The truth is $5,000 won’t buy a sparkling, late-model used car. But, there are still affordable options if you’re looking for a decent first car or local daily driver. Read on as we explore what bargain-basement choices to consider.
If a Honda Accord (see below) isn’t your cup of tea, but Honda reliability is appealing, then check out the first-generation (2004-2008) Acura TSX (which is badged as an Accord outside of the U.S.). It’s an upscale sedan with front-wheel drive practicality plus a zippy 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 200 horsepower. The powertrain will include either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission.
To keep to the $5K budget, you’ll want to focus on examples with more than 150,000 miles and some dings and scrapes.
You won’t be buying the Buick Park Avenue for fuel economy, but instead, this large premium sedan offers generous cabin space and a smooth and comfortable ride. Although Park Avenue has been around since 1991, look for second-generation examples (1997-2005). Underneath the hood, you’ll find General Motors’ faithful 3.8-liter V-6 engine and front-wheel drive. You won’t win a stoplight race, but that’s not what this Buick is about. To keep things simple, skip the supercharged version.
With some luck, you might come across a Park Ave. with less than six figures of mileage. Otherwise, these Buicks with around 150,000 miles will leave you plenty of money to spare.
Of all the BMW 3 Series that have graced American shores, 2006-2011 models (E90 in BMW speak) have a good reputation for reliability. You’ll want to avoid models with the turbocharged six-cylinder engine in favor of the basic inline-four. The sedan gets surprisingly high scores in crash tests, and xDrive models offer capable four-wheel drive. And despite the car’s age and import status, parts (you will need these eventually) are readily available.
There are plenty of E90s available, so don’t jump at the first one you see. And be sure to consider the versatile wagon (E91) and sporty coupe (E92).
A modest budget doesn’t have to rule out a truck from your shopping list. If there’s a need or preference for something with a cargo bed, look at the compact Ford Ranger pickup. The no-fuss design and mechanicals keep surprises to a minimum, and you’ll have a choice of a four-banger or V-6 under the hood (with either rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive). You’ll want something from 1998 or later as these models benefit from a larger cab.
Ideally, your search will reveal a Ranger that’s been used as a casual daily driver versus something that’s seen a lot of hauling duties.
Of course, there’s going to be a Honda on any list of cheap cars to buy. We could have easily put the Civic here, too (and that’s a fine choice), but you might as well go for something a bit bigger. The sweet spot is the seventh-generation Accord from the 2003-2007 model year. It still looks reasonably modern, and the cabin seems upscale (especially with the EX-L trim). Don’t let high miles dissuade you (assuming the car checks out mechanically), and you may encounter some paint problems (one of the few trouble spots from this period).
As tempting as a V-6 can be, track down Accords with the inline-four cylinder engines. These small power plants have a bulletproof reputation for reliability.
If a Buick isn’t good enough for you, check out a Lincoln Town car for an enormous back seat and trunk. You’ll want to focus on the third (and last) generation Town Cars built from 1998-2011. The standard modular V-8 is a marvel of modern engineering and offers solid and reliable performance (horsepower ranges from 205 to 239, depending on the trim and model year). Plus, the rear-wheel-drive setup means there’s less to go wrong. There’s a reason the Town Car was the de facto vehicle of choice for livery drivers.
A thorough search should reveal numerous options with less than 150,000 miles. High-mileage examples are out there, but chances are these were those livery vehicles.
We’ll admit that the Mazda Miata may not be the best choice for winter travels along snow-covered roads, but otherwise, this tiny convertible offers more smiles-per-mile than any other car on the list. It’s a blast to drive without having to worry about too much horsepower, and repairs are mostly cheap and straightforward. Plus, there’s a thriving scene for parts and aftermarket upgrades.
You’ll need to put some effort into it, but search out 1999 or newer examples (this is marked by the absence of the pop-up headlight that appeared with the first-gen Miata).
The Nissan Maxima has always offered more space and features for the money than the mainstream Altima (or Accord or Camry). So, it makes sense to consider older models of this sedan for a similar value. Give attention to 2004-2008 models (although you may have some luck with 2009 or later high-mileage Maximas). Remarkably, the sole engine is a 3.5-liter V-6 (factory rated for 265 horsepower) which offers impressive performance. Front-wheel drive also means the car is acceptable in the rain and light snow.
The grilles on ’04-’06 Maximas can be weird for some, but it’s hard to complain about a $5,000 or less price tag.
While today’s Pathfinder is a bloated crossover with an identity crisis, older Pathfinders have a “can’t stop me” attitude and the mechanicals to back this up. Depending on your location, you’ll be looking for a second-generation (1996-2004) or third-gen (2005-2012) example. And to keep within the $5,000 limit, it comes down to a trade-off of an older model year versus high miles. Nissan’s V-6s from the era enjoy a thorough reputation for dependability.
Most of these Pathfinders will have a four-wheel-drive arrangement, but some rear drivers are out there. If you don’t need 4WD for snow or off-road use, consider the simplicity (and cheaper repairs) of RWD.
The quirky GM division that shut down after the 2010 model year lives on in vehicles like the Vue. This compact SUV does a decent job of pretty much everything (and shares many components with the Chevrolet Equinox–which isn’t a wrong choice either). Although the first-generation Vue isn’t bad, look for 2008-2010 models as the second generation has a larger interior, more modern styling, and still falls within the budget.
Ideally, search for Vues with front-wheel drive and the trusty 2.4-liter EcoTech four-cylinder engine. Ones with all-wheel-drive and V-6 are available, but these versions may max the budget. Although rare, skip the hybrid version as you may regret the repair bill later.
If there’s an Accord on the list, it’s only fair to include the Toyota Camry. And, likewise, the Corolla represents a credible alternative, too. Look for 2002-2006 Camrys as this generation embraces a softer, more rounded body with some Lexus-like styling. And not to sound like a broken record, but concentrate on Camry’s with four cylinders under the hood. This approach will save gas, and repairs (if needed) tend to be infrequent and less expensive.
Because Camry’s are about as common as ants at a summer picnic, your biggest challenge will be sorting through the multitudes in the marketplace.
Sedans are underloved these days, but this keeps prices down and is a big reason why there are so many of these types of cars on our list. One example is the Volvo S60 which debuted for the 2001 model year with sweeping looks that broke the brand’s once boxy designs. Skipping that first year, check out what’s for sale from 2002-2009 (with 2005 and newer models benefitting from a facelift).
All-wheel-drive S60s can confidently tackle snow-covered roads (but front-drive models are less expensive to repair). Plus, the standard five-cylinder engine bridges the gap between four-cylinder efficiency and V-6 performance.
Did you enjoy this “best of” list for cheap cars under $5,000? Contact Trust Auto with your feedback and suggest other vehicles you’d like to know more about. In the meantime, check out our other interesting stories, including The Best Used Trucks Under $10,000 and Top 12 Used Cars For New Drivers.
Posted Saturday, January 22, 2022