When Dave asked me to write about the best used cars you can buy for under $20,000 – and have a little fun doing it – I wondered: How does a “car guy” have fun writing on a financial blog? By stirring the pot, of course.
Being the guy that appraises every trade-in that comes into our dealership, I drive a lot of different cars. So many cars, in fact, that there are very few late-model cars that I haven’t driven over the last 15 years. For a guy who likes cars, it’s a cool job.
With all these test drives, I’ve cultivated opinions about different cars. But, first, a disclaimer: I’m a driver. I like cars that are fun to drive. I rate build quality and appearance higher than fuel efficiency or cost to maintain. Ergo, my picks are going to vary from, say, Consumer Reports. Honda Civics and Toyota Camry’s – reliable and pragmatic as they may be – do not make my list.
Additionally, being a top 10 list and more specifically my top 10 list there are a couple of categories I’m leaving out:
- Hybrids. Don’t believe the hype. I’ve taken my fair share in trade and people all say the same thing. “Just didn’t like the way it drove”. I’m not against them. I appreciate the technology, but it still has a way to go. The premium you pay for a hybrid outweighs the gas savings you could get with some gas-only models. You want a Prius? Buy a Corolla. You get a better car AND save money in the long run.
- Minivans. This is Money Under 30, right? There’s a time and place for a minivan. I just don’t think it’s before you’re 35. My friends that have them swear by them. Fortunately for me, my wife likes her gas-guzzling SUV. Because fun-to-drive and minivans do not go in the same sentence.
Now, let’s get started.
$20,000 is plenty of money to buy a used car that’s fun to drive. Of course, as commenters on our Facebook page pointed out last week, $20,000 could snag you a brand new economy car – or a $5,000 beater with $15,000 to keep in the bank. But if you’re willing to put in the search time, $20,000 can also get you something fun. And, besides, as we like to say in the car business – everybody drives a used car.
Compact/Sport Compact: Mini Cooper/Mini Cooper S
Looking for an affordable gas-sipper for your commute? Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic remind you of driving a bathtub with wheels? For about the same money, you can get a unique-looking practical (even people six feet and up have a surprising amount of leg and head room) yet fun-to-drive coupe built by BMW. On the downside, the Mini Cooper’s reliability and cost to maintain is slightly higher than Japanese and domestic competition, but the fun-to-drive factor is worth it. At one point, a used Cooper had the highest resale percentage of any used car on the market. (A few years later with more availability prices have come down.) A used Cooper will still hold its value better than any car in its segment.
Honorable mention: Volkswagen Golf/GTI
Sedan: Saab 9-3
Saab went out of business in 2012. Why is it on this list? Simple: The 9-3 has been around in its most recent style since 2002. By 2007, these cars were very reliable and refined, and production continued through 2011. Here’s a European sedan with fuel economy around 30mpg and all the luxuries you could ask for. When Saab called it quits in 2012, dealers were selling brand new models for as little as $15,000 to get them off their lots. Naturally, there was a significant drop in resale value of older models. Resale value has rebounded some since. Bottom line? For a little more money than a Toyota Corolla you can buy a Saab 9-3 of the same year. You don’t need me to tell you which one is a better value. Worried about parts, service or warranties? Saab Parts is a separate business entity and will continue building replacement parts for the foreseeable future. Aftermarket warranties are available if you want peace of mind.
Honorable mention: Mazda 6
Sport Sedan: Audi S4 (Type B6/B7)
Let me reiterate that I value fun to drive, looks and performance more than other attributes. The Audi S4 oozes with attributes I find appealing. The S4 B6/B7 was built between 2003 and 2008. The later-year cars (B7) might come in higher than $20,000, but the B6 cars (2003 -2005) have become downright affordable. Keep in mind this car was over $50,000 when new! This pick will not be the least expensive car to maintain, and Audi’s long-term reliability has long been questioned. So buy a warranty. More specifically, buy an Audi Certified Pre-Owned warranty from an Audi dealer and thank me later. Find a well maintained vehicle and you will have one of the best all-around sports sedans made: 340 horsepower, an available 6-speed manual transmission, Quattro all-wheel drive, Recaro leather bucket seats and an interior made with some of the finest materials around. A blast to drive and a great year-round sedan.
