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10 Used Cars Under $20K so Fun to Drive, You’ll Forget How Little You Paid

These affordable used cars are all under $20,000 but are so fun-to-drive, you’ll forget how little you paid as soon as you drift through your first offramp.

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

miniLooking 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

93Saab 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)

Audi S4Let 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

g35I’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

Mazda MiataThis 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

Volvo XC70If 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

rxLexus 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

wranglerAh, 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

tacomaThe 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

boxter2Want 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?

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About Tom Niejadlik

Tom Niejadlik has over 15 years of experience in the auto sales industry and is eager to help us understand his industry and save money on one of our biggest expenses: our cars. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife, sons, and golden retriever, Barkley.

Comments

  1. As a biased Mazda fan, I was disappointed to see the RX-8 omitted from this list.

    • Thomas Niejadlik says:

      I am also a biased Mazda fan. The RX-8 is one of the most unique cars out there but it’s the long term relationship that drops it from my radar. It’s fun to drive for a day but the high revving nature and lack of low end torque leave something to be desired. I’d take a Nissan Z car over the RX-8. I will mention that the third generation RX-7 is one of my favorite all time cars. The RX-8 was not an evolution or an improvement over the RX-7. The 7 could have easily made my list but not many people are comfortable buying a 20 year old car. They are expensive to maintain and they break. Good luck finding a nice one.

  2. I’d argue that the VW GTI is better than the cooper S. I would also warn against buying older luxury european cars. In short, a $50,000 car is still a $50,000 car when you go to repair it, even if you only bought it for $20,000. Check out this article: http://www.automobilemag.com/features/columns/1110_dyer_consequences_the_nine_year_itch/

    • Thomas Niejadlik says:

      There is a great deal truth in that article. I acknowledged some of this suggesting that you get a warranty with the car (The Audi S4). Being a financial blog and a list of cars that give you more smiles per dollar the S4 is a hard to beat for $20,000. Some of the cars mentioned in Ezra’s article are extreme examples. The technology used in construction and electronics of the top of the line Mercedes S class, the BMW 7 series or the Audi A8 is the culprit to blame for rapid depreciation and high maintenance costs. The S4 is a glorified A4 with a big V8 under the hood. No aluminum construction. No controversial iDrive. As for the Cooper S versus GTI argument… you could flip a coin on that one. Not to beat a dead horse but this is a financial blog and VW can’t touch the resale of the Cooper S.

  3. No Subie love, huh? It’s a shame. I would have to argue that Subarus are no doubt one of the best buys for under $20k. Reliable, fast, awd(a necessity in the northwest) and such a variety of cars you could get for the price too.

    • Thomas Niejadlik says:

      In my opinion there are better cars out there for the money. I have seen a higher than normal number of 5 year old or older Subarus come in trade with major engine issues. The most recent was Forester XT with only 20,000 miles and already it’s second engine and second turbo. I don’t think they are as reliable as some might think. They are a popular car here in the Northeast too and I see plenty of them drive into my dealership.

      • I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them based on those cases. It all depends on if it were maintained properly or not…especially with the turbo XT. We have 2, a 2005 Legacy with 128k and a 2004 Forester XT with 98k. Both have been amazing cars that we have had for quite some time

  4. I recently started my job last summer. I am now doing research into car buying myself. My goal is to buy a sensible sedan that I can fit in comfortably (I’m 6’5″). The only decision I have made to narrow my search is that I would like to purchase a certified pre-owned car from a dealership. I don’t want to go to craigslist because I am afraid the previous owner may have mistreated the car. I also don’t want to buy new because I frankly don’t believe it is a financially smart decision.

    I was enlightened when I saw Saab on the list. They are great cars and I completely forgot about them. I think they are great cars that could be undervalued (I have to do some research). I think Hondas and Toyotas are overvalued. Mazdas are great cars as well and the Mazda 6 would be a great car as well.

    What other good midsize sedans would you recommend as sensible “starter” cars?

    • I wouldn’t call Hondas and Toyotas overvalued. Their resale values are so high since their depreciation is so low (which makes for a great lease if all the factors are right, but that’s another financial topic for another time). My family has owned a 1997 Accord EX bought new @ ~22k and sold in 2011 for $750 with 260,000 miles on it. Honda reliability is not a myth. However, they’re not the most exciting cars. Although I have heard good things about the new 4cyl accords.

