Best Used Cars for Under $5000

Tim MarrsCar and Driver

Buying a used car shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth. If you know what to look for, it should be easy to get yourself behind the wheel of something good for the right price. Unless it’s a cash sale, spending $5000 (or less) works out to roughly $88 a month, based on a 5 percent interest-rate auto loan of 60 months and no money down. That’s more affordable than even the cheapest new car available this year, but affordability sometimes has its risks.

At this price, cars will likely have racked up a bunch of miles or be old enough to have been around before ads on YouTube, but that’s par for the course. One of our options here began life with a starting price of $70,000. Come and embrace the warm glow of depreciation and look for something that’s both great and affordable—even if it takes an hour to vacuum after it arrives in your driveway.

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Acura TSX

Like a gourmet grilled-cheese sandwich, the Acura TSX was an ordinary luxury. It shared much of its bits and pieces with its cousin, the Honda Accord, but the first-generation TSX had more where it counted. Look for a six-speed manual transmission from 2006, as the high-revving VTEC inline-four received a small bump to 205 horsepower. The TSX was a snappy entry-level sports sedan for its time, and it came with standard features other cars in its segment didn’t offer, including 17-inch wheels and a Bluetooth stereo. —Austin Irwin

BMW 5-Series Wagon

True BMW enthusiasts hold on to E39 wagons. First introduced in the United States for 2000, it’s available with one of two butter-smooth engines, the 2.8-liter (later 3.0-liter) inline-six or the 4.4-liter V-8. For less than five grand, you’ll need to find one with mileage approaching 200,000. All of these cars, including the Bangle-styled E61 Touring that offered all-wheel drive and came only with the six, are uncommon in our wagon-hating country. BMW didn’t import any wagons for the 2004 or 2005 model years, nor did we ever get an M5 Touring. In its best year, 2005, the 5-series wagon sold 2351 units. It left our shores for good in 2009. If you find a well-worn gem, know that it’s probably been cared for, loved, and driven like hell, just as BMW intended. —Clifford Atiyeh

Buick Park Avenue

The 1991 Buick Park Avenue began to restore luster to the tri-shield badge. First-gen models have all but disappeared, but that’s fine. We prefer the second generation, launched in 1997, in top-shelf Ultra trim. Up front sits General Motors’s bulletproof 3800 Series II 3.8-liter V-6 with a supercharger, which we called “one of the planet’s most convincing pushrod powertrains.” A grand, leather-wrapped living room that cossets during urban errands and long-legged interstate runs is braced by surprisingly dynamic handling through B-road sweepers. Standard luxuries include climate control, 10-way power seats, and a pollen filter. Top-shelf options add a 12-disc CD changer in the trunk and a head-up display. —Jonathan Ramsey

Ford F-150

While the desire to daily drive a sports car might be high, owning a pickup truck is the more sensible choice for many Average Joes. And as inflated as the used-car market is right now, there are still affordable full-size trucks to be found. In 1997 Ford launched the 10th-generation F-series and departed from square styling. This is good starting point if $5000 is the budget. With some diligence, it’s not difficult to find a decent truck equipped with a V-8 and four-wheel drive. Stick to the classifieds in the south to avoid body panels that look like Swiss cheese, but not too far south as 4×4 models are less common in areas where they’re not needed. Be sure to see if the two-piece spark plugs have been replaced as they have the tendency to snap off during removal. But don’t sweat it if they do; there’s a tool for every job. —David Beard

Ford Ranger

No one makes compact pickup trucks anymore. For a cheap workhorse you can park in the city, the last-gen Ford Ranger is a great buy. (Other wee pickups from this era, like the Toyota Tacoma, are more prone to frame rust.) The Ranger is basic and frugal. It doesn’t need running boards or tailgate steps because it’s not seven feet tall. It is available in single or extended cab, with an inline-four or big-bore V-6, automatic or manual transmission. This is how pickup trucks were for almost a century, before every guy had to drive Bigfoot. Take care with the brakes on earlier Ranger models; they’re either rear-only ABS or missing it entirely. Bonus if you can find a yellow Ranger Splash with the decals intact. —Clifford Atiyeh

Honda Accord

There’s a reason C/D has placed the Accord on our 10Best list for 34 years. Actually, there are many: smooth-revving engines, deft handling, accurate steering, roomy interiors, and steadfast reliability. The Accord has always been an overachieving driver’s car sold to commuters who might never explore its fun side. The seventh-gen Accord won a 2003 comparison test in its first model year, and unlike the Saturn L200 and Dodge Stratus, there are plenty still on the road. The EX coupe brought a new 240-hp V-6 and six-speed manual transmission, while the regular inline-four models introduced i-VTEC with cam phasing. Honda also experimented with a V-6 hybrid from 2005 to 2007 that was fast but unpopular. —Clifford Atiyeh