Honorable mention: Cadillac CTS-V
Coupe: Infiniti G35
I’m a huge fan of BMW. The 3 Series coupe is one of the nicest coupes money can buy. But for the same money you can buy a G35 coupe that is a year or two newer with lower miles. It’s not as refined as the BMW but it’s good looking and a deal for well under $20,000. Powered by the same motor as the Nissan 350Z and built on the same platform, it’s essentially a sports car in a suit. The sound the V6 makes is like music and there is a huge aftermarket of go-fast parts for these cars.
Honorable mention: BMW 3 Series
Convertible: Mazda MX-5 Miata
This is an easy one for me, as I’ve owned a few myself. Dollar-for-dollar you won’t find a better drop-top for the money. There’s a reason this is the best-selling convertible of all time. It’s the definition of a sports car: lightweight, well-handling and, most importantly, fun to drive. Add reliability and affordability to the mix, and this car can compete with cars costing twice as much. If you can live with two seats and miniscule storage, you’ll be surprised that this car can make a year-round driver. Forget the stereotypes. If you’ve driven a Miata, you’ll understand.
Honorable mention: Honda S2000
Wagon: Volvo XC70
If I didn’t include hybrids or minivans, why am I including wagons? Easy: They are great all-around, do-everything cars. Of course, wagons weren’t on my radar until I got to spend some time driving them. Wagons can haul cargo or kids. The dog has a place to lie down. It sounds like I’m describing an SUV, but with a wagon, you also get the benefits of car-like handling and better gas mileage. For decades, Volvo has been known for its wagons. The second-generation XC70 was produced until 2007 and nice examples can be found for under $20,000. They are reliable (2005 to 2007 models specifically) and super comfortable. I will argue with anyone that they are also one of the best vehicles to handle snow-covered roads. A Volvo Cross Country costs more than a Subaru Outback, but the Subaru can’t compete with Volvo’s build quality.
Honorable mention: Subaru Outback
Crossover: Lexus RX330
Lexus basically created the crossover category when they released the RX300 in 1998. The second generation 330 launched in 2003 was a much cleaner design and got rid of some of the quirkiness of the previous model. I like to call these “soft roaders”: They look like SUVs, but don’t get any ideas about taking them off the pavement. Under the skin, the RX330 has more in common with a Camry than any other 4WD Toyota makes. With all-wheel drive, it can handle most road conditions and it does it in the lap of luxury. Tons of bells and whistles, luxury and the Lexus nameplate make this a good buy.
Honorable mention: BMW X3
Sport Utility: Jeep Wrangler
Ah, Jeep: The original American sport utility. There’s something about a Jeep that is hard to quantify. They only do one thing really well: go off-road. Their fuel economy isn’t great. The ride is downright harsh. There isn’t the cargo room or refinement of many other mainstream SUVs. But it doesn’t matter. Jeeps are just cool. Take off the top and doors on a nice summer day and you’re there. Plus, I am constantly amazed at a Wrangler’s high resale value — no matter the year, mileage or condition. There’s always a buyer for a Jeep.
Honorable mention: Toyota FJ Cruiser
Truck: Toyota Tacoma
The Tacoma is the king of pickup truck resale and has been for some time. Even the millions of Toyota recalls over the last few years and the prior generation Tacoma frames that literally rusted in half haven’t done much to tarnish its image. The latest generation Tacoma has grown in size to give it an improved ride and more interior space. It’s a tough truck that does everything well. Its size is its advantage and its downfall. If you are looking to tow or haul some serious cargo you might need something bigger. But with a combo of comfort, economy, and the requisite toughness for everyday jobs, you can’t beat a Tacoma.
Honorable mention: Ford F-150
Future Collectible: Porsche Boxster/Boxster S
Want to buy a car today that may just appreciate in the next 25 years? That’s not easy to do on a $20,000 budget, but one car that comes to mind is the Porsche Boxster. It’s the “affordable” Porsche. It first went on sale back in 1996. Models as recent as 2004 can be purchased for under $20,000. Flashback to the seventies and Porsche had another entry level Porsche called the 914. It was disliked by 911 owners and never really given any credit for what it was. Through the eighties and nineties a 914 could be bought a few thousand dollars. But now, 30-plus years later, the 914 is enjoying a revival. Nice ones go for $20,000 and more. I see many similarities between the 914 and the Boxster. You won’t get rich holding onto a Boxster for 25 years, but my bet is it may just appreciate in time.
Honorable mention: BMW Z3
OK, your turn … what are your favorite fun-to-drive cars that can be picked up on a budget?