Finding a good used car is both an exciting and daunting experience. Get it right, score a bargain that lasts for years and is great to drive and you’ll be telling the story for years. Get it wrong and it’s heartache all the way.
Australians are spoilt for choice when buying new, which means there are also plenty of cars to choose from on the used-car market. Buying used is a risk, but there are many ways of mitigating that when looking for the best second-hand cars available.
Always look for the newest, lowest-kilometre model you can afford, as you’ll see clear improvements in features, including improved safety, fuel efficiency and tech. Items such as Bluetooth, while common in new cars for the past decade, are easily overlooked in some of the best cheap cars.
Low kilometres mean less chance that the vehicle has been in an accident, and of course means lower levels of wear and tear. Importantly, the vehicle condition should match the mileage on the odometer, and if it appears too good to be true, it usually is. Look at the foot pedals, seats and touch points for wear and tear.
Alternatively, recently new parts could indicate an issue, from mechanical problems to freshly prepped body work that may be an attempt to hide accident damage. Mismatching panel colours, odd gaps between panels and mis-matching tyres are signs of potential issues.
A full service history is important, however as you head down the list of cheap reliable cars, the chances of finding that become lower. You should still look for logbooks and service records as an indication of how the vehicle has been treated and looked after. The number of owners is generally less significant as a vehicle gets older, but it’s still a case of the fewer the better.
Also check suitability for your needs. Everything from second row and luggage space, fuel economy and insurance costs through to towing capability if you’re caravanning. If you have a younger driver, such as a P-plater, who may be driving it, check that it is legal for them to do so in your state.
Other important things to consider when looking for cheap reliable cars include checking if any money is owing on the vehicle, as this debt may cause the vehicle to be repossessed from you, and also whether it has been included in any recalls. Recalls are common, but it’s important that the recall fix has been carried out on your vehicle if it has been mandated.
It’s always worth checking a prospective vehicle for any outstanding recalls. The recent Takata airbag recall, for example, impacted 100 million vehicles globally.
When buying from a dealership, you are buying with more confidence, particularly if it’s a dealership from a major brand. Looking at older cars, which most large dealers from car makes will not sell, has you in the realm of some potentially less-reputable establishments and is not as strong a source of confidence. You pay a premium at dealerships for this peace of mind, but it’s often worth it.
Buying private is a complete mixed bag. On one hand, you’re not dealing with a professional haggler in most cases, and you’ll likely pay less for the vehicle, generally. Yet it is buyer beware, so if you’re not confident, or your instincts tell you to avoid a vehicle, don’t buy.
A pre-purchase vehicle inspection is one way to reduce risk when deciding whether to commit to a purchase. While nothing is foolproof, it’s one way to have a qualified inspector pick things that you may miss, and can potentially save you thousands of dollars, heartache and inconvenience, too.
Shopping at a low price point makes this even more important: the vehicle is more likely to have a coloured history, from maintenance to collision damage, and even a well looked after vehicle may have worn parts that – not unfairly – will need replacing in the near future.
There’s also minimal, if any, warranty. In most cases, once you drive away in the vehicle, you’re on your own and any issues are your responsibility. An inspection is well worth it compared to the cost of a serious mistake.
Most Reliable Cars Under $10K
- Suzuki Swift 2011-2013 (FZ)
- Hyundai i30 2007-2012 (FD)
- Mazda3 2009-2013 (BL)
- Honda Accord Euro 2008-2009 (CU1)
- Subaru Liberty 2003-2009 (BL/BP)
- Mazda6 2008-2013 (GH)
- Ford Falcon 2008-2014 (FG)
- Holden Commodore 2006-2010 (VE)
- Toyota Aurion 2006-2011 (XV40)
- Kia Sportage 2010-2014 (SL)
- Subaru Forester 2008-2013 (SH)
- Holden Commodore Sportwagon 2006-2013 (VE/VF)
Best Light/Small Cars
Suzuki Swift 2011-2013 (FZ)
Suzuki is well known for building durable, fun-to-drive small cars, making the Swift a pragmatic yet fun choice. With solid build quality, good driving dynamics and styling reminiscent of the much pricier Mini, it stands apart from others at this price point. Offered solely as a five-door hatch body, the boot is small, as is the rear seat, yet the Swift is fuel efficient and handles well.
Hyundai i30 2007-2012 (FD)
The CarsGuide 2007 Car of the Year, the original i30 brought the new alpha-numeric name as Hyundai looked to become more upmarket rather than cheap and cheerful. Chasing the Mazda3, Golf and Civic, the i30 featured a smart design with a choice of a 1.6-litre diesel (which won CarsGuide Green Car of the Year) or 2.0-litre petrol engines. Locally tuned suspension for Australia’s poor roads helped the drive, while there’s actually space for four adults to sit in comfort, too.
