Looking for a great used car but have only a few thousand bucks to spend? $5,000 represents a common starting point for many budget-conscious buyers (and also a few penny-pinching parents when they go looking for quality used cars for their children).
We challenged the Autoblog editors to find a great, versatile used car, truck or SUV for $5,000 or less. Although you might think the options would be limited, there are actually a wealth of solid vehicles out there that can easily be had on such a budget. And, as you might expect from a group of auto journalists, there are some oddballs thrown in for fun, too.
Head on through to see what we found. But if your budget is a little bit larger, check out our top picks for used cars under $10,000.
Updated Feb. 1, 2018
2004 – 2006 Subaru WRX
Some may scoff at my pick of the Subaru Impreza WRX, questioning the car’s reliability after 75,000 miles, but take it from the guy whose current vehicle offers a driving experience about as exciting as the tan color of its paint: reliability isn’t everything. Plus, as long as you locate an example that hasn’t been beat too badly by its previous owner, you’ll find that the WRX is actually a pretty durable little car.
The WRX offers a lot of what I want in a vehicle for only about $5,000. A 2.0-liter turbocharged engine gives the car 227 horsepower, and the all-wheel drive and manual transmission makes it a blast to drive.
In addition to that, the WRX offers 27 mpg on the highway, which really isn’t awful, especially when compared to other vehicles of its era. So, sure, you could go out and get a more reliable car, but I can almost guarantee you won’t be having as good of a time.
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Subaru WRX Information
One little people mover than never got the sales it deserved was the Mazda5. It was more affordable and more maneuverable than most full-size minivans, and far more practical than most similarly sized crossovers and SUVs. But it never took off.
But the good news is that nowadays they’re quite affordable, and practicality and size are still as good as ever. One of the other aces up the 5’s sleeve was the fact that it was actually fun to drive. It was based on the Mazda3, so it basically drove like a bigger one. And for enthusiasts, you could even get a manual transmission in one. Add in the fact that the early models looked good (we’re not big fans of the creased and grinning final models), it’s an excellent all-around hauler, especially for those that balk at big vans and ubiquitous SUVs.
mazda mazda5 Information
1990-1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata
There’s a reason the Miata is an obvious answer to the sub-$5,000 question, that a large proportion of auto writers have at least one, and that you hear its praises sung so often you might start tuning it out. Stop that, and start listening. It deserves a place on your short list.
There’s not much in this price range that offers so much fun and enjoyment with so little headache. Even stock, the Miata was precisely engineered to reward the driver. The earlier 1.6-liters (115 hp) need to be worked hard to get up to speed, but once there it’s a blast. The 1.8s trade a smidge of weight for extra grunt (128 hp). They’re my preferred version, a little more driveable around town. The stock exhaust has the perfect growl, the shifter is sublime, the controls are light and accurate. There’s body roll and cowl shake, sure, but the roadholding is phenomenal. Spend some bucks at a place like Flyin’ Miata, and the sky’s the limit.
I owned a 1996 Miata for almost 6 years, and it remains the only car I’ve sold that I truly miss. The Miata’s biggest strengths are also, arguably, its biggest flaws. The sheer number sold means there’s a glut of trashed, highly modified, or tired ones out there. The supply of clean, low-mileage Miatas is dwindling, and yet you can’t swing a dead cat around Craigslist and not find at least a couple prospects, at least in states without road salt.
The thing is, $7,000 should buy you an extremely nice NA Miata, and $5,000 still buys a clean one with higher miles. NBs are a little pricier as a rule, but you might find one for less than $5k if you feel strongly about it. These cars are relatively bulletproof if they’re taken care of. The engine is overbuilt and understressed and the driveline is solid. Interiors plastics can deteriorate, soft tops are a consumable item, and hardtops are wonderful and worth getting but in very limited supply. No matter – most parts are cheap and plentiful, and so are donor cars. Find a clean driver and drive the wheels off the thing, and you won’t give a flying jinba ittai about going with the flow.
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Mazda Miata Information
2009-2013 Honda Fit
This list needs a hatchback. The Fit is not only supremely practical and great in the city, but it manages to be a pretty entertaining drive. The second-gen cars barely make it under the five-grand cap, and the ones that do will have a decent amount of miles on them, but these things are pretty reliable and tend to be well taken care of. First-gen cars, sold from 2007 to ’08, have the same Magic seat setup, which allows you to reconfigure the back seat and cargo area in a ton of useful ways. There are few everyday chores a Fit can’t handle. Plus, it’s kind of cute.
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Honda Fit Information
2005 Dodge Magnum
The Dodge Magnum was one of the cars that gave enthusiasts hope in the early aughts. We suffered through two decades with few legitimate muscle cars, and then the Magnum rolled onto the scene. Yes it was a wagon, but it had powerful engines, beefy styling and rear-wheel drive. Sounds like legit muscle cred to me. Remember, in 2004 when the Magnum launched (as a 2005 model), rear-wheel drive was going the way of the dinosaurs in mainstream cars. The Magnum, which was followed by the Charger and then the Challenger, helped prop up a feature that’s near and dear to enthusiasts. Besides, if you’re looking to actually use this as regular used car, then the wagon is more practical than the other Dodges.
According to online estimates, it’s a little tight to get a Magnum at less than $5,000, but it can be done. You’re probably talking about a 3.5-liter V6-equipped model, but that’s still potent with 250 hp. That was a lot back then, and it’s still respectable. Yes, the interior is dated, but you’re getting a lot of car that offers a lot of fun, and still plenty of practicality.
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Dodge Magnum Information
2004 – 2006 Mazda RX-8
I hardly believed my eyes when I first saw a decent 2004 Mazda RX-8 on Craigslist for $5,000. A fluke, I thought.
