red dodge magnum grill

Fun And Interesting Used Cars For Under $5,000

Looking for a great used car but have only a few thousand bucks to spend? $5,000 represents a common starting point for many budget-conscious buyers (and also a few penny-pinching parents when they go looking for quality used cars for their children).

We challenged the Autoblog editors to find a great, versatile used car, truck or SUV for $5,000 or less. Although you might think the options would be limited, there are actually a wealth of solid vehicles out there that can easily be had on such a budget. And, as you might expect from a group of auto journalists, there are some oddballs thrown in for fun, too.

Head on through to see what we found.
jeep wrangler

Adam Morath (Multimedia Director) - Late 1990s Jeep Wrangler

After my hand-me-down Crown Victoria station wagon limped its way into the automotive graveyard about ten years ago, it was time for my first proper car purchase. The budget was set at $5,000 and the siren's call of a mid-'90s V6 Camaro RS proved too much for a freshly minted 20-year-old college student to pass up.

Needless to say, I'd do things a bit differently now.

As many of my colleagues have pointed out, five grand can afford you a lot of car. Responsible buyers might consider a used small or midsize sedan with a reliable reputation like the Toyota Corolla or Camry. Either would be a great choice, if a bit uninspired.

While I've matured since that misguided six-cylinder purchase of my youth, I admit I'd still look to squeeze some fun out of our budget. It may take a bit of searching and negotiation, but for my money I'd go with a well-loved Jeep Wrangler with about 100,000 miles on the odometer.

In many ways, a Wrangler is the perfect vehicle for my home state of Michigan: unrivaled 4x4 capability for snowy winters and top-free fun for humid summers. Sure, the ride is rough, but if you can find a Jeep TJ for the price, you'll be riding a comparative coil-spring cloud over earlier YJ models.

Of course, what makes Wrangler a truly great used vehicle isn't its ride or reliability, rather its rugged good looks that only improve with age. By my estimation, there aren't many cars that actually look better with a tear in the seat or some rust on the rocker panel, but Wrangler wears its welts with distinction.

An SUV, convertible and icon, all in one? I'm sold.

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Used Jeep Wrangler Listings
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classic fiat sport spider

Chris Bruce (Associate Editor) - Fiat 850 Sport Spider

Let's be entirely honest; the Miata is the best roadster to answer this $5,000 question. It’s reliable, quick and has massive aftermarket support. However, sometimes taking a less optimal route brings its own happiness. Therefore, I present you with a vintage alternative – the Fiat 850 Sport Spider.

Admittedly, you’re giving up a bit of outright speed over the Miata. With less than a liter of displacement from its tiny rear-mounted engine, anything not badged Schwinn or Huffy probably is going to pass you with ease. Although, if you’re buying a ‘60s droptop to keep up with modern performance machines, then your thinking is wrong anyway.

What the Fiat does bring drivers is something more abstract. Italian roadsters from the ‘60s can fetch millions these days. The 850 Sport Spider offers a classic, Bertone-designed roadster at a price practically anyone can afford. Hop behind the wheel with your sweetie in the passenger seat and imagine you’re taking a drive through Stelvio Pass.

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Used Fiat Spider Listings
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silver subaru wrx

Chris McGraw (Associate Multimedia Editor) - 2004 Subaru WRX

Some may scoff at my pick of the 2004 Subaru Impreza WRX, questioning the car’s reliability after 75,000 miles, but take it from the guy whose current vehicle offers a driving experience about as exciting as the tan color of its paint: reliability isn’t everything.

The WRX offers a lot of what I want in a vehicle for only about $5,000. A 2.0-liter turbocharged engine gives the car 227 horsepower, and the all-wheel drive and manual transmission makes it a blast to drive.

In addition to that, the WRX offers 27 mpg on the highway, which really isn’t awful, especially when compared to other vehicles of its era. So, sure, you could go out and get a more reliable car, but I can almost guarantee you won’t be having as good of a time.

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1983 chrysler imperial

Dan Roth (Podcast Producer-Host) – 1983 Chrysler Imperial

These were the next-to-last hurrah for the Imperial, and they've been totally un-loved since day one. What that means is that these bustle-back Imperials are pretty rare, and there's no other car that qualified for the Daytona 500 at nearly 200 mph and also offered a Frank Sinatra Edition with a special center console and cassette tape collection of greatest hits. 

Yes, it's kind of a weird car, but underneath the Imperial is nothing exotic. The underpinnings are shared with the Chrysler Cordoba and Dodge Mirada, and Chrysler's aggressive parts sharing among models means that this rare, angular coupe will not bankrupt you just to stay on the road. Chrysler was two decades into building unitized vehicles at this point, so the Imperial is lighter and more space-efficient than some body-on-frame leviathan, too.  

It’s not really a performance car, but there is a 318 under the hood, paired with a Torqueflite A904. It's a tough combo, and the biggest engine problem these ever had was a flaky fuel injection system. That's the one I'd want, an '83 with Touring Edition suspension upgrade, 40-band CB, and its original fuel injection system.

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Used Chrysler Imperial Listings
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red honda civic

Steve Ewing (Senior Editor) - 1999 Honda Civic Si

Whenever someone I know is looking for an affordable used car, the first two words out of my mouth are always the same: "Honda Civic." In terms of reliability, Honda's stalwart compact simply can't be beat, with models from the past couple of decades easily rolling well into super-high-mileage territory with little issue. My father, for example, has a 1997 Civic EX sedan as his daily driver, and it's still solid as ever, now with over 250,000 miles on the odometer.

