Buying a second-hand car is a lot like online dating: you might find something visually appealing that catches your eye, and the first test drive might prove to be an overall excellent experience, but you’re not really going to get to know what’s under the hood until you’ve spent a proper amount of time living with each other.
Still, life is all about calculated risks, so when seeking out the most reliable second-hand cars on the market, it’s best to keep that in mind. You’ll need to do your homework, obviously, but essentially you’re taking a leap of faith that you hope pays off in the long-term.
This makes recommending the most reliable used cars a bit of a tricky proposition, since doing so boils down to making an educated guess, rather than an exact science that can be measured using test tubes and Bunsen burners (we assume that’s all you need to do science-y things). Even though cars are built on production lines in gleaming factories, somehow, not all of them come out the same – so even the most reliable car companies in the world can still make the odd dunger.
Add in the fact that second-hand cars have all been treated completely differently by their owners, and you’ve got a lot of variables.
Caveats aside, there are a few other factors to take into consideration, such as cost.
Sure, Porsche is a hugely reliable brand, but is the average Joe seeking out a schmick – and pricey – 911 when they’re out hunting for reliable cars? Probably not. (Having said that, it’s worth dropping in that a Porsche engineer once told me they over-engineer their cars by about “400 per cent”, so if you have the coin, a used Porsche still represents a good investment, and a damn good driving experience).
While Porsche represents the sexy – and likely unobtainable – high-end of the scale, it doesn’t automatically mean you need to go to the other extreme and solely target sexless, dull-as-dishwater vehicles that may rank highly in terms of where they sit on car-reliability rankings, but are about as exciting as looking at your nan’s stamp collection on a Sunday.
We’re certainly not pointing any fingers here, but Toyota drivers swear up and down that Toyotas are about as reliable and hardy as a car can get, and they’d probably make a good case for why this list should contain nothing but Camrys, Corollas, Yarises and the like.
For variety’s sake, and a snapshot of what Australians are actually thinking, however, we can turn to a 2020 survey from Canstar* asking participants what they thought the most reliable cars were on our roads, based on new models that were purchased from a dealership during the last three years.
Folk who believe in the “every kid gets a participation medal” philosophy will be pleased to know the results revealed a four-way tie for most reliable car between Suzuki, Subaru, Mazda and Hyundai, making it almost a clean sweep for Japanese badges (Hyundai, of course, being a Korean exception).
The second wave of car brands, scoring four stars each, were Mercedes, Kia, Toyota and Mitsubishi (who were top of the pops on the 2019 survey).
Tailing behind them were Audi, Nissan, Honda, Holden and BMW, and coming in last with three stars each were Ford and Volkswagen.
Out of the above, Subaru is the brand that I’d recommend the most in terms of value for money, reliability, and for simply being one of the best used cars in Australia, but that’s not to say that anything other than a Subaru on the list is a lemon.
In no set order, here are our recommendations for the most reliable used cars in Australia.
1. Toyota Yaris
The Toyota Yaris has always enjoyed strong word of mouth – I know multiple performance-car aficionados and motoring experts who swear by them and recommend them to basically anyone within earshot.
The overall appearance of the Yaris has improved over the years, but that’s not why you buy one – you buy a Yaris for top-shelf reliability, and a hard-wearing interior that makes it one of the most durable cars on the market.
The Yaris first appeared in 2005, and has sold well over 200,000 units in Australia, meaning there are plenty on the second-hand market, where it’s a popular choice for L- and P-plate drivers.
2. Mitsubishi Mirage
Think of the Mirage as being like The Little Engine That Could: a tiny package with more guts than you’d expect, despite it only having a three-cylinder engine post-2013.
The Mirage’s zippiness is due in large part to a small and economical engine that has no problem getting the Mirage from point A to point B, the Mirage’s relatively light 900kg kerb weight is no doubt a contributing factor.
There are also the attractive safety features: six airbags, with full-length curtain airbags, plus useful electronic driver-assistance systems.
The Mazda3 has enjoyed being Australia’s top-selling car on more than one occasion, and it has been a consistent seller since its launch here in 2004, meaning there’s no shortage of them on the second-hand car market.
Cars don’t reach those kind of figures by being unreliable, so the ubiquity of the Mazda3 should bring some level of comfort to those seeking out a trustworthy second-hand model.
The Mazda3 was also given an upgrade in 2019, with models getting a 2.5-litre engine as standard, where previously it was only optional.
4. Hyundai i30
You’ll find everyone from your mechanic to your mate’s mum swearing by the reliability of the Hyundai i30, which has quietly found itself becoming one of the most highly regarded hatchbacks going.
Besides being relatively cheap, the Korean carmaker has also tailored the i30’s suspension and steering for Australian driving conditions, which is the kind of special touch that earns brand loyalty.
As another sweetener, Hyundai has long offered a five-year/unlimited-distance warranty, which passes on to second-hand buyers – a bonus if you purchase a model under five years old.
5. Honda Civic
Since its launch in Japan in 1972, the Honda Civic has sold over 19 million units worldwide, with over 300,000 of those calling Australia home, so your chances of running into one while searching for a decent second-hand car are pretty high.
The newest iterations of the Honda Civic haven’t quite captured the Australian public’s imagination the same way that the older models did, but that doesn’t mean the Civic should be dismissed.
A major selling point is that the Civic is quite simple in a mechanical sense, meaning it’s relatively easy to maintain and repair, which should bring some peace of mind knowing that you won’t be stuck with ongoing major costs.
6. Kia Optima
Much like fellow Korean car manufacturer Hyundai, Kia’s reputation has only grown over time, as has the quality of its cars.
The Kia Optima sedan was upgraded in 2015, and any second-hand model you can find post-2011 should deliver you decent quality for a fair price (prior to 2011, the Optima could be best described as “passable”).
Kia also offers a seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty that passes on to second-hand buyers, which should add a certain level of confidence when purchasing one.
7. Subaru Outback
If you’re looking for a bit of extra space, a station wagon can be a good middle-ground between a sedan and a full-sized SUV.
The Subaru Outback is almost like the bastard love child of a station wagon and an SUV, being that it’s high-rise, yet not quite as bulky as an SUV, yet it comes with All-Wheel Drive (AWD) like many SUVs do, which provides the Outback extra grip in trying driving conditions.
Subarus have an excellent reputation for reliability, so in terms of bang for your buck, you can’t really go wrong with an Outback.
8. Suzuki Jimny
This iconic 4×4 mini-SUV has been punching above its weight for over 50 years now, and it’s the epitome of a great car that comes with a great price.
Its compact size means it’s able to zip about and park in urban environments with ease, but it’s also a tough little nugget that’s built to handle rugged off-roading when the need arises.
It was rebuilt from the ground up in 2019, but that doesn’t discredit any pre-2019 models you may find being offered by a second-hand dealer or private seller. After all, a car doesn’t become iconic unless it has the goods to back up the hype, and in the case of the Jimny, that reputation is well-earned.
By Stephen Corby
Disclaimer: Prices, features, warranties and other information that may be shown in this editorial content (Review Information) is to be used as a guide only and is based on information provided to Carsguide Autotrader Media Solutions Pty Ltd (CAMS) both by third party sources and the car manufacturer at the time of publication. The Review Information was correct at the time of publication. CAMS does not warrant or represent that the Review Information is accurate, reliable, complete, current or suitable for any particular purpose. You should not use or rely upon the Review Information without conducting an independent assessment and valuation of the vehicle.
*Source: New car reviews and ratings survey by Canstar Blue 2020