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Need advice on buying a used car

Hi! I am buying a car. I haven’t owned a car in about 10 years, and need some advice on what to look for. My desires in a car:


Cheap to fix

Excellent gas mileage

Under $8000

Enough room in the trunk for camping and hauling around a couple guitars and other musical instruments

Handles well, turns on a dime

Comfortable for road trips

I really want a Prius (I’ve driven them for work and LOVE them), but can’t find one cheap enough with low miles and am afraid of repair costs. What make/model should I be looking for? How important is it to get something with low miles? What else should I keep in mind? Should I buy from a dealer or private party?

Thanks for your help!


Go new car dealers in your area and drive as many makes and models as you can. After you find what fits you best, look for a 3 - 5 year old model, one owner, all service records. Have a pre-purchase inspection done by an independent mechanic who specializes in the make. I prefer to buy from the original owner instead of a dealer. I buy the seller as much as I buy the car.

Cars are like shoes – what fits me, may not fit you. Most Asian makes (Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Hyundai, etc.) will fit most of your needs. Some of your requirements are conflicting – BMWs “handle great and turn on a dime” but are not cheap to fix. The Prius gets good mileage, but does not handle well and requires specialized dealer-only service. Your question has been asked many times on this forum – the search function is your friend.


I’ve been thinking of Honda/Toyota but I am wondering if the few thousand dollars extra is worth it - a comparable domestic is a bit cheaper (ie, Ford Focus versus Honda Civic), so I am wondering if I should put up the extra thousands or go for a less expensive domestic. I once rented a Ford Focus and it was a pretty fun ride, and worked out well for our camping trip.

hmm well I have never driven a BMW so perhaps I don’t know the meaning of “handles great,” lol. The 2010 Priuses handle really well in my opinion, especially versus, say, a PT Cruiser. Also, the Focus I rented once handled really well (IMO). But I’ve only ever driven real clunkers, comparatively!

We here have debated that question repeatedly. I don’t believe there exists a “one size fits all” correct answer.

My own experience over 40+ years of car ownership is that the riceburners (many now designed and built in the U.S. by the way) are worth the extra money. I’m willing to pay a premium for long term reliability. Others here believe an “american” vehicle a few years old is a far better value, and they have their experiences to support their philosophies.

A publication like the Consumer Reports Used Car Buyers’ Guide from the local bookstore can help you improve the odds of getting something cost efficient, but in truth much depends on how the car was treated by the previous owner(s).

I realize there is no “one-size fits all” answer, which is why I didn’t spend too much time searching the forum, since everyones needs are different and the other posts don’t really seem to match up with my needs. I was hoping for some suggestions for vehicles that would work with my needs (as listed in the OP), since I am not even sure where to begin. After researching for the last hour, I am thinking a small sedan would be appropriate - Toyota Camry, Honda Civic, or Ford Focus. Any other suggestions for makes/models?
What about certified used vehicles? Are they worth the extra $$?

You need to prioritize what you want. Nothing exists that meets all your requirements. I suggest you consider a 2006 Chevy Cobalt LT. The coupe will be a few hundred bucks less than the sedan. It will hold your stuff if you fold down the rear seat. Another alternative is a 2006 Chevy HHR LS. Yet another is a 2005 Chevy Malibu Maxx. If you prefer a Civic, a 2005 LX will be about $8000. The Chevy parts will cost less than the Civic parts.

Depends on what other instruments you’ll be hauling. Will it be just a couple guitars, or will you be hauling that, a Cello and some drums?
I’d look for a Ford Focus wagon or a Pontiac Matrix. But whatever you get, have a mechanic look it over BEFORE you buy, not after.

A good choice would be a Pontiac Vibe. They are Toyota Matrix’s with Pontiac badges on them. They are cheaper than the Toyota, but just as reliable.

I had a 99 Nissan Altima, passed it to my dad with 130,000 miles and he has run it happily so far (220,000 miles). My cousin has a comparable 2001 Honda civic sedan, one freind has a 2004 camry, another a 96 corolla, and another a 2006 Subaru outback. They are all fun to drive, reasonably safe and fuel efficient, and seem to have similar operating and repair costs. I normally drive full-sized Ford pick-ups, and found that the Altima had the best leg room/ seat angle ratio for me, and was less expensive than the honda’s. The Prius will only give signifcantly better mileage in city driving with one passenger, and repair is an issue. Kia and Hyundai have made great strides in the last 5 years, but I would be very leary of one older than that, they seem to be built more like R/C cars. Actual milage is less important than how the car was maintained/driven, too many new parts suggest either a yachting mechanic or a bad driver. Dealers can get you financed (so can your credit union) and are more convenient, private sellers are usually less expensive, and give you a chance to size up the previous owner. Drive everything you can and decide what feels right for you, then look at online parts stores and consumer reviews. Renault, Mazda, and Subaru parts will be harder to find quickly than Honda, Toyota, and Nissan, at least in the Mid west and Sout east.

A Crown Vic will meet your needs. It will also provide you with the lowest operating cost per mile of any vehicle…The whole band can put their stuff in the trunk then travel to the next gig in sublime comfort…

Read Consumer Reports Used Car Buying Guide. It’s available at your local library.

Toyota Corolla.

If you want to haul stuff in it, I would be looking at the Civic hatchback instead of the sedan.

ooo thanks for the tip! I came across one in my research and really dig the look! Sporty, yet utilitarian. And I like all of the room!

couple guitars, autoharp, banjo, mandolin and camping supplies
Thanks for the advice, I think I will focus my search on those two makes/models. Well, the vibe that is :slight_smile:

I think given those hauling requirements, you’ll find a Matrix or Vibe too small - they do not have much storage capacity. A Focus wagon would be a better fit, but they can be difficult to find.

What I would suggest looking at is a Mazda5. I’m kind of surprised no one has mentioned it. It is based on the Mazda3, but it is a small minivan with 3 rows of seats. The back two rows fold flat and you’ll have almost as much space as you would in some full-size SUVs, but you’ll still get near 30 mpg highway.

Hertz rents these a lot if you wanted to try one for a few days. Probably a bit over your $8k target range, but so are most Matrixes or Vibes…