Is it hard to find a decent car for under 3K? We looked through many used car ads and picked 9 cars priced close to $3,000. These cars are reasonably good on gas and more or less dependable, as much as you can expect for this price.
Toyota Corolla 1993 and up
The Corolla is a very simple and reliable small car. If you can find one that runs well and is not too rusted, it may work well for a few years. At this age it might need a tune-up, new timing belt, new starter and some other minor repairs.
As long as the engine and transmission are in good shape, the Corolla is one of the best options for this price. The EPA rates the 1.8L 1996 automatic Corolla at 23/31 MPG. You might want to look for a 4-speed automatic model, as the 3-speed automatic Corolla has low highway MPG.
Geo/Chevrolet Prizm 1993 and up
The 1993-1997 Geo Prizm, or from 1998, Chevrolet Prizm is a rebadged Toyota Corolla. These models are fairly rare, but you still can see one here and there. The 1996 Geo Prizm with a 4-speed automatic is rated at 23/31 MPG. Same as with the Corolla, look for a 4-speed automatic model, as the 3-speed automatic Prizm doesn’t get good highway mileage. Keep some money aside for a new timing belt and a tune-up. It might also need some minor exhaust repairs.
Honda Civic 1996-2001
Honda Civic is a popular compact commuter car. With good care, this car can last very long. Common problems include a bad ignition switch, window regulators, failed distributor, but these repairs are not too expensive. Stay away if a car has been modified or if the engine runs too hot. The Civic is very good on gas. The 2000 Honda Civic with an automatic transmission is rated at 24/32 MPG.
Mazda Protege 1995-2003
Mazda Protege is a simple compact car with a firm ride. The 1995-1998 Protege came with either a 1.5L (DX, LX) or 1.8L (ES) engine. The 1.5L models are better on gas. We checked many Craigslist ads and found quite a few of these cars appear to be in good shape. Consumer Reports rates Mazda Protege as “Good Bet”. The 1995 1.5L Protege auto is rated at 23/32 MPG. The 2001 1.6L Protege automatic gets 23/30 MPG.
Toyota Tercel 1995-1998
This little Toyota is available as a sedan or coupe. It rides comfortably and is actually quite peppy. It will need a tune-up and some exhaust repairs, but as long as the engine runs well and there is no issues with the transmission, it’s a good choice for a cheap commuter car. The Tercel is very easy to work on and parts are not expensive. It is one of the most fuel efficient cars you can find for this price. The 1998 Tercel with an automatic transmission is rated at 26/34 MPG.
Saturn S-series 1997-2003
The S-series comes as a sedan (SL), wagon (SW) or coupe (SC). It comes with a base 1.9L single-cam engine or an optional 1.9L DOHC. Saturn has dent-resistant plastic body side panels, so it won’t look rusty. According to the Saturn technician we spoke to, this car is pretty good if maintained well. Many positive owner reviews confirm this. The 2001 Saturn SL1 automatic is rated at 24/34 MPG. The same model with a stick shift gets 25/36 MPG.
Mitsubishi Mirage/Lancer 1997-2003
Mitsubishi Mirage is another practical small car. It is available in a two- or four door body style. The Mirage has a peppy engine and is easy to work on. For 2002, the Mirage was replaced by Mitsubishi Lancer. The 1998 1.5L Mirage automatic is rated at 25/32 MPG. The 2002 Lancer with a 120-hp 2.0L engine and an automatic transmission gets 21/27 MPG.
4-cylinder Toyota Camry 1995-2002
If you need a mid-size car, the 4-cylinder Toyota Camry is a sensible choice. The Camry is available as a sedan or coupe (Toyota Solara). Toyota Camry rides nicely and is very comfortable inside. Although it’s not as fuel efficient as compact cars, the Camry is very reliable and can last long with proper care. The 1999 Toyota Camry automatic is rated at 20/28 MPG.
4-cylinder Honda Accord 1995-2002
Honda Accord is another mid-size car that is fairly good on gas. The Accord is available in a two- or four-door body style. Honda Accord has a very good engine and is comfortable inside. Watch out for automatic transmission issues, but other than that it’s a dependable car. The 2001 Accord automatic is rated at 20/28 MPG.
Avoid a car if:
- if it has been modified.
- the engine rattles or knocks, especially when started cold.
- if the engine overheats
- there is a blue smoke from the exhaust.
- the automatic transmission shifts with a delay or jolt.
- there is too much rust.
- there are issues with the title.
- There are a lot of scam ads on Craigslist. Read these tips to avoid scammers.
- Do some research before shopping. This FTC article explains many aspects of buying a used car. Check this article (with photos) to know what to watch out for when checking a used car.
- Don’t ignore cars with a stick shift, they usually have better gas mileage
- Keep some money aside, as a car for this price will need a tune-up and some other repairs now and then.
- Most of these models have a timing belt (part of the engine) that needs to be replaced every 60,000-100,000 miles.
- High-mileage engines consume oil. Check the oil level regularly and top it up if low. Keep a quart of engine oil in the trunk. Read how to check oil in a car.
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