The Best Cars for $10,000

Car shoppers are stalking the discount aisles with the focus of a steely nerved hunter. Though sales are down for new and used models — the former to levels not seen in 15 years — the used-car market is picking up a bigger slice of the pie. Whether it's a weekday commuter or a Saturday grocery-getter, drivers need their set of wheels, but the average price of a new car — $28,929 including financing, according to Comerica Bank's latest Auto Affordability Index — is awfully high for many people.

Not to worry; we've singled out some good buys for you. With reliability, safety and bottom-dollar value in mind, we looked at new and late-model used cars whose retail values hover 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 cars with those options. Finally, we considered gas mileage along with our own qualitative impressions — things such as cabin comfort and driving enjoyment. From a list of 225 contenders, here are 10 worth checking out:

2009 Nissan Versa
Why we like it: Besides price, the Versa's top selling point is size. It has more interior passenger space than its competitors, making it a good choice if you want better mileage without having to downsize to a lot less car. Thanks in part to its six standard airbags, the Versa's front- and side-impact crash scores are top-notch, and the 1.6-liter four-cylinder delivers overall EPA-estimated gas mileage in the high 20s.

Nuts and bolts: It would be generous to say the $9,990 Versa is sparsely equipped, but it does have six standard airbags and, as a 2009 model, an unblemished warranty. Antilock brakes are well worth the extra $250, while an automatic transmission will cost you another $1,000. Air conditioning is also an extra $1,000. There's no stereo, but the car's four speakers come pre-wired for a head unit, which you'll probably want to buy from your local electronics shop — unless you can convince a Nissan dealer to install one on the cheap.

2005 Ford Escape
Why we like it: The Escape became outdated a couple of model years later, but it was still competitive in the 2005 model year. Overall reliability is respectable, and the 2005 version sports a larger base engine with low-20s overall gas mileage in certain configurations. Antilock brakes were standard, while optional side curtain airbags could augment the earlier seat-mounted side airbag option. Roughly one-fifth of all '05 Escapes had curtain airbags installed. Make sure to find one thus equipped, as they constitute the difference between top-notch and woeful side-impact crash scores.

Nuts and bolts: Expect a modestly equipped Escape XLS with front-wheel drive, a stick shift, curtain airbags and 50,000 miles to start around $8,500. All-wheel drive and an automatic transmission command an extra $1,000 and $800, respectively. Better-equipped Escape XLTs run closer to $11,000, while V-6 models start near $12,000. A well-heeled Escape Limited could top $14,000.

2005 Ford Five Hundred
Why we like it: It never found its fan base, but the Five Hundred was one of the roomiest cars around, both in passenger and cargo space. Considering 2005 was the Five Hundred's first year on the market, reliability isn't bad. Overall gas mileage with front-wheel drive is in the low 20s. Antilock brakes were standard, and side-impact and side curtain airbags were optional — though, like with the Escape, the airbags' effect on side-impact crash-test scores is significant, so make sure you find a model equipped with them. About 22 percent of '05 Five Hundreds included the option.

Nuts and bolts: A base Five Hundred SE — fairly well-equipped at that — with 50,000 miles and curtain airbags should start around $10,500. Upscale SEL or Limited trims could fetch $11,500 and up. All-wheel-drive models command another $900.

2005 Ford Freestar
Why we like it: Though not a class leader, the Freestar was a significant improvement over the previous Windstar, with third-row seats that disappear into the floor. Reliability is acceptable — not the case, incidentally, for the '04 or '06 Freestar. Antilock brakes were standard, and Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability system was optional. Frontal crash-test scores are good. The minivan was never side-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but you should still try to find one with the optional side-impact and side curtain airbags. Ford installed them on about 17 percent of '05 Freestars.

Nuts and bolts: A basic Freestar S with 50,000 miles and curtain airbags should start around $8,300. Better-equipped SE, SES and SEL trims could run $9,000 to $11,000, depending on specific options. A well-optioned Freestar Limited could command as much as $13,500.

2005 Ford Taurus
Why we like it: The midsize Taurus became known as a rental car, but on some levels that speaks to its strengths. Both of the available V-6 engines turn out so-so gas mileage, but reliability and frontal crash-test scores are excellent. Though the Taurus hasn't received IIHS side-impact tests, the car's optional side-impact airbags extend upward for head protection. They're worth hunting down, but they might prove hard to find: Just 10 percent of '05 models had them. Optional antilock brakes ought to be more common, as 53 percent of '05 Tauruses had ABS installed.

Nuts and bolts: A base Taurus SE with 50,000 miles, antilock brakes and side airbags should retail for about $8,000; choosing the better-equipped SEL will cost about $9,300. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars more for the wagon or, in an SEL, the more powerful V-6. A loaded SEL wagon could run $12,000.

2005 Hyundai Tucson
Why we like it: The Tucson took its cue from the larger Santa Fe by offering a lot while costing a little. Crash-test ratings are good — though not outstanding — but what's most impressive is the Tucson's standard safety features: all-disc antilock brakes, curtain airbags and an electronic stability system. Overall gas mileage with the four-cylinder is in the low 20s, and considering 2005 was the Tucson's first year on the market, reliability is quite good.

