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The Best Used Cars

It’s a decision that’s nearly as old as the auto business itself — should you buy a new car or a used one? While buying a new car carries an immeasurable degree of cachet for many consumers, buying a used model is typically a better deal. And this is even with used-car prices on the rise — they’ve jumped by around four percent over the last 12 months according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index.

Full List: The Best Used Cars

Still, factory-fresh vehicles carry substantially higher price tags than same-make-and-model used ones and tend to take a larger hit in depreciation over the first few years of ownership. A new car can lose 50 percent or more of its resale value within just three years — that makes a three-year-old model at least half the cost of an average new one, which today is priced at nearly $30,000 according to, an industry research and forecasting company.

We’ve identified what we feel are currently the industry’s best used cars, based largely on results from the latest J.D. Power & Associates U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study of three-year-old models.

One caveat: Buying any used car involves a measure of risk. Always have a used car under your consideration checked out by a trusted mechanic before signing on the proverbial dotted line to ensure that it’s in top operating condition. Also run its vehicle identification number (VIN) through a title-search service like to make sure it hasn’t been previously flood-damaged or wrecked and subsequently salvaged.

Honda Fit
Even as a three-year old model, the subcompact Honda Fit is a perfect car for the times. It performs well, is reliable and gets good fuel economy at 28-city/34-highway. Best of all it’s an inexpensive car that doesn’t feel cheap. Its 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine nets just 109 horsepower, but that’s sufficient to get this small car up to speed, especially if you find one that’s equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission. A five-speed automatic is also available. The Honda Fit’s handling is sharper than with most small cars, which makes it a good choice for driving enthusiasts as an economical commuter. It’s roomier on the inside than its diminutive exterior might otherwise indicate and its rear-seat folds flat into the floor to create a voluminous cargo hold. A Sport model includes larger wheels and tires (for a slightly smoother ride), steering-wheel paddle shifters and a few extra features, though the base model should suit most buyers.

Scion xB
Remaining current in the generation that debuted for the 2008 model year, the quirky Scion xB remains both boxy and muscular-looking. Then as now, the xB comes adequately powered by a 158 horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine it originally shared with the Toyota Camry. A five-speed manual was the standard transmission, but we found it a bit too notchy shifting for our tastes; instead look for models that come with the four-speed automatic. While no sports car, the Scion xB delivers athletic handling abilities even a casual motorist can appreciate. You’ll find used xBs generously equipped with standard vehicle stability control, front-side and side-curtain airbags, keyless entry and a premium audio system with full iPod integration. A roomy interior can transport four six-footers in complete comfort, which is why xBs of this generation are often used as taxicabs. With the back seat folded flat its cargo volume rivals many midsize SUVs.

Ford Fusion / Mercury Milan / Lincoln MKZ
This trio of attractive midsize sedans delivers agreeable performance, comfort and utility. Each offers its own distinct styling, with the Lincoln MKZ being the handsomest choice, though it commands a higher price. The 2008 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan came standard with a just-sufficient 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and a choice of a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission; look instead for one that’s fitted with the optional 221-hp 3.0-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic. Meanwhile, the Lincoln MKZ packed a quicker 263-hp 3.5-liter V-6 and the six-speed gearbox. The cars’ ride and handling characteristics are reasonably well balanced, with the Lincoln delivering a slightly plusher ride. Those subject to harsh winters should seek out a model that was equipped with the optional all-wheel-drive system for added traction. The sedans’ five-passenger interiors are sufficiently roomy and come trimmed in premium materials. If you’re a techie, look for a model that comes with Ford’s Sync voice-activated multimedia control system.

Ford Edge
The Ford Edge midsize crossover SUV debuted for 2008 and isn’t drastically different than the current generation that came out for 2011. The five-passenger Edge affords a quiet and comfortable interior, with head- and legroom that’s sufficient for four tall passengers, with a fifth being able to squeeze in as needed. A 3.5-liter V6 engine nets a brisk 265 horsepower and is nicely paired with a sophisticated six-speed automatic transmission. Handling is about average among midsize people movers, though the optional “intelligent” all-wheel-drive system improves its cornering abilities a bit on dry pavement in addition to boosting its wet-road traction. You’ll find all versions equipped with stability control and six airbags; options to look for include the nifty Sync multimedia control system, a power-operated hatchback, rear-proximity parking alarm, heated front seats and a back-seat DVD entertainment system.

Honda CR-V
With the exception of a few tweaks and updates, the 2008 version of the Honda CR-V compact crossover remain current. It’s styling is neither too expressive nor too conservative and remains fresh. Its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine generates a sufficient 166 horsepower and is mated to a standard five-speed automatic transmission; fuel economy is rated at a decent 20-city/27-highway mpg. The Honda CR-V’s ride and handling qualities are on a par with most comparably sized passenger cars; seek out one that’s equipped with the optional all-wheel-drive system for added traction under inclement conditions. Standard safety features include stability and traction control, front-side airbags and side-curtain airbags that automatically deploy if a sensor determines the vehicle is about to rollover. Noteworthy features to look for include a navigation system with an integrated backup camera display for easier and safer parking.

