Most of us, by now, have had at least one car buying experience. It can be a real hassle, especially if you’re on a tight budget or if you’re not familiar with the best offerings on the market. While this list isn’t going to be official in any real capacity (just being honest) we did try to have some fun with it and get a little creative. Our list of the best used cars under $15,000 is not exhaustive, somewhat opinionated, and somewhat diverse, so you may see something you didn’t expect, or something you expected to be on the list may not have made it.
Some of these cars are practical, fuel efficient, and have plenty of storage space while others are what we’ll call ‘enthusiast cars’. We tried to get a good mix of the two while being as realistic as possible, so hopefully, our hard work pays off.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the best used cars under $15,000.
Acura TL – Pre-2012
You really can’t go wrong with an Acura because it’s really just a Honda with makeup on. The TL may be a bit dated by now as far as creature comforts are concerned, but rest assured that it is still a very comfortable and practical vehicle.
The TL comes with either a 3.5L V6 producing 280 hp or a 3.7L V6 producing 305 hp, both with the help of VTEC. While the FWD configuration is far more available, the 305 hp TL with SH-AWD can still be found for under $15,000, though they are a bit rarer. TLs as new as 2012 average about $13,000, and stepping back a few years will increase your wiggle room.
Since it’s a Honda at heart, the TL is one of the most reliable cars you could choose, and parts and maintenance are much more affordable compared to its German competitors. While the TL’s combined fuel economy of 23 mpg isn’t exactly stellar, it’s definitely not a gas guzzler either, and highway miles are handled with ease.
Honda Fit – Pre-2015
The Honda Fit is a long time favorite of mine not only for its insane gas mileage and practicality but also for its small size and maneuverability. I remember test driving an ’07 5-speed at a dinky used car lot just a couple years back; I would’ve bought that car on the spot if my dad hadn’t convinced me to spend a little bit more money on a Mazda3.
The Fit is a ridiculously affordable car and is always one of the first recommendations I give people on a budget. It’s definitely on the small side, but it has the perfect amount of power for what it is, it handles and rides great, and it’s a Honda, so you can pretty much run it into the ground then fix it for $12.
Alright, so maybe that’s a stretch, but Fit models as new as 2015 are selling for under $15,000 while even fully-loaded Sport models as recent as 2013 are going for less than $10k! With a combined fuel economy of 36 mpg, the Fit is one of the best daily drivers out there. It’s got plenty of room inside for 4-5 people and plenty of space in the hatch for groceries, luggage, pets and anything else you need to stuff in the back.
Subaru Forester – Pre-2013
The Subaru Forester is quite possibly one of the best SUVs on the market. It comes standard with AWD, and is made by the company that basically wrote the book on AWD; it gets pretty solid gas mileage for an SUV, is reliable and durable, and is off-road ready. The beloved Fozzie is great in inclement weather and is also extremely safe.
While the most basic versions from 2013 fall into our prescribed budget, you’ll have to step back a couple years if you want to stay under $15k and score some cool features as well, which the Forester has plenty of. If you think it’s too slow, there’s even the XT trim, which comes with a nifty factory turbocharger.
The Forester is very customizable and is meant to compete with industry heavyweights like the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Explorer. Personally, I think the Japanese did it better, but I’ll leave that decision entirely up to you. With options like a panoramic moonroof and Subaru Eyesight, a fully-loaded used Forester could be the ultimate daily-driver for the right person.
Toyota Camry/Corolla – Whatever.
Honestly, the Camry and Corolla are great cars. Very affordable, very well-optioned, very modern, very reliable, and very, very boring. Fantastic machines for getting from point A to point B and there’s a gazillion of them for sale all of the time, the Camry and Corolla are fantastic people movers.
I really don’t feel the need to cover these cars in great detail because while yes, they deserve a place on this list due to their sheer practicality, they’ve also been beaten to death by every single automotive publication in the world. Multiple times. We all know they’re great cars, and you can find them for cheap. The thing is, if you actually enjoy driving cars, you’ll probably hate both of these.
I had a rental Camry for a short period of time, and it was nice having a proper car after years of putting up with a Ford Ranger. The features were nice and I felt safe for once. It even had a little bit of zip to it, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with it long term. After that I test drove a Corolla, remembering what I liked about the Camry. I was excited because I do prefer smaller cars, and when I finally got the chance to drive the Corolla, I was devastated to find that the car had not one single drop of soul.
