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10 most-reliable used cars

By Jim Gorzelany | Forbes.com

Unlike the old adage, when one shops for a used car and picks a lemon, the beleagured owner just can’t solve the problem by making lemonade.

Deciding whether to buy a used car instead of a factory fresh new one is a decision that’s inherently weighed more toward practicality than pure emotion. While there is an undeniable amount of egotistical cachet in driving a brand new car home from a dealership, choosing a pre-owned model is usually the better deal.

Unfortunately, buying a used car is typically a far more perilous decision to make, particularly with regard to a vehicle’s mechanical condition. One otherwise comparable preowned car may have logged an excessive number of miles than another or may have been largely neglected by its owner. And some vehicles just age better than others in terms of styling, features, performance – and most importantly – long-term reliability.

To help point used-car shoppers in the right direction, we’ve identified the most dependable used cars on the market from the 2008 and 2009 model years. Each vehicle in our top-10 list garnered the highest marks for reliability from both Consumer Reports surveys and J.D. Power and Associates U.S. Vehicle Dependability studies.

Consumer Reports bases their reliability ratings on surveys gathered from owners of 1.3 million vehicles, while J.D. Power’s findings were compiled from information supplied by 43,700 original owners of 2008 model-year vehicles and 31,000 original owners of 2009 model-year vehicles after three years of ownership. Both sources polled participants regarding mechanical and other problems experienced during the prior 12 months.

Eight out of 10 of the models on our list of most reliable used vehicles from the 2008 and 2009 model years come from Japanese brands. While recent models from the Detroit “Big Three” have certainly made significant leaps in both initial quality and long-term reliability, those designed and built prior to the economic collapse still apparently fail to hold up as well in the long run as do the best performers from the Asian imports.

Of course whittling around 200 separate models down to a list of 10 means that some otherwise worthy cars and trucks – including some of the industry’s top sellers like the Toyota Camry, Honda Civic and Ford F150 pickup – were left on the proverbial cutting room floor. We encourage used-car shoppers to consult Consumer Reports, J.D. Power and Associates and other sources to help find the models that are best-suited for their needs, will hold up well down the road and are the most affordable to purchase, maintain and insure.

Acura TL

As with all of the vehicles in our top 10 list of most-reliable used cars, the model-year 2008 and 2009 versions of the midsize Acura TL luxury sedan received top grades for long-term durability from both Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates owner surveys and high marks in initial quality and performance testing. The TL combines elements of comfort and performance with a sporty demeanor. The 2008 version can be found with either a 258-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 or a stronger 286-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. The TL was redesigned for 2009 and featured a 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 as the base engine, with a 306-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 in the SH-AWD all-wheel drive model. The TL remains attractively styled inside and out (though the pronounced front nose design on the 2009 – pictured here – is a matter of taste) and affords ample comfort for both front and rear-seat passengers, with stability control and many amenities included.

Ford Fusion

Wrapped in conservative styling, Ford’s popular midsize sedan holds up well over the years, combining pleasing performance with a roomy and comfortable interior. It can also be found with slightly different styling as the Mercury Milan. Versions from the 2008 and 2009 model years were equipped with either a just-sufficient 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine (mated to a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission) or a quicker and smoother 221-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 and six-speed automatic. Those living in the Snow Belt may want to seek out a Fusion or Milan equipped with all-wheel-drive. The vehicles’ options included the first-generation SYNC multimedia control system, a voice-activated navigation system and rear park assist.

Honda CR-V

Honda’s compact crossover SUV is nicely designed and comes adequately powered by an economical 166-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. While many 2008-2009 models can be found equipped with all-wheel-drive for added traction on wet or snowy roads, the standard front-drive configuration would suit most buyers. Coming decently equipped, look for the top EX-L version if you want luxury features like heated leather seats. The CR-V operates almost flawlessly, and offers ample interior room for four passengers.