Lexus RX 350
The Lexus RX was the first luxury crossover to be sold in the U.S. and quickly became not only the best-seller in Lexus’ lineup but also the most popular luxury SUV in the industry. It was last redesigned for the 2010 model year, but the previous version still looks current and delivers similar performance. Then as now, the RX 350 comes powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine that generates a brisk 270 horsepower; for 2008 it was mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, and you’ll find some used models further equipped with a manual-shift feature. All-wheel-drive was optional, with seven airbags (including one at knee-height for the driver) and stability control standard. The Lexus RX 350 features a comfortable wood- and leather-trimmed interior with convenient storage bins scattered throughout the cabin. A long list of amenities includes a standard power-operated tailgate and a CD changer. Some models can be found with a full array of high-tech gizmos like adaptive headlamps that illuminate the road around turns; a voice-activated GPS navigation system, a rear-view back-up camera and an adaptive cruise-control system that can automatically maintain a preset distance between the vehicle ahead.

Toyota Sienna
Over the years the Toyota Sienna minivan has proved to be a workhorse of a family vehicle, delivering solid performance with a bevy of leading-edge features and stalwart reliability. The vehicle was just redesigned for 2011, but changes weren’t drastic over the previous generation, which came powered by a sturdy 266-horsepower 3.5-liter engine and five-speed automatic transmission. The Toyota Sienna remains the only minivan to offer all-wheel-drive, though such models may be difficult to locate in the resale market. Available with seven- or eight-passenger seating, the third row seat folds flat into floor one half at a time for maximum cargo-carrying flexibility. Six airbags are included, though antiskid stability control was standard only on select versions and optional elsewhere in the line. You’ll find some used Siennas equipped with what are still high-end features like a rear-view video camera and front/rear parking proximity warnings to facilitate parallel parking, laser-guided adaptive cruise control, a satellite navigation system and surround-sound audio.

Mazda MX-5 Miata
Perhaps the best sports car value among new or used vehicles, 2008 was the last model year before the low-slung Mazda MX-5 Miata adopted its current “happy face” front end styling, which we find cloyingly cute. Otherwise it’s remained true to its roots over the years as a reasonably simple, peppy and nimble small roadster. Its two-seat interior is a snug fit, but it’s a minor tradeoff on a warm summer’s day while driving on a twisty road with the top down. Offered with either a manual cloth top or power retractable hardtop, we prefer the former for simpler and glitch-free operation. A lightweight 2.0-liter four-cylinder generates a respectable 166 horsepower, and is best mated to a manual transmission, which here can either be a five-speed or slicker-shifting short-throw six-speed version. Though sacrilegious in some circles you may find a few used Mazda MX-5 Miatas fitted with the optional six-speed automatic transmission; at least it came with steering wheel-mounted paddles for quasi-manual operation.

Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class
Smaller than the larger and swanker CL- and SL-Class models and larger and costlier than the two-seat SLK-Class, the since-discontinued midsize Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class can be found in both sporty luxury coupe and convertible versions. It performs well and delivers ample comfort, with an attractive exterior design that still looks contemporary. A standard sports suspension gives it just enough in the way of cornering abilities without delivering a harsh ride in the process. You’ll find it as a CLK350 with a just-adequate 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, a more-pleasing 382-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 in the CLK500 or a 475-horsepower 6.3-liter V-8 in the overpriced and outrageous CLK63 AMG. As is Mercedes’ modus operandi, standard safety and vehicle-control systems and creature comforts are plentiful. Options to look for include adaptive cruise control that can automatically maintain a set speed and interval on the highway, and high-intensity Xenon headlamps with Active Curve Illumination that can help illuminate the road at night through curves.

Chevrolet Tahoe / GMC Yukon
While casual buyers have fled the full-size SUV segment in favor of car-like crossovers, the Chevrolet Tahoe and its near-twin, the GMC Yukon remain top picks for those who require a large and powerful vehicle for hauling and towing. You may find some models in the used market equipped with the base 4.8-liter V8, but look instead for those that come with the 320-horsepower 5.3-liter V8 that was otherwise included in most versions across both lines; a stronger-yet 380-horsepower 6.2-liter V8 was also offered. Both the Tahoe and Yukon ride on a fully boxed frame for stout structural rigidity. A responsive suspension delivers a reasonably smooth ride with relatively easy (though not necessarily nimble) handling. Offered in either rear- or four-wheel drive models, with either two or three rows of seats and a full range of safety features included, you’ll likely find most used models on a dealer’s lot equipped with plenty of amenities.

Toyota Tundra
Often overlooked in a segment that’s dominated by domestic brand-loyal buyers, the full-size Toyota Tundra pickup truck is nevertheless rugged and reliable, and can tackle the toughest tasks. The truck is handsomely designed, with a roomy and comfortable interior and easygoing ride and handling characteristics. It was last redesigned for 2008 and remains current. As with all big pickups, used Tundras can be found in various cab sizes, bed lengths and mechanical configurations, so shop wisely and according to your specific needs. A 236-horsepower 4.0-liter V6 was standard in 2008, but that engine is suited only for light-duty applications; a better choice would be either of the two available V8s, a 276-hp 4.7-liter and a 381-hp 5.7-liter. While most versions included a five-speed automatic transmission, those equipped with the largest V8 came with a smoother six-speed version. Available in rear- and 4X4 versions, antilock brakes, stability control and an automatic limited-slip differential for added traction are all standard. If you intend to use the truck for towing, look for models equipped with the optional tailgate-mounted camera that helps improve visibility when hitching a trailer.

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