Ten Cars for $10K: The Best Cars for $10,000

It's no surprise that Americans buy a lot more used cars than new cars — about 2.6 used cars for every new car sold through April of this year, according to Automotive News and CNW Marketing Research data. Why shouldn't they? Used cars offer substantial savings: The average used vehicle at a dealership sells for less than $10,500, CNW reports. For that sort of money, you can choose from only two new cars: a Hyundai Accent or a Nissan Versa, but they'll be stripped-down versions of each.

The Versa made the list again in the latest Cars.com's Best Cars for $10,000. We examined cars from the 2005 model year or newer with typical mileage for their age and a Kelley Blue Book retail value around $10,000. We crunched reliability and crash-test scores; we considered standard and optional safety features and looked at how easy it is to find a car with those options. Finally, we considered our own qualitative impressions, including ride comfort, roominess and driving enjoyment. From an initial list of 225 contenders, here are our favorite 10.

2009-2010 Nissan Versa

Why we like it: The Nissan Versa sedan is the only new car in this list, but it's here for more than just its low price. It's roomy for its class, has a comfortable ride and is powered by a choice of efficient four-cylinder drivetrains that will help you save money at the gas pump. Expect to pay more if you want the hatchback.
Nuts and bolts: The $9,990 Versa 1.6 — the second-cheapest new car sold in America — epitomizes no-frills transportation: crank windows, manual locks and no radio. Air conditioning and antilock brakes are optional. But no matter how stripped it is, the Versa comes with some important features: active front head restraints, six airbags, good crash-test scores and a full warranty. Perhaps a Nissan dealer clearing out old inventory can knock a few hundred bucks off a new '09 or throw in a radio.
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2007 Kia Optima

Why we like it: Kia's approach is to load its cars with lots of features and then sell them affordably. Unlike most sedans of its era, the Optima made a stability system optional on its base model, so a used Optima LX might be found with the feature. Roughly half of Kia's powertrain warranty — five years/60,000 miles — transfers to the next buyer, providing the car has been properly maintained.
Nuts and bolts: Redesigned midway through the 2006 model year, the Optima came standard with six airbags and reasonable amenities. Look hard for examples with optional antilock brakes and stability control, which Kia bundled together in a single package. Only about 15 percent of '07 Optimas we found for sale nationally include it. With that package, a stick-shift Optima LX with 50,000 miles should fetch just over $10,000. Expect automatic models to run another $700 or so, with the gussied-up Optima EX asking around $12,000. The V-6 commands another $1,000, but it's not really worth it since it doesn't provide much more oomph than the four-cylinder.
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2006 Ford Freestar

Why we like it: Having children is definitely a reason to re-evaluate your choice of car, and if you have kids, you know they don't care if you drive new or used. Their messes are the same regardless. For those who need a minivan, the Freestar offers the bare necessities, but it can take on soccer equipment and crumbs just as well as a brand-new van.
Nuts and bolts: Antilock brakes are standard, and roughly one out of five '06 Freestars for sale have Ford's Safety Canopy option, which includes three-row curtain airbags. The option is worth hunting down; it bumps the minivan up to decent side-impact crash-test scores. A Freestar SE with the Safety Canopy and 60,000 miles should cost around $10,500; the better-equipped SEL and Limited will command around $11,500 and $13,500, respectively. Give extra consideration to models with Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability system; it was optional on all three trims.
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2006 Ford Fusion

Why we like it: Based on the Mazda6 platform, the Fusion packs nimble handling, an adult-friendly backseat and a large trunk without its Mazda cohort's spotty reliability. The four-cylinder is capable, and V-6 models employ a responsive, high-tech six-speed automatic. All trims come reasonably well-equipped, and the Fusion's sleek styling has aged well. For $10,000, this is a lot of sedan.
Nuts and bolts: Front-seat side airbags and two-row side curtain airbags were optional, as were antilock brakes. About a quarter of all '06 Fusions for sale have either option. A four-cylinder Fusion S with 60,000 miles, a stick shift and no options — all told, still a well-equipped sedan — should run around $10,000. Automatic models with the extra safety features should cost another $1,000 or so. Expect to spend around $11,500 or more for an SE or SEL automatic and another $1,000 if you want V-6 power.
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2006 Hyundai Sonata

