I recently read an article about “affordable” cars under $50,000 and had to laugh.
$50,000? Affordable? Sure, if you’re wealthy. But most of us need to keep a little tighter lid on spending.
Fortunately, the used auto market is full of awesome cars, trucks and vans that, with a little elbow grease, will show you great times and reliable transportation for years to come.
A word on our selections: We chose these cars for their availability to the masses and practicality to get you out to the fun. And no, it’s not all-encompassing. What’s your favorite? Tell us below.
These are some of our favorites that leave money in the bank for other, equally important, tools and toys.
Jeep Cherokee XJ (1987 – 2001)
This is a classic of the American off-road with lots of upgrade options. And it can be had for a pittance.
Price: A buddy just purchased a stock model for $3,000 with just 125,000 miles. After adding a lift and tires, his final bill was about $6,000.
The Good: Stock Cherokees are easy to come by and easy to upgrade. A 4″ lift, installed by a good mechanic cost just under a grand. Add some good tires and other mechanical fixes, and you’ve got a great vehicle. Many used models are already lifted and ready for the trail.
The Bad: Old Cherokees take a lot of wrench time and tend to have lots of small issues that can lead to headaches — O2 sensors, dashboard lights, check engine lights and oil leaks are some common problems.
Why Cherokee: If you want a tough looking vehicle with few frills that can go darned near anywhere, the Cherokee delivers.
Suzuki Samurai (1985 – 1996)
The pint-sized Samurai is basically an over-sized 4-wheeler, but darned these things go just about anywhere, especially when lifted and customized … just not the interstate!
Price: 1995, in “good” condition Blue Book value of $1,126. Expect to pay more if it isn’t a pile of rust.
The Good: Samurais are tiny, and they can go places most 4×4’s simply won’t fit. The little 4 cylinder 4x4s will crawl rocks with the best of them and are a hoot to drive with with the top down.
The Bad: Sales in the States stopped in 1995, so finding one in decent shape is tough. They are tiny, entirely inappropriate for highway driving and would be horrible in any kind of accident. This is a toy car in the truest sense.
Why Samurai: If you just want to buzz around off the main road, these little guys are super fun to drive, have plenty of power for their meager weight (I used to tow a small boat 1,200 vertical feet over St. Thomas with one!) and are easy to work on.
Ford Ranger XLT (1998 – 2011)
When I bought my 2000 Ford Ranger in late 2014, it had 130,000 miles, a bright red check engine light, a dinged side panel, and crappy tires. $3,000 later, it’s a great truck that has dragged me all over the Rocky Mountains in all sorts of weather. All in? $6,500.
Price: Rangers vary widely depending on age, but a savvy buyer should be able to get into a decent early 2000’s model for around $5,000. Lower milage will cost more.
The Good: The Ford Ranger XLT was made in massive quantities, so it’s easy to find. It’s also easy to find (cheap) parts and work on these smallish trucks.
The Bad: You will probably spend a some time with a wrench, as high milage Fords aren’t the most reliable vehicles on the road. I’ve put a fair bit of work into this truck, but it’s still $20,000 cheaper than buying new.
Why Ranger: If you want a pickup that easily fits into a normal parking spot, this is one of just a few mid-sized options.
Toyota 4Runner (1995 – 2009)
The 4Runner is a reliable and capable SUV, and with thousands of used models on the road, they are possible to find with moderate milage for under $10,000. This date range covers the third and fourth generations of this model.
Price: A quick search of Craigslist brings up dozens of choices with some dipping well below the $10,000 mark.
The Good: The 4Runner is a long running, reliable vehicle and comfortable for four adults. It’s a good around-town car, comfortable on long drives and capable off road.
The Bad: Interior storage is somewhat small for such a large vehicle. They also come with a Toyota price tag, so expect to pay a fair chunk of change even for vehicles with high milage. While they are OK off road, clearance is not spectacular and approach angles are limited.
Why 4Runner: While many SUV’s have gone the way of cars, the 4Runner has a body-on-frame design, meaning fair off road performance.
