Making the right used car purchase requires patience, research, perseverance, and just a little bit of luck. For many drivers, buying a new or certified car from a dealer is the best route to take because those cars come with a warranty. That warranty helps prevent the situation everyone has nightmares about: spending the time and money to find a used car, only to have it break down immediately.
These days, car commercials on TV and online direct buyers towards their tech-heavy interior amenities, safety features, and driver's aids. But for much of the history of the automobile, the thing buyers most worried themselves over was a car's reliability. While searching in today's secondhand market, the reliability factor is crucial and should be weighed heavily alongside driver enjoyment, style, and features.
Keep scrolling for 10 cars no one should ever buy used and 10 that are great deals.
20 Bad Buy: Mitsubishi 3000GT
Mitsubishi's 3000GT was a technical marvel when it debuted in the US in 1990, especially in VR-4 trim, which featured twin-turbochargers, four-wheel steering, and active aerodynamics. But one glance under the hood of a 3000GT is enough to give any mechanic pause—Mitsu crammed that engine bay with so many components that even routine maintenance is exceedingly complex and expensive.
19 Bad Buy: Fiat 500
The modern incarnation of the Fiat 500 is a cute, efficient, and cheap commuter car. It's even got more space inside than most people would expect, though fitting four full-sized adults isn't likely to be too comfortable. But anyone thinking about buying a used Fiat 500 should probably just go with a new one—that has a warranty—instead of testing their luck against the notorious reliability issues of this model. It sells for cheap for a good reason.
18 Bad Buy: Mini Cooper
Mechanics who work on BMW's cars, of which the current Mini Cooper is a close relation, have nicknamed this model the "Money Cooper" and for good reason. These Mini Coopers may look sweet but they actually feature a fair amount of Daimler components and a teensy-tiny engine bay means that when reliability issues crop up—and they do—repairs can require excessive man-hours.
17 Bad Buy: Ford Fiesta
The Ford Fiesta is more popular in the rest of the world than it is in the United States, where tiny, economical hatchbacks don't make up as much of the market. But to keep the Fiesta cheap, regardless of where it's being driven, Ford skimped on beefy mechanicals. The result is a car that Consumer Reports, for the 2011 to 2014 models, highlighted numerous issues with the transmission, body integrity, and even the audio system.
16 Bad Buy: Volkswagen Jetta
The Volkswagen Jetta is a known quantity on the automotive market, regardless of whether it's new or used. This commuter car is one that people looking for a bit more refinement in a car end up buying when they don't want to go for the base-budget models out there. But then, these same owners always drive their cars far too long between oil changes and neglect most service intervals—Jettas that are falling apart are easy to find but should be avoided at almost any cost.
15 Bad Buy: Tesla Model S
Elon Musk has pioneered the electric car market with his Tesla releases. Today, the original Roadster is about to receive a successor, while used models are commanding high prices for nostalgia factors. But what about the Model S? Given the issues that Tesla has faced with maintenance and repair—even at their own shops—no one should buy a Model S rather than leasing it, and much less a used one.
14 Bad Buy: Porsche Cayenne
The Porsche Cayenne was highly divisive when it debuted in the early years of the 21st century, though it did manage to boost Porsche's sales significantly. Now, the smaller Macan SUV is Porsche's best-selling vehicle and there are plenty of Cayenne owners selling their cars on Craigslist. But many independent Porsche mechanics—who weren't exactly struggling before—have become very wealthy thanks to the Cayenne's notorious reliability issues.
13 Bad Buy: Volkswagen Touareg
The Volkswagen Touareg is related to the Cayenne, though it lacks some of the luxury and performance of its big brother. But the two definitely share the trait of unenviable reliability issues, while requiring a ridiculous amount of labor to complete even the most average of jobs. The Touareg's engine pretty much has to be dropped for anything more complex than an oil chance.
12 Bad Buy: Audi Allroad
Audi's legendary Quattro all-wheel-drive system in a station wagon with adjustable ride height and a six-speed stick shift sounds like a brilliant combination. And when new in the Allroad, it certainly was. But used Allroads should be avoided because most of their owners beat them up, neglected them, and are now trying to sell them. And that's not to mention that the Allroad was basically a parts-bin creation from Audi in the first place.
