Spending more than you need to on a car, when there are plenty of reliable and fun used cars under $15,000, is unnecessary.
By factoring in the reliability of different brands and their true market value, this best-used cars’ list was born. Don’t worry about high mileage, either, as these cars price below $15,000 according to the Edmunds True Market Value and have less than 50,000 miles. From there, we looked at Consumer Reports reliability scores to see how these cars are likely to hold up in daily use. Finally, we considered factors like safety, performance, practicality, and style to see which cars were genuinely worth buying. From fuel-efficient sedans to burly SUVs, this list provides a bit of everything.
2016 Mazda 3
Why should you buy this: It covers all the bases, and then some.
Who’s it for: Anyone looking for a practical, fun car.
How much will it cost: About $12,000.
Why we picked the 2016 Mazda 3:
Mazda’s compact 3 is a practical vehicle and a sensible used-car buy, but it will also add a bit of fun to your life. Because even if you’re on a budget, you shouldn’t settle for something you can’t enjoy.
The last-generation Mazda3 received generally high reliability ratings from Consumer Reports when it was new, along with good crash test scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Available as a sedan or hatchback, it’s decently roomy inside, but still small enough on the outside to be easy to park.
In addition to being reliable, safe, and practical, the Mazda 3 is also one of the best sedans to drive. While it’s not an overt performance machine, the 3 is appreciably sportier than most other compacts, with a well-tuned chassis and willing engine from Mazda’s SkyActiv line. It’s also a bit more stylish, breaking out of the econo-car box with streamlined headlights and sleek, flowing lines.
The Mazda 3 proves mainstream cars don’t have to be boring, and that makes it a great used vehicle purchase.
2014 Subaru Forester
The best used SUV
Why should you buy this: It’s rugged, reliable, and boasts standard all-wheel drive.
Who’s it for: People who enjoy venturing off the beaten path.
How much will it cost: About $13,000.
Why we picked the 2014 Subaru Forester:
The market is now flooded with car-based compact crossovers, but the Subaru Forester was one of the first. Subaru’s expertise in this category — and with all-wheel drive vehicles in general — is evident in the 2014 Forester. It’s a relatively simple, utilitarian vehicle that stands up well to hard use.
The Forester is also pretty nice to drive. Subaru’s boxer engines sit a bit lower in the chassis than conventional engines, which helps to lower the center of gravity a bit. This generation of Forester was also available with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine pumping out 250 horsepower, although one of those models might break our $15,000 budget. It’s definitely a model worth keeping an eye out for, though, because the base models are anything but peppy.
Subaru has an overall great reputation for reliability, and the 2014 Forester scored well in IIHS crash tests as well. Unlike other crossovers touted as “lifestyle” vehicles or faux off-roaders, the Forester is an unpretentious choice that simply does what it was designed to do — haul people and their stuff through any kind of weather.
2014 Toyota Prius
The best used fuel-efficient car
Why should you buy this: It’s the best hybrid around, new or used.
Who’s it for: People who are eco-friendly, but also budget conscious.
How much will it cost: About $12,000.
Why we picked the 2014 Toyota Prius:
The most prolific hybrid ever is also among the best used-car buys in the category. The Toyota Prius combines impressive fuel economy (2014 models were rated at 48 mpg combined) with typical Toyota build quality and reliability. The sheer number of “Prii” sold means there should be plenty on the market to choose from, and that usually equates to a good deal.
The 2014 Prius was one of the most economical cars available when it was new, but it doesn’t sacrifice practicality to achieve that efficiency. Its five-door hatchback body offers plenty of space for passengers and cargo, meaning this third-gen Prius is a real car, not a science experiment like some earlier hybrids. The only thing unusual about it is the exterior styling, which admittedly isn’t for everyone.
Hybrid powertrain components have proven just as durable as any other car part, although replacement battery packs can be expensive if needed. The Prius is still a Toyota, though, and with that badge comes dependability. If you’re still unsure, consider that countless Prius taxis have racked up millions of miles all around the globe.
2010 Nissan 370Z
The best used performance car
Why should you buy this: It’s one of Nissan’s legendary “Z” cars at an affordable price.
Who’s it for: People who relish the thrill of driving.
How much will it cost: About $13,000.
Why we picked the 2010 Nissan 370Z:
The original Datsun 240Z helped revive the affordable sports car category in the 1970s, and its descendant in the early 2000s — the 350Z — carried on with that mission. It was replaced by the 370Z, which offered impressive performance at a relatively mainstream price when new. That positioning makes it a great used car buy for motorists with a need for speed.
