The 6 Best Used Cars for Less than $20,000
So you want to buy a good used car. And your budget is modest. You need to keep the price under $20,000, and you don’t want anything that’s more than five years old. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Twenty large isn’t going to get you a Bentley, but it’ll buy you something even better: a safe, reliable, and fuel-efficient ride. One that won’t leave you by the side of the road or bankrupt by repair bills, and more importantly, one that will properly protect you and your family in an accident.
To help you find that dream machine, we’ve created this list of six used cars that the data show to be great bets. These cars offer above-average reliability based on Consumer Reports member surveys, plus four- or five-star overall safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
They also have good ratings in four crash tests executed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). We limited our selection to an elite group of cars that have been awarded a good or acceptable rating in the IIHS driver-side small overlap front test, which replicates the front left corner of the vehicle colliding with another vehicle or large object. It’s one of the newest and most difficult tests being performed.
Here then, in no particular order, are the six best used cars for your money.
2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback
Whoever said “The best new cars make the best used cars” probably had the Toyota Corolla in mind. It’s legendary for its reliability, and it’s one of the world’s best selling cars of all time because of that reputation. We all know someone with an old Corolla that just won’t die.
Corollas of the past haven’t exactly been powerful or fun-to-drive; they’ve even been called boring. But that changed in 2019 with introduction of the all-new Corolla Hatchback, which replaced the Corolla iM in Toyota’s extensive lineup. A sexy little thing with a roomy interior that seats five, it was offered in two trim levels: SE and the more upscale XSE.
Under the hood is a spunky 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that’s refined and powerful, pumping out 168 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. A 6-speed manual was available, but most were sold with the automatic, a well-tuned CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). It scoots from 0-60 mph in about 8 seconds and has a Sport mode to increase its response, but also delivers excellent fuel economy — 32 mpg in the city and 42 mpg out on the highway.
The Corolla Hatchback also offers good handling and a spacious cargo capacity of 18-cubic feet. It was selected a Top Safety Pick from IIHS and has a 5-star overall safety rating from NHTSA. LED headlights were standard along with an 8.0-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping assist, pre-collision warning, automated emergency braking, and lane-departure warning.
Prices for a used 2019 Corolla Hatchback start at about $16,000.
2019 Honda Insight
After chasing the Toyota Prius for two decades, Honda finally created a truly excellent hybrid last year. It introduced the all-new 2019 Insight sedan, one of the world’s greatest and most fuel efficient hybrids.
Unlike the Prius, the Honda Insight isn’t a hatchback; it’s a four-door sedan. It’s also quite attractive. From most angles, it looks like a Civic, and it’s about the same size as that popular compact. Inside, there’s ample interior space for five, and an abundance of cargo space.
Many trim levels were offered, but every Insight has a large trunk with a flat floor and a folding rear seat, which is split 60/40 in the EX and Touring models. Base LX models got a 5.0-inch screen with Bluetooth audio streaming and Pandora integration, while the EX and Touring got an 8.0-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Touring models also have navigation. Active Noise Control uses the audio system’s speakers to cancel out road noise, so the Insight is quiet inside.
It’s also powerful and entertaining to drive. And not just for a hybrid. The Insight is legitimately fun thanks to a smooth ride, athletic handling, responsive steering, and a combined output of 151 horsepower. It’s motivated by a 1.5-liter inline four cylinder engine and the third-generation of Honda’s hybrid system, which features a small battery pack and replaces the transmission with an electric motor. Its operation is exceedingly smooth and responsive, and its fuel efficiency is off the charts, with estimates up to 55 mpg city and 49 mpg highway.
Prices start around $18,000, and the 2019 was rated a Top Safety Pick+ from IIHS, the organization’s highest possible rating.
2018 Subaru Crosstrek
Another popular small hatchback that offers used car shoppers proven reliability and safety is the 2018 Subaru Crosstrek. With its higher ride height and more rugged styling, it’s basically the Outback version of the Subaru Impreza. It’s also the only car in its class with standard all-wheel drive, which makes it popular with outdoor adventurers as well as those that live in wet or snowy climates.
The 2018 model is from the second-generation of the Crosstrek, which offers improved comfort, performance, and refinement. It rides better than its predecessor, its structure is more robust, and its interior is quieter. It’s also a bit larger inside and out. Subaru widened the interior about an inch, so five fit more comfortably. There’s also plenty of cargo space for your mountain bike or camping gear: 21 cubic feet with the rear seat upright, and 55 cubic feet when folded flat. Weekend adventurers will also appreciate its generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance.
Under the hood is a 2.0-liter horizontally-opposed four cylinder that’s pleasantly smooth and responsive. But it isn’t a powerhouse. It makes 152 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 145 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. With the popular CVT automatic transmission, it accelerates to 60 mph in about 9.5 seconds. It’s significantly quicker with the 6-speed manual, but the automatic was more popular. Fortunately, its fuel economy is more impressive, at 27 mph city and 33 mpg on the highway.
Base models got an infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touchscreen and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability. EyeSight, Subaru’s active-safety package, was available on the higher trim levels and included adaptive cruise control, automated pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
The 2018 Crosstrek was an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, and prices start around $18,500.
2017 Toyota Prius Prime
This is the only plug-in hybrid on our list. The Prius Prime is very similar to the Prius hybrid; however, it looks a bit different and offers a larger battery pack and the ability to drive solely on electric power.
