Looking to live your automotive life on the edge? More concerned with stretching your budget to the absolute maximum than with reliability, cosmetics, or style? Or maybe you just need a cheap second vehicle to complement your daily driver. Whatever the case may be, our list of the best used cars under $3,000 pushes the envelope when it comes to taste and/or responsible spending, but it does have the upside of offering a number of very cheap - and in some cases, fun - automobiles for your consideration.
Let's take a quick look at 10 of the best used cars under $3,000 and remember - one person's beater is another's beauty.
1) Honda Accord
Though the Honda Civic is almost the default answer when someone poses the “cheap used car” question, the passage of time has made the Civic’s bigger sibling, the Accord, just as affordable. We won’t knock a used $3,000 Civic, but opting instead for a late ‘90s Accord offers up the possibility of a slightly larger sedan or coupe, along with great reliability and perhaps some nicer features. As a bonus, a used Accord - which is perceived as a more mature choice than its compact counterpart - is somewhat less likely to have been modified than a used Civic.
2) Chevrolet S10
A beater pickup should be leading the list of anyone shopping for a used car under $3,000, but given that full-size trucks hold their value so well you'll have to get in your time machine and go back to the late ’90s to find a pickup that fits under our price cap. The compact Chevrolet S10 was never a great truck, but it's certainly a capable hauler and reasonably frugal when found in four cylinder form, which is more than most mid-size trucks can claim today. Watch out for rust in the rear wheel wells, and make sure that the cab corners are solid, and you shouldn't have much trouble with an entry-level $3,000 S10 as a project helper or transfer station hauler.
3) Mazda MX5 Miata
Unquestionably the most fun vehicle on this list, the Mazda Miata is a sporty roadster whose ubiquity - like that of the Camry - has kept its resale values low, especially for ’90s-era examples. The Miata has enjoyed such immense popularity in its niche category (which is still going strong) that there are plenty of solid options on the used market. If you are looking for a small roadster for fun-in-sun, and don't mind a few cosmetic blemishes, then it's impossible to do any better than the Mazda Miata's point-and-shoot handling and timeless looks. The first-gen, 1.6-liter four-cylinder Miatas are the most affordable, but if you can find a ’94-and-up model for $3,000, you'll benefit from a reinforced platform as well as a more robust (relatively) 1.8-liter mill under the hood.
4) Toyota Camry
The Toyota Camry's popularity as a family sedan means that examples of this mid-size four-door are plentiful. Supply often exceeds demand for a used Toyota Camry, particularly older models hailing from before the 2002 model year's redesign. This means that you can snag a great deal on an older Camry for not much more than a teenager would pay in yearly insurance premiums on a new model. Although V-6 models deliver tempting amounts of thrust, to stay as frugal as possible you want to look for the car's four-cylinder engine.
5) Ford Crown Victoria P71
The Ford Crown Victoria's most desirable model - for the purposes of this list is - the P71, which is code for “Police Package.” Police Package Crown Vics came with upgraded suspension, cooling, and electrical systems, and they were also available with easy-to-clean vinyl bench seats in the back. Keep in mind that a $3,000 Ford Crown Victoria P71 probably led a hard life as a patrol car, but if you can find a detective model from the late ’90s to the early 2000s in a color other than white, then you'll enjoy the large sedan's smooth ride, easy-to-maintain 4.6-liter V-8, and absolutely enormous interior volume.
6) Ford Expedition
The Ford Expedition SUV’s charm lies in its ability to haul as many as eight passengers, or tow a significant amount of cargo, for a very low price. Scads of Ford Expeditions from the late 1990s were abandoned by their original owners due to rising fuel prices over the course of the past decade, and now that the cost of gas has recovered a little, the mileage might not sting quite as much. The full size Expedition isn’t efficient, but it’s useful. If possible, target a model that doesn't feature four-wheel drive or air suspension, as these features can lead to increased repair costs down the road.
7) Toyota Corolla
It's boring, it's plain, it's completely unremarkable in nearly every way - but it's oh-so-cheap, and oh-so-reliable. We're talking, of course, about the 90's-era Toyota Corolla, a vehicle that defines basic transportation while also managing to offer frugal fuel consumption and a virtual guarantee that no one will ever steal your car. This Toyota might take some heat for its ordinary driving dynamics, but it’s truly a great starter car for any young driver, and it makes an excellent second vehicle to have parked in your driveway for guests or for when your newer, more comfortable, and more stylish car is in the shop. The enduring popularity of the Corolla means that a lot of comparison shopping is in order - there are usually plenty of suitable examples, from a few different generations, in the three grand range.
8) Honda CR-V
Early models of the Honda CR-V remind us of a time when a compact SUV was truly small on the outside while still offering five passenger seating and reasonable cargo space inside a package that was easy to park and not heavy enough to dent your wallet at the fuel pump. A four-cylinder Honda CR-V is inexpensive to keep filled with gas, and it's also exceptionally reliable. Don't be scared off by some of the odometer readings that you'll find while searching in the $3,000 price range, as this sport-utility vehicle can easily turn over a quarter of a million miles before needing any major repairs. Consider, too, it's useful all-wheel drive system if you live in a winter climate. The CR-V has been around for a while, so there should be plenty of worthwhile examples.
9) Subaru Outback
Speaking of cold weather - did you know that almost all of the Subaru Outbacks ever sold in North America are still on the road today? Aside from a nagging head gasket issue, these all-wheel drive mid-size wagons offer great reliability as well as a go-anywhere attitude that makes them a ton of fun in the snow. A wagon is often just as practical as an SUV when it comes to hauling people and cargo, but since they aren't as sexy, they are usually much cheaper on the secondhand market. Look for a late ’90s/early 2000s example of the Subaru Outback and you should be able to squeak in under this list's $3,000 limit. Opting for a manual transmission will boost the fun factor, and may also save you a bit of cash.
10) Ford Mustang
The Ford Mustang name typically evokes images of smoky burnouts and V-8 action, but for $3,000 you're not going to be driving a GT home. Think instead about the V-6 Ford Mustang that debuted in 1994 and evolved, slowly, until 2004. It’s not particularly quick, and the interior leaves a bit to be desired, but its retro-cum-modern exterior design has aged well, and prices on these compact coupes are cheaper than many other two-door competitors from the same era. You also won't have to deal with nearly as many traffic tickets if you stay away from all of that eight-cylinder power. Prices on these Mustangs have dropped enough that a convertible might even be a possibility.