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. The National Automobile Dealer’s Association attributes this largely to a rollback in new-car leasing and slow new-car sales over the last three years, which in turn depleted the supply of used models on dealers’ lots.
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 TrueCar.com, 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. The study was conducted among 43,700 original owners of 2008 model-year vehicles regarding problems experienced during the prior 12 months. All of the models in our list were rated as being “among the best” in overall reliability and in particular got top scores in powertrain dependability, which affects key components like the engine, transmission, steering and suspension. We fine-tuned our final list of choices according to their current resale values, how well they performed when new and how they fare against their brand-new 2012 equivalents in terms of styling and features.
The 14 models we’ve selected run the gamut in terms of size, performance and accommodations, from the pint-sized and perky subcompact Honda Fit that rewards a commuter with stellar fuel economy, to the purposeful Chevrolet Tahoe full-size SUV that’s big and powerful enough to transport a large family and their belongings to the lake house and tow a sizeable boat in the process.
Among luxury cars, more-affluent bargain hunters will find plenty to like with either the Mercedes-Benz CLK coupe or convertible or the Lexus RX 350 crossover SUV. Growing families will want to consider buying a used Toyota Sienna minivan for its passenger-friendly nature, while those with a taste for pure automotive enjoyment will enjoy maximum smiles per gallon by choosing a pre-owned Mazda MX-5 Miata.
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 carfax.com to make sure it hasn’t been previously flood-damaged or wrecked and subsequently salvaged.