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. But if your budget is a little bit larger, check out our top picks for used cars under $10,000.
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. – Chris McGraw (Associate Multimedia Editor)
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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. – Greg Migliore (Senior Editor)
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1990-1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata
There’s a reason the Miata is an obvious answer to the sub-$5,000 question, that a large proportion of auto writers have at least one, and that you hear its praises sung so often you might start tuning it out. Stop that, and start listening. It deserves a place on your short list.
There’s not much in this price range that offers so much fun and enjoyment with so little headache. Even stock, the Miata was precisely engineered to reward the driver. The earlier 1.6-liters (115 hp) need to be worked hard to get up to speed, but once there it’s a blast. The 1.8s trade a smidge of weight for extra grunt (128 hp). They’re my preferred version, a little more driveable around town. The stock exhaust has the perfect growl, the shifter is sublime, the controls are light and accurate. There’s body roll and cowl shake, sure, but the roadholding is phenomenal. Spend some bucks at a place like Flyin' Miata, and the sky's the limit.
I owned a 1996 Miata for almost 6 years, and it remains the only car I’ve sold that I truly miss. The Miata’s biggest strengths are also, arguably, its biggest flaws. The sheer number sold means there's a glut of trashed, highly modified, or tired ones out there. The supply of clean, low-mileage Miatas is dwindling, and yet you can’t swing a dead cat around Craigslist and not find at least a couple prospects, at least in states without road salt.
The thing is, $7,000 should buy you an extremely nice NA Miata, and $5,000 still buys a clean one with higher miles. NBs are a little pricier as a rule, but you might find one for less than $5k if you feel strongly about it. These cars are relatively bulletproof if they’re taken care of. The engine is overbuilt and understressed and the driveline is solid. Interiors plastics can deteriorate, soft tops are a consumable item, and hardtops are wonderful and worth getting but in very limited supply. No matter – most parts are cheap and plentiful, and so are donor cars. Find a clean driver and drive the wheels off the thing, and you won’t give a flying jinba ittai about going with the flow. – Alex Kierstein (Senior Editor)
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2009-2013 Honda Fit
This list needs a hatchback. The Fit is not only supremely practical and great in the city, but it manages to be a pretty entertaining drive. The second-gen cars barely make it under the five-grand cap, and the ones that do will have a decent amount of miles on them, but these things are pretty reliable and tend to be well taken care of. First-gen cars, sold from 2007 to '08, have the same Magic seat setup, which allows you to reconfigure the back seat and cargo area in a ton of useful ways. There are few everyday chores a Fit can't handle. Plus, it's kind of cute. – David Gluckman (Editorial Program Manager)
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1998-2004 Land Rover Discovery IISUVs 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 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. – Michael Austin (Editor-in-Chief)
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2004 Mazda RX-8I 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. – Jeremy Korzeniewski (Consumer Editor)
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1964-1973 Fiat 850 Sport SpiderLet'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. – Chris Bruce (Associate Editor)
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1983 Chrysler ImperialThese 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. – Dan Roth (Podcast Producer-Host)
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2002 Chevy SilveradoThere 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? – Jeremy Korzeniewski (Consumer Editor)
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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 a Wrangler wears its welts with distinction.
An SUV, convertible and icon, all in one? I'm sold.
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