    • Thomas Niejadlik says:

      Brendan – what is your price range or comfortable monthly payment range?

      • Brendan Heussler says:

        I would like a car that is sub $20,000. If I could find a sensible car under $15,000 that does not compromise in many departments, I would consider that. The earliest I would consider buying is this summer.

  5. Jared Eichler says:

    How about a C5 Corvette? I bought a 2001 6-speed with only 37,000 miles in wonderful condition for 18k last november. Absolutely could not be happier and I use it as my daily driver. I know that I found a great deal on that particular vehicle, but they typically run under $20,000 with a little bit more mileage. There is more than enough room to carry around anything you need (can fit 5 full size golf bags in the hatchback) and I personally have registered 32mpg on the highway (when I take it easy, which is tough to do with about 400 horsepower under the hood). Far and away the most fun car you could buy for under $20,000 and the resale on them is great.

    • Thomas Niejadlik says:

      Jared,
      I didn’t pick a “sports car” category but if I did the Vette would be in the running. The closest I got was a “future collectible” category in which the Corvette would also be a good pick. I love the performance of the Corvette but the interior build quality is about the worst I have seen. I know I sound like all the other car magazines who complain about that exact same thing but it is so true. The seats aren’t supportive. The panel gap in horrendous. It squeaks and rattles over bumps and the quality of the materials used is sub par for a $50,000 car. Yes. 400 horsepower is nice. But I think I would still take a slower, less powerful and more expensive Boxster over a Vette. I can’t wait to see the new one in person. I hear the General has really stepped up his game with a high quality interior. If I had a performance bargain category the C5 will surely take the trophy.

  6. Lauren Jennison says:

    This article is so refreshing to hear! As a girl born into a family of BMW’s now living off a meager salary, I had to sell my beloved Touareg to limit my gas consumption with an hours commute. For those of us who love to drive and love to drive fast, researching and buying a car is like hitting your head against a wall. your stuffed with great gas mileage and slow, puttering engines. My car purchase in 2011 was going toward a mini cooper or GTI but I needed AWD so I ended up with a Nissan Juke. It is my extreme desire in the next 3 years to either sell my Juke for my love Touareg TDI or check out the Wrangler which I agree, has a solid resale value. I will be looking back to your article for guidance.

  7. I love my Scion xB. It’s fun, roomy, and built by Toyota.

  8. I bought a used Saab 9-3 aero about a while ago because it was the funnest front wheel drive car under 15k I could find. Its been a good car and a blast to drive but it isn’t a common brand in much of the country so you need to ask one very important question before buying.

    Are there affordable mechanics in your area that know Saab cars?

    They are just enough different that some less skilled/or equipped mechanics can screw things up. I bought mine at a Chrysler dealership and made the mistake of getting a simple repair done there. I have since found an independent mechanic that knows what he is doing to repair the mess they did.

    So look around where you live, are there lots of Saabs around? I live in the Twin Cities and they are every where so it isn’t much of an issue for me. But if you don’t see them around very often be wary.

    But the same is true with any European car, especially if you live in a rural area.

  9. I have to say nothing beats the original Toyota Prius. 50+ mpg, handles well in the NH snow, is roomy enough to fit surfboards and furniture (I’ve even slept in the back with another person–it’s similar to a double bed), and we even tow a trailer with it. Did I mention it’s at almost 200,000 miles and running perfectly on it’s original battery? You can easily find a 2011 model for under 20,000. Love this car!

    • Thomas Niejadlik says:

      But is it fun to drive? I think I can run faster than a Prius. j/k -Tom

      • For the record I could beat most cars off the line (if I were into that kind of thing) thanks to the electric motor’s instant power, and I usually cruise around 80 on the highway. BUT saving money is the most fun of all as we all know! =)

  10. Nice to see a well balanced article like this. There are plenty of articles for people who want the most practical, or reliable, or best value or even most fun. It’s really nice to see one that looks at fun to drive, but still in my price range.

    Bonus points for a similar conclusion: I drive a mini cooper s.