Why we like it: The 2006 Sonata was a turning point for Hyundai. The sedan offered an eye-pleasing exterior design with comfortable accommodations for a family of four. It was also at the forefront of a trend that's become the norm: making important safety features standard. Even though it's a few years old, there should still be a lot of life left in a well-kept model.
Nuts and bolts: Exemplary for its time, the Sonata had six airbags, antilock brakes and stability control standard. Stick-shift GL models with 60,000 miles should run around $9,000, with automatic versions adding another $500. The midlevel GLS runs close to $11,000, while V-6 GLS and LX models will top $11,500.
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2006 Mitsubishi Galant

Why we like it: While the Galant may be louder on the road and ride rougher when compared with some of its competition, it's a rather sporty, large sedan with a modern interior that hasn't aged as poorly as others of its vintage. In fact, a brand-new Galant isn't much different than this older version. Call it timeless, if that makes your decision any easier.
Nuts and bolts: An automatic transmission and seat-mounted side airbags were standard, and antilock brakes came on all but the base DE trim. A midlevel Galant ES with 60,000 miles should set you back about $10,500; the leather-trimmed SE will run $11,500 and up. Expect to pay at least $12,000 for the V-6 LS or GTS.
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2005 Ford Five Hundred

Why we like it: The Five Hundred doesn't get much respect. It isn't stylish like its successor, the 2010 Ford Taurus, and its interior quality wasn't great, even back in 2005. But it has remarkable interior space, some of which the redesigned Taurus sacrificed in the name of appearance. The backseat is cavernous, and the trunk can hold eight golf bags. All this in a car that's not very long. All-wheel drive is optional.
Nuts and bolts: The Five Hundred came standard with antilock brakes, a V-6 engine and an automatic transmission, but Ford's Safety Package, which included side-impact and side curtain airbags, was an option you'll find on only about 15 percent of '06 Five Hundreds. You'll want to give extra consideration to examples that have the Safety Package. The base SE trim with side airbags and 70,000 miles should start a bit over $10,000; the luxuriously appointed SEL and Limited can run $11,000 and higher. Expect to spend another $800 or so if you want all-wheel drive.
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2005 Honda Accord Sedan

Why we like it: A longtime best-seller, the Accord sedan now faces stronger competition than ever from all directions, including the U.S. and Korea. In 2005, though, the Accord held a strong lead in many ways such as mileage and overall refinement. If you're going back five years in search of a midsize sedan, the Accord is a good place to start.
Nuts and bolts: Honda added standard side-impact and side curtain airbags to the Accord for 2005; antilock brakes were also standard, adding up to an impressive safety record for the sedan. The Accord holds its value quite well, however, so expect to pay around $10,000 for a no-frills, stick-shift DX sedan with 70,000 miles. The better-equipped Accord LX should command around $11,500. Automatics on either one will add about $700. Six-cylinder models should run $13,000 and up, with the short-lived Accord Hybrid topping $15,000.
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2005 Hyundai Tucson

Why we like it: Introduced in 2005, Hyundai's pint-sized crossover was soon leapfrogged by its peers in terms of overall refinement, but its safety features remain competitive to this day. The optional V-6 is thirsty on gas, but it hustles along when pushed. The Kia Sportage is a related sibling, but it's slightly pricier — and less reliable. If you need a cheap crossover SUV, the Tucson is a solid bet.
Nuts and bolts: The Tucson comes in a litany of configurations — front- or all-wheel drive, manual or automatic, four-cylinder or V-6. Fortunately, all of them include six airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Expect to spend $8,000 or so for a front-wheel-drive Tucson GL with a stick shift, four-cylinder and 70,000 miles. An automatic will run another $700 or so. The uplevel Tucson GLS and LX, which include the V-6 and an automatic standard, trade north of $9,000. All-wheel drive will bump the price up around $1,500.
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2005-2006 Toyota Corolla