Nuts and bolts: A four-cylinder Tucson GL with front-wheel drive, a manual transmission and 50,000 miles should retail around $9,500. Automatic-transmission versions add an $800 premium. The better-equipped GLS and LX have automatics and V-6 engines only. Both run beyond $11,000, with all-wheel drive adding nearly $1,000. A well-equipped all-wheel-drive Tucson LX could run as high as $16,500.

2005 Hyundai XG350
Why we like it: Before there was an Azera or a Genesis, there was the XG, which established Hyundai as a legitimate maker of luxurious cars. The accelerator is a bit sensitive, but power is plentiful and the ride is softer than in most cars out there. Reliability scores are respectable, and frontal crash-test scores are excellent. Although the XG350 hasn't undergone IIHS side-impact crash tests, side-impact airbags with head extensions for the front seats were standard, as were antilock brakes. Gas mileage is the XG's lone weak point: With an EPA-estimated 19 mpg in overall driving, the drivetrain trails a number of competitors.

Nuts and bolts: A base XG350 with 50,000 miles should run just under $10,000; it's quite well-appointed at that. For another roughly $1,000, the uplevel XG350 L has a few more luxury toys.

2004 Ford F-150
Why we like it: A longtime class and sales leader, the F-150 remains more than viable, even at five years old. Depending on configuration, reliability scores range from acceptable to top-notch. Frontal crash-test scores are excellent. Although side-impact airbags weren't offered — and the F-150 was never tested for side impacts — its larger size and higher ride height somewhat mitigate this. Antilock brakes were standard.

Nuts and bolts: Ford marketed the prior-generation F-150 under a "Heritage" moniker for 2004, so be sure to avoid it. The newer design should fetch just under $9,000 for a no-frills, rear-wheel-drive work truck with 65,000 miles. Expect to shell out another $500 for the larger V-8 and some $2,000 for four-wheel drive. At the opposite end, a well-accessorized Lariat crew cab can command close to $20,000.

2004 Hyundai Santa Fe
Why we like it: Hyundai transformed from punch line to powerhouse on the success of a few models, and this was one of them. Reliability scores are good, and with the four-cylinder or 2.7-liter V-6, overall gas mileage is about 20 mpg, though the 3.5-liter V-6 delivers a thirsty 17 mpg. Antilock brakes were optional, but around 70 percent of 2004 Santa Fes had them installed. Thanks in part to the standard side-impact airbags with head-protecting extensions, the SUV earns acceptable side-impact scores.

Nuts and bolts: Expect a four-cylinder base model with front-wheel drive, ABS, a stick shift and 65,000 miles to retail around $10,000. An automatic will cost another $600. The GLS comes only with an automatic and a V-6, but it can still be had for under $11,000. You'll shell out another $1,500 to get the larger V-6 and all-wheel drive, while a fully loaded Santa Fe LX can command upward of $15,000.

2004 Mitsubishi Outlander
Why we like it: Before it grew in its second generation for the 2007 model year, the little-known Outlander was a nice size, slotting between a wagon and a compact SUV, similar to the Subaru Forester. The 2004 model year brought a needed power boost. Reliability scores are decent, and overall gas mileage is in the low 20s. The uplevel Outlander XLS offered optional antilock brakes and seat-mounted side airbags, and both are worth the premium. About a third of the Outlanders on the market had the additional airbags installed, while some 54 percent came with ABS.

Nuts and bolts: Avoid the lesser Outlander LS, which doesn't offer either safety option. With the extra airbags and antilock brakes, a front-wheel-drive XLS with 65,000 miles should retail for around $9,900. All-wheel drive adds about $900. Fully loaded, an all-wheel-drive XLS will run more than $12,000.

Editor's Notes
The used-car market is wildly 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. Take the 2005 Hyundai XG350, for example: A base model with 50,000 miles runs $9,650 in Chicago but $9,975 in Los Angeles. We used retail values — not trade-in or private-party values, which vary greatly depending on the car's condition — to pare down our initial list. Used-car values depend largely on where you're looking, 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. Values in your area may differ nominally.

Bear in mind that you may be able to bargain down a listed price by $1,000 or more. Conversely, plan for the customary fees associated with buying a car, including sales tax, license, title and registration fees, plus any financing costs involved. If you want a mechanic to check things out, factor in the cost of an inspection, too.

Astute readers will notice that our gas mileage estimates don't jibe with their own findings. That's because we ranked cars according to the Environmental Protection Agency's 2008 ratings system, which estimates mileage using tougher standards for acceleration, cruising speeds and other variables. The ratings, which the EPA applies retroactively to older cars on its website, are typically lower but more accurate than the old figures were.

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. Gas mileage estimates come from the EPA, and used-car prices come from Kelley Blue Book. Installation rates for specific safety equipment come from Ward's Automotive Group.

© 1/30/09