11 Bad Buy: Toyota Prius
The Toyota Prius has revolutionized the hybrid marketplace. Where Honda went the route of just making a hybrid Civic that looked like a normal one, Toyota decided to make their Prius stand out. The middle year Priuses—around 2008—can run for what seems like forever, which sounds great to potential buyers. But anyone trying to sell one, however, is probably staring a huge battery replacement job in the face and trying to foist it upon the new owner.
10 Best Buy: E36 BMW M3 ($12-15,000)
The E36 generation of BMW's M3 is a perfect middle ground for drivers who love speed, handling, and simplicity. With a clean exterior, a smooth-revving inline-six, and almost perfect weight distribution, it's the ideal driver's car—and lacks aggressive driver's aids to ruin the fun. Keep an eye on the cooling system but generally, an E36 M3 bought for around $12-15,000 can be a great deal.
9 Best Buy: Audi TT MkI ($4-6,000)
The Audi TT has a style to its own, especially the first generation (subsequent models have slowly become less immediately recognizable). Most people don't associate Audis from the late-90s and early-2000s with great deals but the TT actually shares many of its parts with the Volkswagen Golf, one of the best-selling cars ever. A six-speed, 225-hp, Quattro coupe offers some serious fun for around $4-6,000.
8 Best Buy: 996 Porsche 911 ($16-25,000)
Porsche shocked the world, or at least their diehard fans, when they released the 996 generation 911. Snobs hated the water-cooled engine, the flimsy interior, and those notorious headlights. Throw in the dreaded IMS flaw and there are a handful of reasons a 996 can be found for ridiculously low prices—just do adequate research and get a PPI, for peace of mind.
7 Best Buy: Volkswagen Golf MkIV ($3-10,000)
The Volkswagen Golf is a favorite in the automotive world and enough have been sold that parts are easy to find—as are mods for drivers looking for some upgrades. Base models are underpowered but the GTI manages to achieve solid performance and handling, despite a front-wheel-drive layout. Stepping up to the Golf R requires more funds but the trade-off is a six-speed and all-wheel drive in a hatchback version of the TT Quattro.
6 Best Buy: Pontiac GTO ($8-10,000)
The fact that anyone at GM thought the Pontiac GTO that hit the market in the early-2000s would be a hit remains a complex mystery that no one understands to this day. However, the car is a great deal on the used market exactly because it's a terrible use of the GTO name. After all, how many cars come with a V8 engine, a stick shift, and rear-wheel drive for cheap these days?
5 Best Buy: Porsche Boxster ($5-8,000)
The Porsche Boxster continues the company's commitment to offering a more affordable sports car among their stable, in line with the 912, 914, and 944 before it. Though it lacks the power figures of a 911, the mid-engine layout is more stable—and the prices on the used market are absurdly low. A Boxster does present IMS issues, as well, but with an oil analysis test, most hesitations can be overcome.
4 Best Buy: Subaru WRX ($4-10,000)
Subaru pretty much operates in a market of their own. In the US, not many cars exist that pair all-wheel drive with turbocharged engines in a simple, affordable package. But the WRX, especially, is a great buy for anyone looking for all-season fun. Mods are easy, plentiful, and cheap, while most Subaru owners do know a thing or two about maintaining a vehicle.
3 Best Buy: Subaru Legacy GT ($5-7,000)
The Subaru Legacy GT station wagon came in a stick shift for one year only: 2005. This makes it the perfect sleeper car because no one expects a smooth-looking wagon to boast an STI's internals, a third pedal, and all the space of a minivan—not to mention a much more luxurious interior and smoother ride than the WRX or STI.
2 Best Buy: Toyota Tacoma ($8-16,000)
The Toyota Tacoma has always been known for bulletproof reliability—well, at least, other than frame rust issues in early-2000s models. But frame rust is easy to spot and just about any Tacoma that's in reasonable shape, even with what might seem like super high miles on the clock, is a good bet at market prices.
1 Best Buy: Honda CRX ($3-6,000)
The Honda CRX has a unique shape that helps separate it from its Civic siblings. It's more utilitarian than a normal coupe (and definitely the Del Sol) while offering a boxier style than Honda's other products, which became sleeker as the years went on. With Honda's legendary reliability and simple mechanicals, a CRX is a good bet for anyone looking for a little fun in a package they can work on in their driveway.
Sources: Consumer Reports, Car and Driver, and Wikipedia.