2015 Mazda Mazda5 ・ Photo by Mazda USA
There's a surprising variety out there when considering the best used cars under $5,000. On the one hand, you have the usual cast of practical, fuel efficient suspects that will give you another hundred thousand more miles of loyal service for your money. On the other, there's the cars that were once too pricy to seriously consider, but are now so cheap that you can't really afford to let them pass by. Right in the middle are the most appealing options, the ones that balance fun with utility, style with substance, and overall reliability.
Let's take a quick look at the 10 best used cars under $5,000.
For some auto enthusiasts, the answer any time someone asks 'what car should I buy?' is always the Mazda MX-5 Miata. When seeking a sports car under $5,000, it's hard to argue with this logic. The Mazda MX-5 Miata provides a lightweight and fun roadster platform that handles almost as well as vehicles costing many multiples of its original purchase price, and the 130-140 horsepower produced by its 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine are more than enough to keep a smile on your face as you run through its five-speed manual transmission. Seek out 1996-2002 editions of the car (spanning two generations of styling) to maximize your bang for the buck.
From the sublime and fun to the suburban and staid. The Toyota Camry might not be exciting, but if you catch the right model year it's essentially bulletproof. You'll find plenty of Toyota Camrys in the multiple-100k mile club, so don't be discouraged if the $5,000 model you are looking at has a sky-high odometer reading. Focus on the fourth generation of the Camry - those built between 1996 and 2001 - and you'll get a strong return for your money, along with the choice between four-cylinder and six-cylinder power. Opt for a 2002-2006 Camry and you might have a harder time finding an example in your price range, but you'll benefit from more modern features inside the cabin.
The Ford Crown Victoria is another stalwart, and one that will give you a plus-size interior to go with its run-forever mechanical design. All versions of the Ford Crown Victoria come with a 225 horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 engine, so don't expect amazing fuel economy around town, but as a highway cruiser you won't be dinged too hard at the gas pump. If you're jonesing for a little extra performance, plus beefier construction, then seek out the P71 Police Interceptor Crown Victoria model, which comes with heavy-duty everything at a price point that will slide under $5,000.
The Honda Civic is almost the automotive equivalent of wallpaper, as this compact sedan (and coupe) is so prevalent on American streets that it fades into the background. There's a very good reason for the Honda Civic's ubiquity, and that's its combination of reliability, affordability, and efficiency. The small Civic's 1.7-liter engine (found in cars built from 2001 to 2005) is good for 115 horsepower, and you'll see 34-mpg in combined driving from the model when it's equipped with its five-speed manual transmission. Go back a few more years and you'll be able to pick up a 160 horsepower, 2.0-liter Honda Civic Si for $5,000, which is a fine way to enjoy surprisingly potent performance from an inexpensive automobile.
The Toyota Corolla is the cross-town rival of the Honda Civic, and while there may not be a factory hot rod version of the Corolla to go toe-to-toe with the Civic Si, the Toyota does have something the Honda doesn't: a hatchback model. Not only that, but the Toyota Matrix (the name given to the five-door Corolla) also offered available all-wheel drive on certain models, which is a rarity in its class. Both vehicles embody the classic Corolla traits of enduring mechanicals, good fuel economy, and inexpensive maintenance schedules that keep them on the road for decades.
The Subaru Outback is a dark horse entry for anyone who needs the combination of standard all-wheel drive plus a huge amount of interior space. Affordable to buy and inexpensive to own, the Subaru Outback is the perfect winter chariot, especially if you fold down its rear seat and take advantage of its enormous cargo capacity. Models built between 1998 and 2004 will deliver the best value, and while a six-cylinder engine was offered, stick with the 2.5-liter, four-cylinder model and keep a close eye on its head gasket - the only real weakness with these all-weather warriors.
The Ford Mustang is for many a dream car, and fortunately depreciation puts it within the reach of anyone with $5,000 burning a hole in their pocket. If you want a V-8 powered Mustang GT, then you'll probably be shopping in the 1994-1998 bracket, but if you are happy with a V-6 then you can scoot all the way up to 2004, the last year of the 'New Edge' body style. 190 horsepower from a 3.8-liter motor is more than enough for most drivers, and you get nearly the same great looks from the six-cylinder Mustang as you do the spicier GT.
The Dodge Magnum came to life during an unusual confluence of design-related events that saw Chrysler combine its all-new full-size platform with a cargo-friendly wagon body style that wore more than a little visual menace on its sleeve. Sure, $5k won't get you behind the wheel of a Hemi-powered Dodge Magnum R/T, but it will definitely find you a model powered by a 3.5-liter, 250 horsepower V-6. That gives you plenty of get-up-and-go to accompany the Magnum's hefty cargo capacity, making it an ideal choice for college students, small business owners, or anyone who doesn't want a van but needs more trunk space than a sedan can provide.
The Toyota Prius is the best hybrid you can find for $5,000, even if you do have to seek out a previous-generation car (2003-2009) to fit in under our price cap. The Toyota Prius of this era has proven to be a reliable, and frugal choice for anyone facing a long commute. With 46-mpg in combined fuel economy, the Prius' 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and two electric motors make it quite inexpensive to operate, and its hatchback design helps to preserve practicality despite its small size. There's only one real trim level for Prius' of this era, so you'll also do well in terms of standard equipment.
The Mazda Mazda5 is another fun to drive option from the Japanese brand that happens to be dead cheap as a used car. The Mazda Mazda5 emphasizes the first part of the word 'minivan,' offering a compact footprint that's paired with great interior room for hauling up to six passengers or a serious amount of cargo. Look for a 2005 model as the sweet spot between cost and features, and enjoy the novelty of driving a four-cylinder van that actually offers a manual transmission and a well-tuned suspension system to go with its practical nature.