Lexus ES 350

Lexus’ entry-level luxury car is based on the Toyota Camry, but is infused with added style and comfort and tuned for slightly better handling. A smooth and strong 272-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine comes mated to a sophisticated six-speed automatic transmission and provides sufficiently brisk acceleration. Standard safety and control features are plentiful in either 2008 or 2009 models, including eight airbags. You’ll find many equipped with upscale amenities like a pre-collision system, adaptive headlamps, a navigation system with backup camera and/or heated/ventilated front seats.

Lexus RX 350

Whether new or used, the RX 350 midsize crossover SUV remains an admirable amalgam of refinement, performance and practicality. Pre-owned models can be found with myriad options for gadget lovers that include a backup camera, backseat DVD entertainment system and an audiophile Mark Levinson sound system. The 2008 and 2009 versions were fitted with a 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine that drives either the front or all four wheels (depending on the version) via a five-speed automatic transmission. It’s mechanically similar to the Toyota Highlander, though unlike that model it’s not offered with a third-row seat.

Lincoln MKZ

This midsize sedan is essentially a more-luxurious version of the Ford Fusion, but features specific styling cues and richer equipment levels. Models from 2008 and 2009 can be found with a quick and smooth 263-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic gearbox. Ride and handling characteristics are reasonably well balanced, though they’re tuned a bit on the softer side here than in the Fusion. Front-drive is the standard configuration, though you’ll find several in the resale market – especially in northern states – fitted with all-wheel drive. All models come with stability control for added safety, along with conveniences like heated/cooled seats and the SYNC multimedia control system.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

You’ll find this affordable two-seat sports car fitted with either a manual cloth top or a power retractable hardtop that affords a bit more security and protection from the elements. It received a minor styling refresh for 2009 (the 2008 version is pictured). A peppy 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is powerful enough to rocket this tiny car up to speed with authority. The car can be found with either a five-speed or short-throw six-speed manual (our favorite) or – heresy to auto enthusiasts – a six-speed automatic. The Miata remains one of the best small open-air cars on the market, built to enjoy the road and the sun on a warm day. It’s quick and nimble, though not terribly practical except as a second or third car for most motorists. As a result, most three- and four-year-old used models can be found with relatively few miles on the odometer.

Toyota Highlander

The midsize Highlander crossover SUV was redesigned for the 2008 model year, and became larger and roomier in the process. It shares platforms and mechanicals with the Lexus ES 350, including its 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine; the 2009 version alternately offered a slower, but more fuel-efficient 2.7-liter four-cylinder powerplant. A “Center Stow” second row seat can function as either a bench for maximum passenger capacity, or captain’s chairs to keep the kids separated by a removable center console. You’ll find some equipped with a third-row bench seat that can fold flat into the floor, though its limited leg room makes it suited only for the kiddies. Seven airbags and an array of chassis-control systems came standard, with some models also coming with all-wheel drive and a rear backup camera for safety’s sake.

Toyota Prius

The auto industry’s most-economical gas/electric powered automobile is both its most popular and most easily recognized hybrid. It’s not particularly quick off the line, but it eventually gets up to cruising speed, and with a combined city/highway fuel economy rating of 46 mpg, owners sail past lots of gas stations along the way. Its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and gas/electric propulsion system gets a just-adequate equivalent of 110 horsepower. Handling is predictable, though it’s far from being sporty. The Prius seats four adults in reasonable comfort, and a fifth rider can squeeze in the back seat if necessary.

Toyota Yaris

Toyota’s smallest car isn’t particularly quick, nimble or comfortable, but it’s both affordable and economical to own. Models from the 2008 and 2009 model years can be found in either sedan or distinctive-looking two-door hatchback models. The subcompact Yaris’ 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine nets just 106 horsepower and is best suited to the standard five-speed manual transmission; a four-speed automatic was otherwise offered. You’ll find some hatchback models fitted with a rear seat that slides, reclines and folds to maximize either comfort or cargo. Also look for models that were fitted with front-side and side-curtain airbags for added occupant protection.


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