Honda Insight

Understandably, this suggestion could contradict everything we said in the last slide, but hear us out. The Honda Insight was built for range, and part of that fight was keeping the weight off. So something like 600 percent of it was made of aluminum. You won’t see a rusty Insight because that’s not what aluminum does. Ask science. The original American hybrid is still one of the most efficient today, with an EPA highway rating of 61 mpg. Although it offered more than 400 miles of range on a single tank, the Insight wasn’t offered with cruise control. It’s a great choice for people who don’t want to spend a bunch of money at the dealership, the gas station, or the parts store. —Austin Irwin

Infiniti J30

Nissan never sold a four-door 300ZX, but the Infiniti J30 is pretty close. It used the same 205-hp 3.0-liter V-6 found in the non-turbo sports car, but it also shared the same fantastic multilink suspension that gave the luxury sedan sports-car control. We recommend picking up the Infiniti J30T. The Touring model was equipped with a subtle trunk spoiler and aluminum BBS-mesh wheels. Its Bose stereo had great OE sound, and the heated leather front seats added opulent comfort to its snug interior. Make sure to test every power window switch and door handle, as those are somewhat common problems among the J models. —Austin Irwin

Infiniti M35 Sport

It’s a dream of mine to own an M car. But I have better odds of winning the lottery than finding an M-badged BMW in good running condition for less than $5000. So, I’d go with a different type of M, this clean and fully loaded 2007 Infiniti M35 Sport. Note its slick 19-inch, 10-spoke wheels and leather-lined interior complete with heated and cooled seats. I’d look past its hopelessly outdated infotainment system. Flashback to the November 2006 issue of Car and Driver where the V-8-powered M45 Sport beat out sports-sedan icons such as the BMW 550i and Mercedes-Benz E550 thanks to its “excellent chassis” and “playful spirit.” While this rear-drive example is down on power versus the M45, the rest of the winning formula is there, and it’s worth appreciating the Infiniti’s ability to switch from calm to “Woah! Calm down.” Its 275-hp 3.5-liter V-6 might have 145,000 miles on it in this price range, so it might not be as quick as the one we tested back in the day, which did zero to 60 mph in a scant 6.1 seconds­­—just 0.2 slower than the 325-hp M45. —Eric Stafford

Jeep Cherokee

For a four-wheel-drive rig to endure hard weather or hard recreation, you need the “disposable hero” XJ-series Jeep Cherokee built from 1984 to 2001. Disposable because you can find them cheap; $5000 gets a Cherokee in any kind of build, like the one-owner, bone-stock, never off-roaded model we found in Orlando, Florida, to one that’s mucked-up, lifted, and rooftop-tented. Examples with the legendary high-output 4.0-liter straight-six introduced in 1991 are preferred among Cherokee cognoscenti, the later 1990s models especially.

The Cherokee’s a hero because with proper maintenance—notably preventive measures to address potential oil-leak and cooling issues as well as rust— it will outlast your children and go anywhere while doing it. And a gigantic aftermarket means you can turn any Cherokee you buy into the Cherokee you dream of. —Jonathan Ramsey

Lexus LS400

Although the Acura Legend was the first Japanese luxury car in space, the Lexus LS400 was the moon shot. Aimed directly at the Germans, the LS400 changed the luxury-sedan world. Toyota crafted a V-8 just for this car, gave it a sumptuous interior with features that premium customers demanded, and then priced it at $35,000. This was back in the days when an S-class with six cylinders started past $50,000. While the styling was pulled from the European playbook, it has aged well. In today’s world of SUVs, however, the Lexus looks low and small. As long as the timing belt is changed, and the starter doesn’t fail—it’s buried in the heart of the engine—the LS400 should soldier without fuss for years. It’s that reliability, that start-every-time, no-fuss, easy-to-maintain dependability that made the LS400 and the Lexus brand. —Tony Quiroga

Mazda Miata

Maybe the Mazda Miata is too small for your needs, but if it isn’t, it’s perfect. The NB2 chassis, made from 2001 to 2005, is the most desirable because it carried improved projector headlights, additional chassis support, and an engine with higher compression and variable valve timing. It’s light and fun to drive, the parts are cheap, and it has a number of aluminum bits to defend itself against a rusty death. It might be the cheapest way to maximize an entertaining track day. —Austin Irwin