But no. I spent an hour looking online in various cities across the United States, and I was rewarded with at dozens of RX-8s ranging from 2004 through 2006 all at our self-imposed $5,000 price limit. Suffice it to say, the RX-8 will offer a stupid amount of fun for that relatively small sum.
I know this firsthand, having purchased an RX-8 in Winning Blue brand-new in 2004, the car’s first year. Few cars are as balanced on a race track as Mazda’s most recent rotary wonder, with just enough power to break traction when you want and enough grip in the corners that you probably don’t.
Granted, the RX-8 is far from perfect. Its propensity to drink consumables – specifically oil and gas – like an Eskimo in the Sahara is well documented, as are the Wankel’s unfortunate propensity to sometimes give up the ghost at frighteningly low mileage (thankfully, the engine is pretty darn easy to rebuild for someone with average mechanical ability).
If those faults don’t frighten you, you’re going to love driving the RX-8. It’s a screaming deal at $5,000.
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Mazda RX-8 Information
1987-2006 Jeep Wrangler
After my hand-me-down Crown Victoria station wagon limped its way into the automotive graveyard about ten years ago, it was time for my first proper car purchase. The budget was set at $5,000 and the siren’s call of a mid-’90s V6 Camaro RS proved too much for a freshly minted 20-year-old college student to pass up.
Needless to say, I’d do things a bit differently now.
As many of my colleagues have pointed out, five grand can afford you a lot of car. Responsible buyers might consider a used small or midsize sedan with a reliable reputation like the Toyota Corolla or Camry. Either would be a great choice, if a bit uninspired.
While I’ve matured since that misguided six-cylinder purchase of my youth, I admit I’d still look to squeeze some fun out of our budget. It may take a bit of searching and negotiation, but for my money I’d go with a well-loved Jeep Wrangler with about 100,000 miles on the odometer.
In many ways, a Wrangler is the perfect vehicle for my home state of Michigan: unrivaled 4×4 capability for snowy winters and top-free fun for humid summers. Sure, the ride is rough, but if you can find a Jeep TJ for the price, you’ll be riding a comparative coil-spring cloud over earlier YJ models.
Of course, what makes Wrangler a truly great used vehicle isn’t its ride or reliability, rather its rugged good looks that only improve with age. By my estimation, there aren’t many cars that actually look better with a tear in the seat or some rust on the rocker panel, but a Wrangler wears its welts with distinction.
An SUV, convertible and icon, all in one? I’m sold.
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Jeep Wrangler Information
2000+ Nissan Xterra
While the Jeep Wrangler is frequently considered the ultimate off-the-shelf affordable off-roader in America, it also brings with it many drawbacks. Older ones have ponderous on-road handling, are loud and poorly insulated, and of course they aren’t practical. So how do you get lots of off-road ability without sacrificing the basic comforts of modern automobiles? Try a Nissan Xterra.
The Xterra is still a traditional body-on-frame SUV with a solid rear axle, a good platform for off-pavement excursions. They have loads of ground clearance, a low-range transfer case, and big tires. But they also have solid doors and windows, room for five passengers fairly comfortably, plus all their cargo.
An added benefit is that Xterras don’t carry the price premium of Jeeps and Toyotas. this also means you can find both the early generations from the early-2000s to the final generation of the mid-2000s. Just be ready for higher miles with the later variants. One other interesting thing is the wide range of powertrains. Early models had either a naturally aspirated four-cylinder or V6, with a later addition of a supercharged V6. The later models starting in 2005 went to just a 4.0-liter V6. All generations were available with both manual and automatic transmissions.
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2002 Chevy Silverado
There are a lot of Americans who’d love to own a nice truck. If that’s you, well, here you go.
I’d look for a Chevy Silverado (or its identical twin, the GMC Sierra) with a V8 engine instead of the standard V6, which shouldn’t be too hard, considering the 5.3-liter small block was installed in scores of ’em. The four-speed automatic transmissions are down a few gears from more modern trucks, but, like the engines, they’re durable.
A fullsize pickup truck makes a great second car, especially if your main mobile gets decent fuel mileage (or is a Mazda RX-8). Something to think about, no?
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Chevrolet Silverado Information
2003+ Lincoln Town Car
Believe it or not, the old-school Lincoln Town Car was sold, brand-new at dealerships all across the United States, all the way until the 2011 model year. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between any third-generation Town Car, so any example from 1998 through 2011 is basically the same car. So, choosing the right one may be based on mileage and overall condition more than the exact model year.
Starting in 2003, all Town Car models got a 4.6-liter V8 engine producing 239 horsepower and 287 pound-feet of torque. That’s not a great deal of gumption from such a large engine, but it’s more than enough to keep this beast of a sedan ahead of traffic. And it’s mellow power delivery suits the Town Car just fine. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the comfortable and quiet ride.
There’s a good reason the old Town Car is still sought after by fleet services for livery duty. It’s simple body-on-frame structure is durable, and the under-stressed powertrain is happy to rack up hundreds of thousands of miles with little more than routine maintenance. Buy a newer Town Car with relatively low mileage, change the fluids regularly, and stop worrying.
Lincoln Town Car Information
1998-2004 Land Rover Discovery II
SUVs are hot right now, and budget shouldn’t stop you from joining the bandwagon. I recommend the Land Rover Discovery, as it will stand out in the SoulCycle parking lot from the ubiquitous style of modern crossovers.
Sure, you could buy something newer or more reliable, but the Disco makes a statement of rugged individualism. And besides, my theory is that any old Land Rover is a survivor – all the major kinks have already been worked out. The conventional wisdom that anything could break at any time only backs up the image of Churchillian determination that comes with Land Rover ownership. This is a vehicle that can not only go anywhere, it can strand you anywhere. Or at least that’s what everyone else will think when they look at you in awe of your bravery.
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