Subaru Outback (1994 – Present)
It’s been called the “state car” of Colorado, Idaho, and pretty much everywhere else that gets lots of snow. With full time all wheel drive, the Legacy Outback is a solid performer on modest off-road terrain and absolutely amazing on snow. It also is spacious, efficient and runs forever.
Price: These have been around a long time, so the range is vast. You should be able to find something from the early 2000’s with moderate mileage for around $5,000. These things regularly run up to 300,000 miles or more, so don’t be afraid of miles… just expect some significant maintenance bills.
The Good: When at the Grand Canyon for an ultra-marathon, a local called it a “mud sled” while my crew was discussing the condition of fire roads they needed to drive to reach aid stations. These things really are rugged, especially for a car. They have decent clearance and rip around fire roads with aplomb. Inside, they are as roomy as most SUV’s, yet they sit lower and get respectable gas milage. They are very reliable.
The Bad: You may be branded a tree-hugging hippy. Why? Well, if you’ve ever driven through Boulder, you’ll know. If you’re cool with this, or just don’t give a hoot what other’s think, the Subaru is an excellent vehicle.
Be certain to check the antifreeze and oil for signs of bad head gaskets, a common problem with this model that is expensive to fix on the two-sided boxer engine.
Why Outback: These are great cars that seat five in comfort with lots of room for extras inside. You can lay down the seat and sleep in the back. You can expect lots of trouble-free miles from the Outback so long as you avoid over-heating and the head gaskets are good.
Toyota Tacoma (1995 – 2004)
Ah, the Taco. These early models were truly small trucks before they got nearly as big as Tundras. Reliable, capable, good looking … Tacomas hit all the high marks.
The Good: Classic good looks, and a vehicle that can not be killed, there’s good reason this is one of the most popular pickups in the world.
The Bad: The stock suspension isn’t considered adequate by most serious offroaders. If you’re going to push it over tough terrain, you’ll want an upgrade. Also, good luck finding a bargain. Many Tacomas pushing 200,000 miles also push the $10,000 mark. Some Tacomas are prone to frame rust (many were recalled) so be sure to check the frame carefully.
Why Tacoma? They will run, and run, and run. These things are legendary.
Isuzu Trooper (1991 – 2002)
Boxy with a big interior, the Trooper is a workhorse of an SUV. Shoot, you can fit bikes in the back without taking the wheels off and it’s the only truck in which we’ve fit a tandem (removing the front wheel).
Price: Troopers were available in the US through 2002, so you’ll have to choose from an older model. Most cost well under $5,000, with lots of beaters under $2,000.
The Good: We can’t think of any other mid-size SUV with the interior space of a Trooper. These things are basically large 4×4 boxes on wheels. And that’s awesome in the space department. They also get decent gas milage and have fairly high stock clearance.
The Bad: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and these are, well boxy. They are also tricky for the home mechanic and require a lot of specialized tools. Reliability can be a problem with older Troopers, as can be finding a qualified mechanic.
Why Trooper: Want to sleep in the back of your SUV? This is your steed. They have ample interior space but maintain a modest external presence.
Toyota Land Cruiser (1980 – 1997)
The Land Cruiser is an iconic backroads explorer for good reason. It’s a rugged, extremely capable machine. From 1980-1997 (two different models) it came with a solid front axel. But you’ll have to choose between 60 (earlier, really good looks), 70 (nearly impossible to find in the US) or 80 series (1991 and later, more rounded but excellent mechanically).
Price: They can be had for $10,000 or less in good condition, but expect high miles at this price.
The Good: With a Land Cruiser, you are joining the ranks of legions of devoted fans. These things have been everywhere, and are well respected off road machines anywhere in the world. They are excellent expedition vehicles and customization options are endless.
The Bad: Get ready to choke when you fill the tank. The 1990 model gets 11 MPG city, 13 MPG highway (unless you can find a rare-in-the-US Turbo Diesel). Watch out for head gasket problems and valve gasket oil leaks.
Why Land Cruiser: Seating for up to eight passengers, a genuine off road machine and iconic good looks are reason enough for people to love this beast the world over.