If you're looking to buy a new family car, you may be just as well off buying a used one. According to Consumer Reports, the best way to get the most vehicle for the money is to purchase a used car. "With the average new car losing 47 percent of its value in the first three years, buying used is an affordable way to get the safety and comfort features you want at a far better price."
In its Annual Auto Survey, which generated responses from subscribers on 1.3 million vehicles, Consumer Reports takes a look at used models from 2001 to 2010. They zeroed in on those vehicles that tested high on reliability, economy, design and safety. The organization's Best of the Best list profiles used models that scored well in their road tests when new and remained consistently reliable over time. To note, the best used vehicles come from Asian manufacturers and Toyota and Honda dominated the list.
Following are the top family cars from 2001-2010 (adapted from Consumer Reports Model Summary):
The four-door hybrid Prius pairs a 1.5-liter gasoline engine with an electric motor. The ride is comfortable and handling is secure but not very agile. While the cabin feels roomy the battery pack takes up some trunk space. Fuel economy is 41 mpg overall. The 2004 second-generation hatchback model has better mileage at 44 mpg, less-touchy brakes and more interior room. Curtain air bags became standard in 2007 but ESC is optional. The redesigned 2010 model maintains average reliability. Look for one with optional ESC, starting with 2004 models.
Ford Fusion (FWD)
This family sedan, which shares its platform with the Mercury Milan and Mazda6, is powered by a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers noisy but adequate performance and 23 mpg overall. The 3.0-liter V6 offers more zip and gets 20 mpg with a smooth six-speed automatic. The ride is firm and controlled and handling is alert and responsive. The optional leather seats give better support than the cloth seats. Stability control became available for 2009. Reliability has been mostly above average.
Mercury Milan (FWD)
The Milan is equipped with a noisy 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that performs adequately and gets 23 mpg overall. The 3.0-liter V6 offers more punch with a six-speed automatic and a combined 20-mpg. The ride is firm and controlled and handling is alert and responsive. The rear seat is roomy and the optional leather seats give better support than the cloth ones. Stability control became available in 2009. Reliability has been mostly above average.
While the Camry's 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine is sluggish, the 3.0-liter V6 is smooth and energetic. 2002's redesign has more room and a better four-cylinder engine. In 2004 a 3.3-liter V6 SE version was introduced. For 2005 the Camry received a five-speed automatic transmission. Look for a 2002 or newer Camry with the available curtain air bags. Without them the Camry received a poor rating in the IIHS side-crash test. A 2007 redesign brought a four-cylinder hybrid model that returned 34 mpg overall in CR's testing. The 3.5-liter V6 got 23 mpg overall, just 1 mpg less than the four-cylinder.
The Accord rates as an excellent used-car choice. The Accord is generally quiet but there is some road noise. A 2003 redesign improved handling. For pre-2003 models look for an EX with the standard ABS. The Hybrid model, which arrived in 2005, received 25 mpg overall in CR's tests, but it was dropped after 2007. ESC is standard on V6 models starting in 2006. 2008 models got a redesign with a larger body and roomier interior. Ride and handling are very good and the four-cylinder engine is smooth, powerful and economic. The V6 is very quick, but only gets 21 mpg overall. ESC is now standard.
The Altima is a reliable family sedan that was slightly refreshed for 2000. A 2002 redesign made it roomy, quick and competitive. However, the ride isn't as good as the Toyota Camry. Both four- and six-cylinder engines are offered. The front seats are fairly comfortable and the spacious rear seats offer lots of legroom and support. IIHS side-crash-test results were poor when tested without the curtain air bags. A redesign for 2007 standardized curtain air bags and offered optional electronic stability control on the 3.5 SE. The 2.5 S has good performance and 25 mpg overall. The hybrid model gets 32 mpg, but trunk space is reduced.
Mazda6 Sedan (4-cyl.)
The 626 offers an adequate 2.0-liter four cylinder or a smooth 2.5-liter V6. For 2000 Mazda made a few updates. Handling is secure, but the ride is fairly uncomfortable, access is tight and road noise is pronounced. In 2003 the 626 was replaced by the significantly better Mazda6, which offers a firm, yet compliant ride and excellent brakes. The four-cylinder engine doesn't feel refined; the V6 is quick but thirsty. The Mazda6 scored Poor in the IIHS side-crash test when tested without its available side airbags. Mazda made curtain airbags standard for 2007. A new model debuted in late 2008 with even more improvements.
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