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What are the best low-budget cars?

Now that I’m self employed and automotive blogging full time, low budget cars are a topic that hits really close to home (go ahead – read all about my asinine decision to quit my six-figure corporate job). I haven’t quite yet rebuilt my disposable income to the levels that I used to have while working a full time corporate job, so it goes without saying that I’ve learned a thing or two about the lower end of the automotive spectrum. The good side, of course.

The best low-budget cars are:

2010 Honda Fit

Ok, full disclaimer here before I wax poetic about the second generation Honda Fit: I actually own one of these things. I purchased it brand new in 2010 and it’s still my daily driver. It’s easily been the best daily driver I’ve ever owned, and that’s exactly why I’m giving it my #1 pick as the best budget car on the market.

blue 2010 honda fit

My trusty 2010 Honda Fit

On paper, the 2010 Honda Fit doesn’t seem all that impressive. 117hp isn’t exactly going to put a dirty grin on your face every time you smash the gas. Worse yet, it looks downright wimpy. But having lived with one for 9 years now, I can honestly say that I love it’s quirks. It’s extremely practical, easy to drive, and great on gas.

And the best part? It’s dirt cheap on the used car market. A quick look on Craigslist in the San Diego area (where I live) reveals plenty of good condition second-generation Honda Fit’s for under $6000. Knowing firsthand how reliable and dependable these things are, I’m pretty much declaring it the king of budget cars.

A brand new Toyota Corolla

How is a brand new car considered “budget” you may ask? Fully optioned, a brand new Toyota Corolla is easily approaching what you can buy a base model Mustang GT for. So what gives? Well, if you can live without all the bells and whistles, a base model Toyota Corolla is one of the best budget cars of them all.

2019 Toyota Corolla

2019 Toyota Corolla (image courtesy of edmunds.com)

First of all, it’s incredibly reliable (as all new Toyota’s are). It has a warranty, which means you won’t be stuck with any major repair bills for many years. And because it’s fresh out of the factory with all new parts (tires, hoses, belts, brakes, etc), you won’t have any maintenance costs for several years either. The up front cost will be higher than it would with a comparable used car, but you’ll have none of the headaches (repair bills, maintenance) to deal with.

There’s a reason why it’s been on Car & Driver’s “10 Best” list year after year, and chances are pretty good that you’ll understand why after taking one for a spin.

Any 10 year old Nissan Sentra

To be honest, this wasn’t a recommendation I had in mind until I was poking around and doing the research for this article. Part of that research involved asking around (friends, family, online forums, etc) about which budget cars are their favorite, and the Nissan Sentra was one that kept popping up over and over.

2012 Nissan Sentra

2012 Nissan Sentra (image courtesy of (zombdrive.com)

It was then that I realized that these little cars are everywhere here in Southern California, and I guess I never really noticed it before now. That can be considered good or bad I guess. Good because it’s a generic car that won’t attract unwanted attention. Bad because it’s a generic car that won’t be very exciting to live with. But then again, most people looking for budget cars aren’t looking for excitement so perhaps it’s not an issue.

I even forgot that I’ve ended up with a Sentra a few times for a rental car. Thinking back on each experience, I never once recall cursing about how bad of a car it was. It just did what I wanted it to do (get me safely from point A to point B), and that’s all that mattered. I guess.

Honda Accord (whatever model year you can afford)

Of all the cars in the history of me (1974 to present), the Honda Accord is the only one that I can think of that has been brilliant each and every model year. Of course that’s a totally subjective statement that some might not agree with, but I’ve got very good reason to considering it one of the best budget cars ever built.

2010 Honda Accord

2010 Honda Accord (image courtesy of motortrend.com)

First of all, the Accord is easily one of the most common types of cars among my colleagues and peers. I spent 20 years working for Fortune 500 companies, and at each of them, the Honda Accord was the most common car in the parking lot. Just like the Sentra I discussed above, it’s a practical car which just works. I never once heard one of those coworkers or colleagues talk badly about their Accords – even the ones that had been badly abused and neglected of proper maintenance. Those cars just go and go and go.

Keep in mind that there’s nothing “budget“ about newer models of the Accord. It’s an expensive car right off the dealer lot and resale prices are high (for good reason). But if you‘re willing to go back as far as 15 to 20 model years, you can rest assured that even high mileage examples are far more reliable than thier same model year counterparts.

Other budget cars worth considering:

  • Any 20 year old Honda Civic (because they’re just so dang reliable)
  • Kia Forte (have you driven a Korean car lately? If not, you might be impressed)
  • Used Prius (because saving money on gas is a big deal)

How to find the best budget cars

One of the tricks I use to find the best budget cars is to take notice of how long they stay on the market. For example, if it’s a brand of car that always sells fast (as many Honda’s and Toyota’s do), it makes me believe it’s worth considering.