The Corolla is a cookie cutter car if I’ve ever seen one; totally uninspired and monotonous. If you need a car and that’s it, great – go for it. If you need a car and you’re particular about your cars, don’t even consider them.
Mazda3 – Pre-2014
Oddly enough, at the same dealership I was testing out Corollas, a Mazda3 also sat in a corner of the far lot. It was a 6-speed manual sedan and it totally blew me away. It was everything I wanted in a car and because of the test drive that day, I ended up buying a ’12 Mazda3 hatchback, also with a 6-speed.
I’ve driven basically all of the industry’s best compact ‘economy’ cars and the Mazda beats them all. The gas mileage is actually ridiculous and the car handles fantastically. While the new redesign can be found for less than $15,000, you can save even more money if you step back a couple more years. It’s a spirited car that knows how to handle and it’s got plenty of space for everything you need to cram into it.
If I could recommend one car above all the others that everyone should experience as their first car, it’s the Mazda3, without a doubt. It’s the best-handling, sportiest, best-looking car in its class and is just as, if not more reliable than any car you pit it against. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the absolute best used cars under $15,000.
Toyota Prius – Pre-2012
I know what you’re thinking, and I get it, but if you don’t think the Prius is one of the most badass cars in existence then it’s time for you to learn some shit. The Prius looks terrible. I’ll say it now just to get it out of the way: it’s a weak and ugly little thing, but it’s also quite possibly the best passenger car currently in production.
The Prius was iconic for revolutionizing the plug-in hybrid game, and it’s comical 48 mpg combined fuel economy is still untouchable for most traditional cars. Sure, they’re still a bit expensive, but 2012 is only 5 years old at this point, and you can find a good example from that model year for under $15,000. The Prius is extremely practical and extremely fuel efficient, and if everyone on Earth had actually bought one instead of (insert generic American muscle car here) then maybe we wouldn’t have four frickin’ hurricanes lining up to destroy the Caribbean and half of Florida right now. Maybe.
Either way, if you hate it, I get it; no matter how ideal the Prius is or how well it could save us from Climate Change, I’ll never own one. But please, don’t let me stop you from being environmentally responsible and an actual adult and stuff, I’ll just be over here guzzling dinosaurs like the world is ending in a 6.2 L Raptor.
Mazda MX-5 Miata – Pre-2012
The Miata basically sells itself, to be quite honest. It’s probably the best car in its class and everyone who wants to buy one already knows exactly what they’re getting. The Miata recipe has changed a little bit over the years, but ultimately what you’re going to get is a sporty little two-seater that gets decent gas mileage, has terrible storage space, but is a ton of fun to drive.
I wouldn’t recommend this car to anybody trying to haul things or people, but perhaps someone with some disposable income that’s looking for a cheap way to have fun. I’ve also seen a bunch of college kids with NAs and NBs karting around town, and that’s pretty much the only other market for this car. Either you’re young and dumb and you want to have fun or you’re old and bored and you want to have fun: the Mazda Miata is the common denominator.
While the least favorite NC model is, unfortunately, the newest one that’s going to fit in the budget, it’s still a solid car despite its reputation. The newer, redesigned MX-5 is much better (and more expensive) while the older, purer models are so cheap that you could probably pick one up, drop the rest of your budget into it and end up with a proper autocross machine. The car doesn’t do a whole lot, but what it does do, it does it well.
Honda Civic Si – Pre-2014
The Honda Civic is a longtime standby of the automotive world. The Civic has been one of the world’s most beloved automobiles since it was released and continues to be to this day. While the Civic itself is a great car all around, what we’re really interested in is the Si.
I was surprised to find out that even Si sedans as new as 2014 could be found for less than $15,000, with coupes plenty available as well. For your money, you get a 2.4 L 4-cylinder iVTEC engine capable of 205 hp and 174 lb-ft of torque. You also get a combined fuel economy of 25 mpg, four doors (or two) and a huge support network of enthusiasts if anything ever goes wrong. The car performs very well, has just enough horsepower for spirited daily driving but not enough to get you into serious trouble unless you’re really just asking for it.
