not the case, incidentally, for the ’04 or ’06 Freestar. Antilock brakes were standard, and Ford’s AdvanceTrac electronic stability system was optional. Frontal crash-test scores are good. The minivan was never side-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but you should still try to find one with the optional side-impact and side curtain airbags. Ford installed them on about 17 percent of ’05 Freestars. A basic Freestar S with 50,000 miles and curtain airbags should start around $8,300. Better-equipped SE, SES and SEL trims could run $9,000 to $11,000, depending on specific options.
2005 Ford Taurus
The midsize Taurus became known as a rental car, but on some levels that speaks to its strengths. Both of the available V-6 engines turn out so-so gas mileage, but reliability and frontal crash-test scores are excellent. Though the Taurus hasn’t received IIHS side-impact tests, the car’s optional side-impact airbags extend upward for head protection. They’re worth hunting down, but they might prove hard to find: Just 10 percent of ’05 models had them. Optional antilock brakes ought to be more common, as 53 percent of ’05 Tauruses had ABS installed. A base Taurus SE with 50,000 miles, antilock brakes and side airbags should retail for about $8,000; choosing the better-equipped SEL will cost about $9,300.
2005 Hyundai Tucson
The Tucson took its cue from the larger Santa Fe by offering a lot while costing a little. Crash-test ratings are good — though not outstanding — but what’s most impressive is the Tucson’s standard safety features: all-disc antilock brakes, curtain airbags and an electronic stability system. Overall gas mileage with the four-cylinder is in the low 20s, and considering 2005 was the Tucson’s first year on the market, reliability is quite good. A four-cylinder Tucson GL with front-wheel drive, a manual transmission and 50,000 miles should retail around $9,500.
2005 Hyundai XG350
Before there was an Azera or a Genesis, there was the XG, which established Hyundai as a legitimate maker of luxurious cars. The accelerator is a bit sensitive, but power is plentiful and the ride is softer than in most cars out there. Reliability scores are respectable, and frontal crash-test scores are excellent. Although the XG350 hasn’t undergone IIHS side-impact crash tests, side-impact airbags with head extensions for the front seats were standard, as were antilock brakes. Gas mileage is the XG’s lone weak point: With an EPA-estimated 19 mpg in overall driving, the drivetrain trails a number of competitors. A base XG350 with 50,000 miles should run just under $10,000; it’s quite well-appointed at that. For another roughly $1,000, the uplevel XG350 L has a few more luxury toys.
2004 Ford F-150
A longtime class and sales leader, the F-150 remains more than viable, even at five years old. Depending on configuration, reliability scores range from acceptable to top-notch. Frontal crash-test scores are excellent. Although side-impact airbags weren’t offered — and the F-150 was never tested for side impacts — its larger size and higher ride height somewhat mitigate this. Antilock brakes were standard. Ford marketed the prior-generation F-150 under a “Heritage” moniker for 2004, so be sure to avoid it. The newer design should fetch just under $9,000 for a no-frills, rear-wheel-drive work truck with 65,000 miles.
2004 Hyundai Santa Fe
Why we like it: Hyundai transformed from punch line to powerhouse on the success of a few models, and this was one of them. Reliability scores are good, and with the four-cylinder or 2.7-liter V-6, overall gas mileage is about 20 mpg, though the 3.5-liter V-6 delivers a thirsty 17 mpg. Antilock brakes were optional, but around 70 percent of 2004 Santa Fes had them installed. Thanks in part to the standard side-impact airbags with head-protecting extensions, the SUV earns acceptable side-impact scores. Expect a four-cylinder base model with front-wheel drive, ABS, a stick shift and 65,000 miles to retail around $10,000.
2004 Mitsubishi Outlander
Before it grew in its second generation for the 2007 model year, the little-known Outlander was a nice size, slotting between a wagon and a compact SUV, similar to the Subaru Forester. The 2004 model year brought a needed power boost. Reliability scores are decent, and overall gas mileage is in the low 20s. The uplevel Outlander XLS offered optional antilock brakes and seat-mounted side airbags, and both are worth the premium. About a third of the Outlanders on the market had the additional airbags installed, while some 54 percent came with ABS. Avoid the lesser Outlander LS, which doesn’t offer either safety option. With the extra airbags and antilock brakes, a front-wheel-drive XLS with 65,000 miles should retail for around $9,900.