Why we like it: There's a reason the Toyota Corolla is so common on American roads: It's reliable and fuel-efficient — two things that are especially important when shopping for a car with a limited budget. There's no question there are snazzier cars available for $10,000, but it's hard to think of one that's more sensible.
Nuts and bolts: Side-impact and side curtain airbags were packaged together as an option, but less than 20 percent of '06 Corollas for sale have them. About the same percentage have optional antilock brakes. An electronic stability system was optional, but Toyota says only about 1 percent of '06 Corollas had it — effectively making the feature an impossible find. Be patient, and you should at least find an example with side airbags. With about 70,000 miles, a stick-shift Corolla CE thus equipped should run around $9,500. Expect to pay another $500 for the automatic and a bit over $10,000 for the better-equipped Corolla S or LE.
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Things to Watch For

Used-car listings can claim more features than the car actually has, so make sure to verify that a car listed with antilock brakes or side airbags actually has those features. The Tucson, Accord and Sonata make it easy: Those features are standard. If you're shopping one of the others, don't take a salesperson's or private seller's word for it — check it out yourself. Here's how:

  • Seat-mounted side airbags are indicated by a fabric tag, a sewn-in emblem or a labeled plastic panel somewhere on the outboard side of the front seats' backrests. It typically says "Side Airbag," "Airbag," "SRS Airbag" or simply "SRS" — for Supplemental Restraint System.
  • Side curtain airbags have similar wording along the roof pillars, usually near the ceiling. The labeling often resides where the pillars meet the ceiling.
  • Antilock brakes show up via a dashboard indicator when you turn the car on. Somewhere around the gauges, look for a light that says "ABS" — for Antilock Braking System — to illuminate along with other warning lights. If the ABS or any other warning lights stay on when the car is running, however, it indicates a problem with the system in question.
  • Electronic stability systems are harder to pick out because they go by various trade names, from Toyota's Vehicle Stability Control to Ford's AdvanceTrac. Most of these systems include the word "stability" to distinguish it from simple traction control. The Versa 1.6, Fusion, Galant, Five Hundred and Accord for the years above don't offer stability systems. Conversely, it's standard on the Sonata and Tucson. That leaves the Optima, Freestar and Corolla. If you're shopping one of those, here are the easiest ways to identify whether your prospective car has a stability system:
    - On the Optima, look for an "ESC Off" button to the lower left of the gauges. It's adjacent to the instrument panel dimmer control.
    - Freestar models with stability control include an "AdvanceTrac" emblem near the left taillight.
    - A scant few Corollas from the mid-2000s have stability systems, which you'll find by way of a "VSC" light — for Vehicle Stability Control — illuminating briefly near the gauges when you start the car.
Editor's Notes

The used-car market is unpredictable, so you may be able to negotiate a better deal for one of these cars or get a more appealing model for the same price. Others may cost slightly more than $10,000 depending on the condition of the car and where you live. For example: A 2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS four-cylinder with 60,000 miles commands $10,690 in New York City but $10,915 in Los Angeles. To pare down our list, we used KBB retail values, which presumed exemplary mechanical and cosmetic conditions, as opposed to trade-in or private-party values, which depend mostly on the car's condition. Used-car values vary by location, so the prices in each recommendation came from averaging the listed values across five greater metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and New York. You may be able to bargain down a listed price by $1,000 or more, but plan for the customary fees associated with buying a car, including sales tax, license, title and registration, plus any financing costs involved. Factor in the cost of an independent mechanic's inspection, too, which we recommend.

Sources for safety equipment and crash-test scores include the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and automaker data. Information on vehicle features comes from automaker data, reliability scores come from J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports. Used-car prices come from Kelley Blue Book, and availability of various safety features comes from surveying national used-car listings.

© Cars.com 5/28/10