But if you're looking for something really special – and don't mind looking for a needle in a haystack – get your hands on the '99 Honda Civic Si coupe. This is, perhaps, one of Honda's most magnificent creations, combining all of the quality and reliability of the fourth-generation Civic with a 16-valve, 160-horsepower VTEC engine. Low weight, a superb chassis and fantastic steering make the Si a real honey to drive, not to mention the fantastic five-speed manual gearbox and dizzying 8,000-rpm redline.

The trick with the Civic Si, though, is finding one. The Civic itself may be a dime a dozen on the used market, but the Si can often be a rare bird in some markets. But if you find yourself eyeing a low-mileage, clean example (tints, wings and body kits don't add to your street cred), you'd be a fool to pass it up.

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dodge magnum san francisco skyline

Greg Migliore (Senior Editor) – 2005 Dodge Magnum

The Dodge Magnum was one of the cars that gave enthusiasts hope in the early aughts. We suffered through two decades with few legitimate muscle cars, and then the Magnum rolled onto the scene. Yes it was a wagon, but it had powerful engines, beefy styling and rear-wheel drive. Sounds like legit muscle cred to me. Remember, in 2004 when the Magnum launched (as a 2005 model), rear-wheel drive was going the way of the dinosaurs in mainstream cars. The Magnum, which was followed by the Charger and then the Challenger, helped prop up a feature that’s near and dear to enthusiasts. Besides, if you’re looking to actually use this as regular used car, then the wagon is more practical than the other Dodges.

According to online estimates, it’s a little tight to get a Magnum at less than $5,000, but it can be done. You’re probably talking about a 3.5-liter V6-equipped model, but that’s still potent with 250 hp. That was a lot back then, and it’s still respectable. Yes, the interior is dated, but you’re getting a lot of car that offers a lot of fun, and still plenty of practicality.


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red mazda rx8

Jeremy Korzeniewski (Managing Editor) – 2004 Mazda RX-8

I hardly believed my eyes when I first saw a decent 2004 Mazda RX-8 on Craigslist for $5,000. A fluke, I thought.

But no. I spent an hour looking online in various cities across the United States, and I was rewarded with at least a dozen 2004 RX-8s all at our self-imposed $5,000 price limit. Suffice it to say, the RX-8 will offer a stupid amount of fun for that relatively small sum.

I know this firsthand, having purchased an RX-8 in Winning Blue brand-new in 2004, the car's first year. Few cars are as balanced on a race track as Mazda's most recent rotary wonder, with just enough power to break traction when you want and enough grip in the corners that you probably don't.

Granted, the RX-8 is far from perfect. Its propensity to drink consumables – specifically oil and gas – like an Eskimo in the Sahara is well documented, as are the Wankel's unfortunate propensity to sometimes give up the ghost at frighteningly low mileage (thankfully, the engine is pretty darn easy to rebuild for someone with average mechanical ability).

If those faults don't frighten you, you're going to love driving the RX-8. It's a screaming deal at $5,000.

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silver 2002 chevy silverado

Jeremy Korzeniewski (Managing Editor) – 2002 Chevy Silverado

There are a lot of Americans who'd love to own a nice truck. If that's you, well, here you go.

I'd look for a Chevy Silverado (or its identical twin, the GMC Sierra) with a V8 engine instead of the standard V6, which shouldn't be too hard, considering the 5.3-liter small block was installed in scores of 'em. The four-speed automatic transmissions are down a few gears from more modern trucks, but, like the engines, they're durable.

A fullsize pickup truck makes a great second car, especially if your main mobile gets decent fuel mileage (or is a Mazda RX-8). Something to think about, no?

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while land rover discovery

Michael Austin (Executive Editor) – Land Rover Discovery II

SUVs are hot right now, and budget shouldn't stop you from joining the bandwagon. I recommend the Land Rover Discovery, as it will stand out in the SoulCycle parking lot from the ubiquitous style of modern crossovers.

Sure, you could buy something newer or more reliable, but the Disco makes a statement of rugged individualism. And besides, my theory is that any old Land Rover is a survivor – all the major kinks have already been worked out. The conventional wisdom that anything could break at any time only backs up the image of Churchillian determination that comes with Land Rover ownership. This is is a vehicle that can not only go anywhere, it can strand you anywhere. Or at least that's what everyone else will think when they look at you in awe of your bravery.

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1980s mercedes wagon

Seyth Miersma (Senior Editor) – Mercedes-Benz 300TD Wagon (W123)

I grew up driving junkyard specials and hand-me-down cars, so I still believe that $5,000 is a great amount of money with which to buy an interesting car. Ask me the $5k-question on any given day and I’ll have a different answer for you (E30 3 Series, NA Miata, Ford F-100, etc.) but lately I’ve been hankering hard for a big ‘Benz wagon.

The early to mid 1980s Mercedes-Benz 300TD wagon (the series known by the internal designation W123) is about as lovely as the station wagon genre has to offer. Old-style thin pillars hardly break up an immense, airy glasshouse, and the interior of a well-kept example still feels rich and solid.

The turbo-diesel engine (sold in North America from 1981 on) is anything but fast, but it’s got decent levels of torque as long as you can keep the turbo spinning, and it can run on anything from fryer grease to olive oil if you’re in a pinch. What’s not to love about a car that runs on food?

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Used Mercedes 300-Series Listings
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