6 great daily drivers for $2500–$5000

Automakers sold more than 17.2 million cars in the United States last year, and by last month the average price of a new ride was $37,149. That’s a lot of dough. If you can afford it, great. But what if you’re like me and can’t?

Buy used, of course. You’ll get so much more for your money.

When you think about it, buying a used car makes a whole lot of sense. Consider your daily driver, how (and how often) you use it, and what you pay for gas, maintenance, parking, and insurance. Now ask yourself if that’s worth the $525 or so you’re gonna pay each and every month for as long as five years—while watching that investment depreciate by the day.

Suddenly a used car looks a whole lot more attractive, doesn’t it? Especially when you realize the average cost of a second-hand vehicle last year was $19,708—with a monthly payment of $378. Given all the great used cars on the market, the question isn’t can you buy a new car, but why would you?

I’ve owned a long list of used cars over the past decade and never paid more than $15,000 for any of them. Not one has been a lemon. The experience has given me a pretty good idea of what to look for, and I thought I’d compile a list of what I believe are the best bargains. Everyone has a different idea of how much is too much to spend on a car, so with that in mind, I’ll offer suggestions for every budget. First up are cars in the $2500–$5000 range. I’ll work up the scale in $5000 increments to 15 grand, so be patient.

Before we begin, you must remember that every vehicle requires making a compromise somewhere. Don’t expect the latest features or  technology, and be prepared to accept the fact your next car may not have gleaming paint, a pristine interior, and every option on your wish list. And always, always, always have any car thoroughly checked out before buying it.

Let’s get started.

2003–07 Toyota Corolla

2003 Toyota Corolla
2003 Toyota Corolla Toyota

The small, comfortable, and reliable Toyota Corolla remains an honest car that provides worry-free transportation. They all come with a thrifty 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual transmission. Expect to get about 130 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque—nothing terribly exhilarating, but good for a 0–60 time of around 9 seconds and 32–38 mpg. Front-wheel drive and narrow 185/65/15-series tires provide reassuring handling in inclement weather, and a decent set of snow tires lets it tackle winter roads with confidence.

No one would ever mistake the Corolla for an enthusiast car, but the manual gearbox makes it surprisingly fun to drive as long as you keep the revs up. Most came with dual airbags, power windows, air-conditioning, a decent stereo with CD, and cruise control. And they’re tough as anvils, quite capable of 200K miles or more as long as you give them a little basic TLC. You can find clean examples for $3500–$4500 all day long.

2005–10 Honda Odyssey Minivan

2008 Honda Odyssey
2008 Honda Odyssey Honda

Yeah, but I’ve got kids, you say? No problem. Let me present to you the Honda Odyssey. Earlier generations weren’t quite up to consumer expectations Chrysler set for a minivan, but by 2005 Honda had it all figured out. And it offered an Odyssey for every taste and budget, from the utilitarian base model to the super-premium Touring Edition with every option including a DVD player to keep the kids entertained.

The 3.5-liter V-6 made 255 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic was the only gearbox, and the combo delivered 28 mpg on the highway and solid reliability. That said, minivans take some abuse, what with all the loading and unloading, so be sure to have your mechanic thoroughly check the the hinges and door sliders, and ensure that all of the seals are solid. And be on the lookout for front-end vibrations that may suggest the axles need service.

1998–2011 Ford Crown Victoria

2006 Ford Crown Victoria
2006 Ford Crown Victoria Ford

If and when the world ends in a nuclear apocalypse, I’m pretty sure the only things that will survive will be the cockroaches, Keith Richards, and any Ford Crown Vics still on the road. If New York City cabbies can’t kill them, nothing can.

Yes, it’s something of a relic, with its body-on frame construction, rear-wheel drive, and 4.6-liter V-8. But hear me out. The big Vic, and its kissing cousin, the Mercury Grand Marquis, offers a sublime combination of comfort, durability, and reliability. With room for six and a trunk only slightly smaller than a studio apartment, the Crown Vic is surprisingly practical.

They’re also drop-dead easy to maintain, and parts are readily available. Just about any shade tree mechanic can keep them going… and going, and going. There’s a reason just about every taxi fleet, police department, and municipal agency loved them.

The car is at its best on the highway, where the lumpy V-8 (good for 200–250 horsepower) and four-speed slushbox let it cruise along at 80 mph all day long while getting about 17 mpg. Added benefit? Get a white one and literally everyone gets out of your way because they think you’re a cop.

Speaking of cops, if you want something even more durable, find a Crown Vic with a P71 Police Interceptor package that provides beefier cooling, electrical and suspension components. You’ll never kill it.

2002–06 Chevrolet Tahoe

2002 Chevrolet Tahoe
2002 Chevrolet Tahoe GM

So you want an SUV? OK, fine. Begin and end your search with the Chevrolet Tahoe. It remains one of the most affordable and reliable full-size leviathans on the used market. And there’s one for every taste. You could get it with a 4.8-liter or 5.3-liter V-8, two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, and a dizzying array of options. Depending upon the options, a Tahoe will haul nine people and tow more than 8000 pounds. All that and fuel economy in the 17–20 mph range. What’s not to like?

Given how many of these GM cranked out, you can find them in almost every possible condition, with every kind of mileage on the odometer. In this price range, figure on a clean one having 120,000–160,000 miles.

Out on the road, the Tahoe feels much smaller than its 4900-pound weight and 116-inch length would suggest. The enormous windows provide great visibility, making parking this beast much easier than you’d expect. It’s comfy, too.

All of that said, the interiors are… not premium. The plastic can feel cheap, the leather is almost certainly gonna be cracked. But, like the Crown Vic, the Tahoe is tougher than a $2 steak and a breeze to work on, so you can bet on getting 200K or more with basic care.

2006–07 Honda Accord

2007 Honda Accord
2007 Honda Accord Honda

You had to know I’d include either a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry on the list. The Accord got the nod simply because I once owned one. It’s among the few cars I ever bought new (back in 2006). I drove it like a madman and it never, ever complained. It just kept going and going and going.

The ’06 is a definite step up over the 2005. It got a new fascia and taillights, new 16-inch wheels, an improved  suspension and disc brakes all around. Although it was, and is, a pretty basic four-door sedan, it always felt like so much more than that because of Honda’s superlative fit and finish.

The 2.4-liter four-banger—with VTEC, natch-—made 166 horsepower and 160 lb-ft of torque. Want more? Look for one with the 244-hp 3.0-liter V-6. You can’t call the Accord quick, but it is peppy, surprisingly fun to drive, and economical as hell—you’ll see 27 mpg if you don’t drive like a total madman. The comfortable interior provides plenty of room for five, and the enormous trunk will swallow just about anything you throw at it.

Expect to pay between $4000–$5000 for a nice one with around 130,000 or so miles.

2006–12 Ford Fusion

2010 Ford Fusion
2010 Ford Fusion Ford

The Fusion is basically an Accord for Dearborn. It offers similar dimensions, a nice array of interior options and two reliable engines—a 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four and a 221-hp 3.0-liter six. Most came with a five-speed auto, but you could get the four with a manual. Starting in 2007, you could also get all-wheel-drive with the V-6.

Everything I liked about the Accord applies to the Focus. In this price range, you’re looking at a four-cylinder with a slushbox. Don’t worry; that’s a solid car that will serve you well. The interiors offer quality cloth or leather, and everything feels solid. The styling hold up nicely, too. The Fusion remains a handsome car.

Expect to pay between $3500–$4000 for models with 140K+ on the odometer and around $5K for those with just under 100K miles.

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