Most entry-level sports cars trade power for simplicity and affordability, but not the 370Z. It came standard with a 3.7-liter V6 rated at 332 hp. In addition, the chassis design placed the engine relatively far back behind the front wheels for better weight distribution. All of that mechanical goodness is wrapped in styling that made the 370Z look like a concept car. It’s still made in 2020, so it won’t look completely outdated, either.
The unusually long production run means there should be a decent number of Zs to choose from. Versions of its V6 were used in a variety of Nissan and Infiniti models, so it’s not some exotic item that will break down easily. As with all used performance cars, beware of modifications and abuse by previous owners.
2011 BMW 328i
The best used luxury car
Why should you buy this: It’s luxurious and sporty. What more could you want?
Who’s it for: People who want to have it all, even on a budget.
How much will it cost: About $10,000.
Why we picked the 2011 BMW 328i:
The BMW 3 Series gets a ridiculous amount of praise from automotive journalists, but it’s more than just hype. Over the past three decades, BMW has simply built a better small luxury sedan than its competitors more often than not. The 2011 328i was one of the times when BMW was definitely on its game.
While the angular styling hasn’t aged very well, the 328i has everything a driver could want, including rear-wheel drive, a manual transmission, and a very special engine. This year of 328i still used a naturally aspirated inline-six, rather than the turbocharged four-cylinder found in later models. This smooth-running engine gives the older 3 Series model a completely different character.
A major perk of the 3 Series — new or used — is that it’s a smooth, upscale car that just happens to be fun to drive. You can find it in both four-door sedan and wagon body styles, and being a BMW, it features a well-appointed interior with plenty of toys.
2012 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab
The best used pickup truck
Why should you buy this: It holds up well both on and off the road.
Who’s it for: Adventurous souls with something to tow or haul.
How much will it cost: About $15,000.
Why we picked the 2012 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab:
The Nissan Frontier is the kind of rugged, no-nonsense truck that will do anything you ask of it. Nissan designed it for work and play, so it’s equally at home on a construction site or towing a boat to the lake. And while it’s definitely showing its age, consider this — Nissan still makes it. You can buy a brand-new new one that doesn’t look much different from a seven-year old model.
The Frontier is relatively comfortable on the road, and the Crew Cab’s four-door cabin offers more than enough space for you and four friends. Don’t expect to find amenities like adaptive cruise control or a digital instrument cluster inside, however. The 2012 Frontier limits itself to basic equipment like A/C, a CD player, and steering wheel-mounted radio controls.
Most Frontier trucks built in 2012 came with a 4.0-liter V6 that provides enough power for highway cruising, towing, or off-roading, depending on what the day’s agenda calls for. Powertrain options include rear- and four-wheel drive and a manual or an automatic transmission — it varies based on which trim level you select. Fuel economy isn’t its strong point, but even modern-day trucks struggle in that aspect.
How we test
The Digital Trends automotive team tests vehicles through a comprehensive process. We examine the qualities of the exterior and interior and judge them based on our expertise and experience in the context of the vehicle’s category and price range. Entertainment technology is thoroughly tested, as are most safety features that can be evaluated in controlled environments
Our test drivers spend extensive time behind the wheel of the vehicles, conducting real-world assessments, driving them on highways and back roads, as well as off-road and on race tracks when applicable.
Where to buy
Where you buy your used car can be an important factor. When shopping for a new-to-you ride, you’ll probably come across ads posted by both dealers and private sellers. Each type of seller offers some pros and cons, so here’s quick breakdown:
Private sellers: Buying a car from an individual does offer some advantages. Their situation may make them more likely to cut a deal. The seller could, for example, need to sell a car quickly to come up with money, or because they no longer have a place to store it. Since the private seller isn’t running a business with overhead, you’re also more likely to get a low price than with a dealer.
On the other hand, private sellers are less accountable than dealers. You never know exactly whom you’re talking to, after all. If you buy the car, you also have to take care of registration and other related paperwork yourself.
Dealers: Car dealers have a well-deserved reputation for obnoxious tactics, but the buying process can be more straightforward than going through a private seller. A dealer can potentially take your current car as a trade-in, and handle a lot of the paperwork needed to put your “new” vehicle on the road.
Going to a dealer usually involves haggling, but keep in mind that, because used cars have no fixed MSRP, you’ll probably be doing that no matter how you shop. Used cars sold through dealers tend to be a bit pricier, although dealers usually make some effort to clean them up and fix glaring issues before selling.
Dealers with certified pre-owned programs: Some dealers also offer certified pre-owned used cars, under programs backed by the manufacturer. The “certified” part means these cars have undergone a more thorough pre-sale inspection and conditioning process, backed by an extended warranty.
Certified pre-owned cars tend to be higher quality, with lower mileage. That, along with the extra work put into conditioning them, means prices are often higher than other used cars. But having the backing of a manufacturer can offer peace of mind, assuming one of these cars falls into your price range.