I’ve known many Si owners, and all of them swear by that car. Throughout the years I’ve never heard of any of them going to the shop or needing repairs outside of regular maintenance, and aside from only being available with a 6-speed and requiring premium gasoline, there really aren’t drawbacks to this car. It’s pretty solid all around and a worthy investment.
Toyota RAV4 – Pre-2012
The RAV4 is an absolutely brilliant little SUV that Toyota has been producing for quite some time now. Essentially an economy car masquerading as a CUV, the RAV4 combines practicality with more practicality.
The RAV4 averages 25 mpg, has huge storage space and space for the whole family too. It can be found with 4WD or FWD and is tall enough to not have to worry about most small obstacles, curbs, or minor flooding. While the base model comes with a 4-cylinder engine, a V6 is also available, making highway passing much easier.
The RAV4 even manages to be a little bit sporty too, though it may not handle as well as rivals such as the Mazda CX-7 and Honda CR-V. If it’s cargo space you need, though, the RAV4 is arguably the best option. It even comes with an optional third row, though it isn’t exactly adult-friendly. Still, all things considered, the RAV4 is a solid choice in the CUV range making it one of our best used cars under $15,000.
Nissan 350Z – All Years
Alright, so this one is really just the enthusiast’s dream bonus round but nevertheless, the Nissan 350Z is quite possibly one of the most-loved two door sports coupes out there. There’s something really magical and perfect in the balance of this car. It handles great, it sounds great, and it has great safety features. While it doesn’t have much storage capacity, I’d wager that’s not really going to be the thing that stops someone from buying a two door sports coupe…
The 350Z is powered by a 306 hp, 3.5 L V6 which has received tons and tons of praise over the years for being able to keep up with some of the competition’s V8s. It’s a very fun car with surprisingly comfortable seats compared to the rest of the cheap plastic in the cabin. It’s not exactly luxurious, but it’s a car with some serious soul and potential. It goes fast, it looks good, it turns sharp and it even gets half-decent gas mileage. Of all of our cars for under $15,000, I’d have to say that this is probably the best one for an enthusiast.
Hey, Why Didn’t ‘X’ Make the Best Used Cars Under $15,000 List?
A lot of cars did not make this list and I wanted to touch on some of the competitors as well and why I didn’t choose them.
The BMW 3 Series, Audi A3, and Lexus IS/GS are all good cars as well, but I just felt that the Acura was the best representation of luxury and reliability for the class. The German ones aren’t as reliable and the Lexus is more expensive to maintain/repair.
The Subaru WRX/STi didn’t make the list because it isn’t reliable at all unless you buy a newer one, and any example you buy for less than $15,000 is going to cost you in the long run. It’s a great, fun car and I love it to death, but it’s also terrible. Get over it.
Honestly, the differences between the CR-V, RAV4, and CX-7 are going to be based on personal preference, and in reality, each car is probably just as solid as the next.
Some people would’ve swapped the MX-5 for an S2000, but that’s simply not practical. Obviously, the S2000 is 100 times better of a car than the Miata, but it’s also exceedingly rare nowadays and anybody who does have one likely doesn’t want to not have one – so good luck finding one.
Where are All the Americans?
Since we’re on the subject of sports cars, you might’ve noticed that the Dodge Challenger, Chevy Camaro, and Ford Mustang did not make this list despite being widely available for under $15k, so what gives? Well, those cars are definitely fun, but they’re not good cars, if you catch my drift. They’re not practical or efficient; they’re really just fast, which isn’t something I would ever actually recommend to someone that needed a car. Therefore, they didn’t make the cut.
American cars in general, actually, didn’t seem to make the list either unless you count the Acura TL, which I don’t. I don’t have a vendetta against American cars, and there are certainly some solid exceptions out there but by and large, Japanese cars are where it’s at. They’re super reliable, safe, and practical, and to be honest, Japan pretty much has the entry-level automotive segment covered. They simply know what they’re doing when it comes to quality affordable cars.
There are literally hundreds of vehicles to choose from, so matter what car you end up with, just make sure you like it. It’s important that it looks good on paper and checks all of your boxes, but you still need to like it too. I’ve set up a lot of cars in my head to be “the solution to my problems” before I go drive the car and find out that I actually hate how it performs.
Trust me on this, if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in your vehicle – and if you’re anything like the average American, then you will be – make sure you actually enjoy your experience. Life is too short to drive a car you don’t like.