Mercedes-Benz S-class

When the W140 S-class arrived at the end of 1991 as a 1992 model, it was a bit of a shock. First, the car was larger, heavier, and far more complex than its predecessor. It wasn’t cheap, either. A six-cylinder 300SE started at a touch less than $70,000 in 1992 dollars, and the 389-hp V-12 was more than $120,000. You can roughly double those numbers to account for inflation. Example of this car’s over-the-top quality are the two guiding antennas that would pop out of the rear fenders. In the days before backup cameras showed us the way, the antenna-like bars would emerge to help you see the back of this giant sedan. It also had double-paned side glass, adaptive dampers, and near silence at highway speeds. All that sophistication and complexity (not to mention the cost of parts) has driven the value of these incredible cars down to a tiny fraction of their original cost. —Tony Quiroga

Nissan Pathfinder

Finding a pristine Nissan Pathfinder with reasonable mileage this late in the game won’t be easy, but it’s possible. It’s the combination of four-wheel drive, a five-speed manual transmission, and the ability to tow up to 3500 pounds that make this machine so desirable. It’s also a prime candidate for an overlanding setup. While every Pathfinder of this vintage features a seemingly bulletproof 168-hp 3.3-liter V-6 and a multilink rear suspension. Mid-level SE trims have a driver’s seat with lumbar support and height adjustments, remote keyless entry, a roof rack, and tubular steel step rails. An example we found in California with 186,000 miles had the optional Bose audio system­–with a cassette and CD player­—and a sunroof. The seller also said it rolls on a brand-new set of 31-inch all-terrain tires. The only question left is when does the next flight leave for San Diego? —Eric Stafford

Ram 2500

If you can locate a second-generation Dodge Ram (1994–2002) that hasn’t completely oxidized, you’re lucky. These trucks have rugged good looks that have aged much better than their contemporaries. The vacuum-actuated four-wheel drive can be finicky, but the engines are relatively simple with readily available parts or replacements. Arguably the coolest representative of the second-gen Rams are the heavy-duty 2500 and 3500 models equipped with the Cummins 6BT inline-six, known as the 12-valve. This turbo-diesel is renowned for its robust durability and no-nonsense strength. For less than $5000, however, you’re most likely going to find a gasoline 5.2- or 5.9-liter V-8. — K.C. Colwell

Subaru Baja

The Subaru Baja is worth pointing out and admiring if spotted in the wild. The Outback wagon turned truck only stuck around for three years, but it has always been a quirky favorite here. The Baja Turbo used a detuned 2.5-liter turbo version of what came in the Impreza WRX STI. It was also available with a five-speed manual transmission. Don’t get too excited, as the used-car market is yet to list our favorite for less than $5000. Even in non-turbo form, the Baja is a modern take on the mullet: It gets the job done, but it’s mostly here for our entertainment. —Austin Irwin

Toyota Sequoia

Average gas prices have crawled back up to a national-average, wallet-burning $3.15 per gallon. It hurts, but not enough to keep me from shopping older Toyota Sequoias. Built in Indiana, the 2005-plus first-generation Sequoia is the best of the bunch, thanks to its vastly improved drivetrain. Although similar in towing capacity to its Tahoe and Expedition competitors (6500 pounds in two-wheel-drive form), the Sequoia offers 10.6 inches of ground clearance. To find a 2005 or newer Sequoia for less than $5000, it might not have the full leather interior found in Limited trim models, and it might have more than 200,000 miles, but the Sequoia doesn’t seem to adhere to the laws of aging. Think of it as a new car that comes with 15 years and 200,000 miles of experience. —Austin Irwin

Volvo S70

There is no safer, better-built car on this list—and that’s my guarantee. I own the classic blue box you’re staring at now. Mechanically, the S70 is identical to the 1993 850, but the cosmetic changes soften that car’s 1980s-era edges to make it feel fresh 20 years on. Go ahead and feel the lower dashboard and door trim of a brand-new Toyota. Now feel the same surfaces in the S70. They’re all soft and padded, even on the glovebox. Remember, in 1998 this was one of the first cars with side-impact airbags and seats that mitigate whiplash. This being an older Swedish car, the S70’s cabin heater is its strongest and fastest-moving part. Sure, a few things don’t work on my car, like one of the power windows and door locks. But for reliability and resale value—especially in New England, where old Volvos like mine sell within 24 hours for thousands of dollars—I promise you can’t do better. —Clifford Atiyeh

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