Toyota offered three versions of the Prius Prime in 2017, the entry-level Plus, the mid-level Premium, and the top-of-the-line Advanced. All three featured a 95-hp 1.8-liter inline-four cylinder gas engine and an 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which is under its backseat. Most of the time, the hatchback blends the power of its electric motor and its gas engine, but it also offers about 25 miles of electric-only driving range. Combined output is a modest 121 horsepower, so the Prius Prime isn’t going to win any drag races. It accelerates to 60 mph in about 10 seconds and has a top speed of just 101 mph. It feels quicker than that, however, and has a spunky character if you’re heavy with the throttle around town.
Again the trade off for its lack of power is outstanding fuel efficiency, with a combined EPA fuel economy estimate of 54 mpg. Of course, if your commute is short enough and you exploit its 25 miles of electric-only driving range on a daily basis, it’s possible not to use any gasoline at all, and your miles per gallon would be infinite.
Its ride quality, handling, and IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating are also impressive, as is its interior space and quality. A Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection and automatic emergency braking was standard. As you might expect, it’s similar to the standard Prius on the inside; however, Premium and Advanced models got a massive 11.6-inch touchscreen that’s unique to the Prime and might convince you for a moment that you’re in a Tesla not a Toyota.
Buyers should also know that there’s no middle seat in the rear. That’s right, the Prime can only carry four passengers, while a standard Prius seats five. There’s 20 cubic feet of cargo space behind those rear seats, which fold flat easily for longer items.
Prices for the 2018 Prius Prime start at about $18,500.
2016 Hyundai Genesis
This is the oldest car on our list, but it’s also one of our favorites. Before Genesis became its own luxury brand in 2017, the Genesis sedan was a model in Hyundai’s extensive line up. When Genesis became its own thing, the midsize sedan became the Genesis G80, which continues to be popular.
In 2016, the rear-wheel drive Genesis sedan offered buyers sporty performance, luxurious appointments, and high levels of safety. The spacious five-seater was completely redesigned the year before, and its large grille and sharp shapely lines still look fresh today.
Two engines were offered, a 311 hp 3.8-liter V6, which was chosen by most buyers, and a 420 hp 5.0-liter V8 that packed quite a punch. Most were rear drive; however, all-wheel drive was available with the V6. An excellent 8-speed automatic, standard with both engines, offered smooth and refined acceleration. These are fast cars, hitting 60 mph in less than 6 seconds even with the V6, which happily runs on cheaper regular grade gas to keep operating costs down.
Inside, the Genesis is as comfortable and well trimmed as its German rivals, offering the usual list of upscale features including heated seats, navigation, leather, wood trim, and keyless entry. Three option packages were available, which added luxuries like a panoramic sunroof and safety in the form of blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise with Automatic Emergency Braking, and front/rear park assist.
For 2016, the Genesis sedan was also awarded the highest possible safety rating by the IIHS, Top Safety Pick+, and NHTSA awarded it a five star overall safety score.
With all the fixins, these sedans cost over $50,000 when new, but today prices start at about $18,000.
2019 Nissan Altima
Nissan’s Altima has been popular for as long as Matthew McConaughey. The first Altima was introduced way back in 1993, the same year the actor stared in his first major motion picture, Dazed and Confused. Alright, alright, alright.
The sixth-generation of the Altima debuted in 2019 with a swoopy new profile and immediately upped the midsize sedan’s already impressive game. It was available in five trim levels and offered all-wheel drive for the first time, a unique feature in its class. A 188 hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine was standard, but Nissan also offered a turbocharged 2.0-liter four cylinder with 248 horsepower. Both engines are paired with a CVT automatic transmission, but only the 2.5-liter was available with AWD. While it offers decent refinement and performance, unless you need AWD, we’d suggest opting for the turbocharged mill, which squirts the Altima to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.
A suspension with a good balance of ride comfort and agile handling also makes the Altima enjoyable to drive, and its fuel economy is good for its class. EPA estimates peak at 28 mpg city and 39 mpg highway with the 2.5-liter, while the turbocharged engine returns a slightly lower 25 mpg city and 35 highway.
Inside, there’s room for five, standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a large 8-inch touchscreen. Forward-collision warning and automated braking are also standard, while more driver-assistance features were available on the higher trim levels, including lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, rear automated emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control. The design of its dashboard is simple but modern, and its interior materials were a step up from the plastics used in prior generations. The SV trim level even got a flat-bottomed steering wheel and faux carbon fiber.
The 2019 Altima was also chosen by IIHS to be a Top Safety Pick, and NHTSA awarded it a five star overall safety score.
Prices for used 2019 Altimas start around $17,000.
5 Bonus Picks
By now, you may be wondering why the perennially popular Honda Accord and Toyota Camry aren’t on our list. Both are safe and reliable and have become default choices for many used car shoppers. Some consider them to be the best used cars in their class. The same can be also said for other pre-owned favorites like the Honda Civic, Toyota Avalon, and the Subaru Legacy.
The Accord, Camry, Civic, Avalon, and Legacy are all excellent cars that we’d also recommend to anyone looking for a good pre-owned vehicle. But we wanted to bring a few unexpected options to your attention. Plus, since everyone else is competing to buy those more obvious picks, the cars on our list should be easier to find — and at even better prices.
Photos courtesy Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota
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