I’d be looking for a car that does well in the Consumer Reports ratings, though it also has to have no obvious big problems that you or your mechanic of choice uncover. A good CR rating just makes it more likely you won’t get a dog. It can still happen, but anything you can do to minimize the cgances is worthwhile. If you can find a car with full service records, great, but older cars often don’t. That’s why the mechanic’s inspection is even more important for older cars.
What would I look for? Probably not the Civics and Corollas because they are exactly what most used car buyers want, something small, thrifty, and sturdy. Just what you want to. From what I’ve seen, mid-sized cars are not much more expensive, and they are often nicer to drive and better equipped. They get somewhat worse gas milage, but if you buy the versions with the smallest engines, the difference isn’t that great. For example, a 2004 Nissan Altima, in base trim, but with an automatic, in very good condition, had a Kelley Blue Book value of about $3500 in a private sale. A Civic of the same year, in the late west trim with an automatic, goes for $4500. The Altima of that era is a nice car, but it sold well and plenty still exist. They just are in less demand from used car buyers. A 2004 Mazda3 i sedan, a very nice compact, goes for $4200 and the bigger Mazda6, even nicer, is $50 less.
Kelley is just one source, but I’‘e seen this pattern before. Used car buyers are often young and they prefer a thrifty little car. The mid-sized cars are too much like their parents’ cars. But you can benefit. The gas milage difference is not that great, especially at highway speeds, and the mid-sized cars are just nicer, better equipped even in base trim. They are also nice if you want to take three adult friends with you. For longer trips the roomier back seats are a pleasure.
Other mid-sized cars made at that time that I like are the obvious Accord and Camry, which won’t be great bargains, the Mitsubishi Galant (may soon be an orphan). The Ford Fusion, a very good car, isn’t introduced for a couple of years more, and any you find for $4000 are likely high-milage or in poor condition. The Malibu of the era is not very inspiring.