Mazda3 2009-2013 (BL)
In 2012, the Mazda3 became Australia’s best-selling car, and it’s no mystery why. Excellent build quality, smart styling and a reputation for reliability makes it highly desirable, with a choice of five-door hatch or four-door sedans. The entry-level Neo is well equipped, with remote central locking, power windows and mirrors. Models with the optional safety pack push its ANCAP rating from four to five stars, with a 2011 facelift adding a new 2.0-litre SkyActiv engine for improved efficiency and running costs.
Best Medium Cars
Honda Accord Euro 2008-2009 (CU1)
The second-generation Accord Euro delivered exemplary build quality, features and a powerful, strong engine. Standard luxury features across the range included cruise, automatic air, 10-speaker CD audio, as well as power mirrors and windows. Full service history even on high-mileage cars is a must, with the superb 2.4-litre four-cylinder demanding premium petrol – so you’ll pay a little more at the pump. With a wider cabin than its predecessor, back seat space is adequate not generous, but there’s little to complain about in what’s an excellent package.
Subaru Liberty 2003-2009 (BL/BP)
Criticised as conservative when new, the Subaru Liberty’s styling has aged well, which can’t be said of later Subaru models… Its 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre engines have won awards around the world, as did the car itself. With standard all-wheel drive, excellent build quality and an upgraded 2.0-litre from 2006, the Liberty is a brilliant sedan or wagon. The 100,000km cam-belt change and regular servicing will keep up the reliability, so make sure you have a full service history or factor in a significant service when shopping.
Mazda6 2008-2013 (GH)
The Mazda6 isn’t replaced so often, with the current 2021 model on sale since 2013. The first and second generation, spanning 2002 until 2013, set the mould for a superb mid-size sedan, wagon and – the pick – a smarter looking hatch version. A 2008 facelift saw features such as Dynamic Stability Control and curtain airbags standard on every model, with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a five-speed auto or six-speed manual. There’s also a 2.2-litre diesel, which wasn’t available in automatic.
Best Large Cars
Ford Falcon 2008-2014 (FG)
If you’re looking for a spacious, well-equipped tow vehicle, the Falcon is the large-car pick. With strong mechanicals from its thoroughly engineered 4.0-litre straight six, the rear-wheel-drive workhorse also brought features such as Bluetooth, a reversing camera and – for the first time – a Falcon with a single-stamped side for better safety and refinement. Heavy fuel consumption’s a trade-off for its capability, with high mileage not phasing a Falcon. You may even find a high-kay XR6, with stylish body kit and alloys, for under $10k.
Holden Commodore 2006-2010 (VE)
The traditional Commodore versus Falcon comparison continues when shopping for a large used sedan, but the VE Commodore – which Holden spent $1 billion developing – is an inherently great vehicle. With better interior equipment, superior drivability and fuel efficiency, the VE also offers great rear-seat passenger space and cargo-carrying capability. Entry-level Omegas had a lower powered version of the 3.8-litre V6, and can officially tow 1600 compared to Falcon’s 2100kg, but it remains thirsty despite a six-speed automatic. Still, the Commodore delivers space and dependability in spades.
Toyota Aurion 2006-2011 (XV40)
As a budget buy, a high-mileage Aurion is a smart option. A V6 Camry by another name – meaning it’s not as roomy as a Commodore, Falcon or Mitsubishi 380 – the standard 3.5-litre with six-speed auto is punchy yet refined. A plain interior with a rear seat a little narrower than rivals is still adequate, yet the massive 515L boot is larger than Commodore’s. The Aurion has more airbags (seven), too, and achieved one of ANCAP’s highest scores when it was tested.
Kia Sportage 2010-2014 (SL)
The Sportage ticks all the boxes as a family vehicle that can handle the suburban duty roster, with sufficient cabin space to cart five, solid build quality and stylish good looks that have aged well. The 2.4-litre diesel is the pick over the petrol engines, but in the current market you’re more likely to find the front-wheel-drive entry-level Si trim level for under $10k. Missed at the 2010 introduction, Bluetooth was added in 2011, the sweet spot at this price point.
Subaru Forester 2008-2013 (SH)
The Forester delivers excellent build quality, safety and features in a reliable and rugged-looking package. Prices are all over the place at the moment across generations, reflecting its strong reputation and resale value. You can likely be less afraid of high kilometres if it has a full service history and is well maintained, while you’ll also have 2.0-litre diesel Foresters in that price range, too. A 2009 update saw emergency brake assist, additional airbags and a trip computer added across the range, with Bluetooth introduced in 2011.
Holden Commodore Sportwagon 2006-2013 (VE/VF)
If you’re after a conventional wagon, the Commodore Sportwagon is the pick. The 3.0-litre model provides much better economy than a similar age Falcon, the trade-off being that it cannot tow as much. Still, there’s a 3.6-litre version with an official 2100kg tow rating in an arguably much more handsome design. Great to drive, with excellent dynamics, it also has a clever tailgate arrangement, with its hinges deep into the roofline, that enables an opening in smaller spaces and easier loading.
By Stephen Corby
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