To test this yourself, jump onto Craigslist and identify 3 random used Chevy Impala’s and 3 random used Toyota Corolla’s. Bookmark these cars, and watch them over the coming weeks to see how long they remain for sale. Unless the Imapala’s are priced far below market value, I’m willing to bet the Corolla’s will sell first. It’s a budget car that is in demand, unlike the Imapla (which is also a budget car, but in far less demand).

In terms of where to look for budget-priced cars, I stand by Craigslist as my number one choice. You’ll be less likely to have to deal with dealerships who will do anything to make sure they profit from the deal, and it’ll be quicker dealing with private sellers as well.

Other ideas for finding the best low-budget cars:

  • Drive around your neighborhood and offer to purchase cars from your neighbors that haven’t moved in years. An unsuspecting wad of cash waved in their face (no matter how little) will be hard for them to resist.
  • The “wad of cash” thing also works with used car dealers in regards to cars that have been sitting on their lot for six months or more. They’re usually desperate by that point.
  • If you won’t settle for anything less than a brand new car right off the dealer lot, wait until springtime to scour inventories for last-years models that haven’t sold yet. FYI, new model years begin in the fall. For example, in late 2019, the 2020’s will begin appearing on the lots. These newer models are what most buyers are interested in, so the dealers want to rid thier inventory of 2019s as fast as possible. But if they find themselves in a situation where it’s springtime 2020 and they’ve still got 2019’s to sell, they will be more willing to offer a really good deal. Especially since the 2021’s are just around the corner.
  • One of the best (and easiest) places to buy used cars is from rental car agencies. Most major rental car agencies sell their vehicles once they hit 20,000 miles, and will do so at very competitive prices. Whether or not you’re comfortable buying a car that has been driven by hundreds of people (and oftentimes not gently), it’s by far and away one of the best places to buy budget cars. I should also let you know that I wanted to use an analogy involving a prostitute and marriage to describe the “catch” when buying a used rental car, but I won’t go there since DriveAndReview is a family blog after all. Anyway, check out the inventory of Budget car sales (now owned by Avis) to see for yourself.

What are some budget cars to stay away from?

My personal opinion is that a 15 to 20 year old American brand (Ford, Chevrolet, Buick, Chrysler, Dodge, etc) is not a good choice for a budget car. And before you blast me for being anti-American, know that I grew up in southeast lower Michigan right in the heart of car country. I had family members who spent entire careers working for the Big 3, and American cars were the only cars we bought.

That being said, the late 1970’s to the mid 2010’s were not good times for American car companies. It’s no secret that build quality and reliability was poor, and that’s why I can’t recommend any American car from that time period as good low-budget cars.

If you really want to buy American, most anything after model year 2010 or so is a good place to start. It was right about that time the pressure from foreign auto manufacturers was starting to become too great, and GM finally wised up and started taking build quality and reliability more seriously than they ever have in the past.

I’d also recommend avoiding “first year” cars. Whenever a brand new model is introduced (or remodeled from the ground up), it’s likely  to be more problematic than other model years. This is because the engineers and factory workers haven’t had sufficient time to identify (and resolve) build quality issues. It’s only after a car has been produced in high numbers for a year or two that all the bugs can be worked out. It’s always been that way, and it always will.

How to make sure you don’t get scammed when buying a budget car

Buying low budget cars will likely be one of the most challenging things you will ever do in your life. The chances of being scammed or ripped off when trying to find a good quality car for cheap is high, and you may find yourself stressing over every little detail during the entire process. I know I was when buying my 1996 Mustang GT from a shady small-time dealer.

The person selling the car will obviously be looking to make as much profit as possible, and will therefore be more likely to hide any serious issues it may have (bad seals, a transmission on the brink of detonation, etc). Because of that, it’s imperative you do the research on the particular make and model of the car you want to buy so that you know what the common problems are.

It’s also important to bring a high-powered flashlight with you when you go to look at the car for the first time (even if it’s the middle of the day) so you can easily spot leaks or shoddy repairs in the creaks and crevices.

If you’re especially uncertain, take the car to a certified mechanic (of your choice) for an inspection. If the seller refuses to let you do that, run like the wind. There are plenty of other really good budget cars out there!

Conclusion

The bottom line is that proper research (and due diligence) is an absolute necessity when purchasing a good quality car for a bargain price. We’ve likely all heard horror stories about someone buying a car at a price “too good to be true” and then regretting it later. And nearly always, it’s because they rushed into the purchase without thinking things through. Just because a car is cheap doesn’t mean it’s good!

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