Great Used-Car Bargains Hide among the New-Car Losers

2007 Saab 9-3 2.0T Convertible

Automobiles are crazy expensive, and nobody wants to buy a shoddy product that bleeds us dry, whether it’s new or used. We want long-term quality, but nearly every single one of us is blinded by our past experiences and by the billions spent on advertising campaigns that aim to keep us on a straight and narrow path of popular brands and models. We miss the better deals because those screwy headlights in our minds automatically assume that the marketplace ahead is limited to a few good choices.

But sometimes the reputedly worst new cars can later become the best used cars for two simple reasons: They get the least exposure, and their values often fall through the floor because of it. This is why a 10-year-old luxury convertible like a 2007 Saab 9-3 2.0T (photo above), which cost more than $40,000 when new, now sells for roughly the same price as a 2007 Toyota Corolla S, which a decade ago cost about half as much as the lavish Swede.

Was that Saab a terrible product? Absolutely not. It finished third in a five-car comparison test here at Car and Driver. Owners love it. Reliability studies show it makes the grade, including one from my own Dashboard Light website. But no one ever hears about the car, in part because Saab itself is no more.

But that’s where some great deals are made. Sometimes a good buying opportunity comes because a brand is defunct for reasons unrelated to the quality of the actual car. Other times, a particular model may offer several hidden gems of value within a given trim level that will attract enthusiasts and penny pinchers, but it doesn’t succeed due to a shaky reputation or a lack of advertising oomph.

Want some examples? Here are five standouts, followed by some honorable mentions. These are underpriced and ignored models compared with overpriced alternatives that still hog the spotlight.

Mid-Size Trucks


Overpriced: 2008—2011 Nissan Frontier vs. Underpriced: 2008—2011 Suzuki Equator

Why? The Suzuki Equator is a slightly visually different Nissan Frontier. Yet it offered a far more robust seven-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty (versus five years/60,000 miles for the Frontier) and now sells for upward of $3000 less than the comparably equipped Nissan. Suzuki bailed on the U.S. market in 2012, but a Frontier-clone Equator should be easy to service and source parts for except, perhaps, minor exterior trim.

Family Cars

Overpriced:  2007–2011 Toyota Camry vs. Underpriced: 2007–2011 Mitsubishi Galant

Why? For some folks, a car is nothing more than a rolling spreadsheet, a transportation device for which costs are tallied and balanced against its usefulness. Ironically, the highest cost most of these penny pinchers will have when it comes to owning a vehicle isn’t gas, insurance, maintenance, or even taxes. It’s depreciation. So perhaps they’d like to know that the buy-in on a Galant can be $1000 to $2000 less than a mid-level Camry in its four-cylinder, used-car form.



Overpriced: 2009–2010 Mazda MX-5 vs. Underpriced: 2009–2010 BMW Z4

Why? The BMW Z4 sold for $15,000 to $20,000 more than the MX-5 when they were both new. But once these roadsters hit their middle-age mark, that difference, comparably equipped, shrinks to only $3000 to $4000. At that point, the BMW Z4 is an absolute steal of a deal. By the way, long-term reliability for both these models has been rated as  outstanding.

Lame-Duck Hatchbacks

Overpriced: 2010 Toyota Matrix vs. Underpriced: 2010 Pontiac Vibe

Why? Some folks out there still believe that a Toyota emblem can ward off all types of quality nightmares. In this case, they’re almost right. The Matrix has been rated as having excellent reliability. But the Pontiac Vibe—built in the same factory with the same powertrain and options—can usually be had for about $1000 less than the Toyota. Pontiac looks like another “orphan” brand with no parent, but General Motors dealers still service them, and Toyota still makes parts that fit the Vibe. That adds up to one of the lowest worry quotients ever for an orphan-brand car.

Minivan Land!


Overpriced: 2006–2010 Honda Odyssey vs. Underpriced: 2006–2010 Kia Sedona

Why? The Honda Odyssey only reached average long-term reliability in the mid-2000s after some notorious transmission issues were resolved. The Kia Sedona benefited from a durable powertrain which kept it near or above the average reliability mark during this time. Yet the Odyssey still carries a very stiff four-digit premium in the used-car market.

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Want more opportunities to hit ’em where they ain’t? Compare a five-speed-manual Volkswagen Jetta, Beetle, or Passat equipped with the anvil-strong 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine against alternatives from Toyota or Honda. Or, if you’re really trying to find a beer-budget car with spare change, consider a Buick Park Avenue or a Hyundai Azera against a Toyota Avalon. You can go even deeper down the rabbit hole of unpopular cars that are actually worth buying and keeping—think Saturn Sky, or a Y2K-era Hyundai Elantra wagon with a five-speed and old-school manual windows. What’s your best of the worst?