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20 Used Cars You Can Buy With the Average Tax Refund

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author photo by Doug DeMuro April 2015

Tax season is here, and for many Americans, that means tax refund season is here, too. According to the IRS, this year's average tax refund was an impressive $3,120 as of late February. By early April, CNN Money had the number at just over $2,800 and the average return for last year was a little over $3,100. Either way, it’s no small figure. And that got us thinking: What used cars can you buy with the average tax refund? Our crack analytics team went to work and answered this question for us, delivering a list of the 20 cars on Autotrader with the most listings for around $3,000 or less. We're passing that list along to you now to help make your search a little easier if you've decided to spend this year's tax refund on a car. Depending on your individual situation, you may have to kick in a few hundred dollars, but you'll still be able to get a running car in decent condition.

1. Ford Taurus

With nearly 900 different Taurus models listed for $3,100 or less, Ford's longtime midsize sedan is lonely at the top of our list. Very lonely, in fact: The number two model is nearly 350 listings behind the Taurus's impressive count. What kind of Taurus can you get for around $3,000? Expect it to be an early- to mid-2000s model with 100,000 to 150,000 total miles. Of course, you'll also get the Taurus model's durable design, roomy interior, cavernous trunk and standard V6 power. Look hard and you might even be able to find a Taurus wagon, which combines SUV-like cargo capacity with a carlike driving experience.

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2. Ford Explorer

There are more than 500 different Ford Explorer models listed for $3,100 or less, making it the second most plentiful car on our list. How much Explorer can you buy for $3,000? Well, you won't get the latest model, that's for sure, and you won't get the previous-generation version, either. Instead, expect a well-equipped 1995-2001 Explorer or a base-level 2002-2007 model, either with well over 125,000 miles on the odometer. You'll also be able to choose between rear- or 4-wheel drive, V6 or V8 power, and 2- or 4-door body styles.

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3. Honda Accord

The Honda Accord can be considered reliable, simple family transportation, a great first car or just an excellent commuter vehicle with a fuel-efficient powertrain. And with more than 500 different examples available on Autotrader for $3,100 or less, it's also a great way to spend your tax refund money. Of course, you shouldn't expect a perfect car: Many Accord models for around $3,000 have more than 200,000 miles on the odometer, along with fading paint (which can be typical depending the era) and the occasional mismatched wheel or missing hubcap. But parts for these cars are plentiful, and many used Accords will run for years to come with only regular maintenance and the occasional timing belt service. In the end, that makes the Accord a great choice for shoppers who want a good, inexpensive used car. If it were our personal choice, we might look for a good Accord Coupe with a manual transmission.

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4. Ford F-150

Yes, the $3,000 pickup truck exists. In fact, you can get more than 450 of them right now on Autotrader for the amount of the average tax refund or less, which is great news for drivers who want a practical work vehicle without spending a fortune. The only catch? Used F-150 models in the $3,000-or-less price range often have well over 180,000 miles on the odometer, and they don't come equipped with many creature comforts. Take a long test drive to make sure such a pickup is right for you, and be sure to get a thorough mechanical inspection to ensure that the truck is still mechanically sound under the hood.

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5. Honda Civic

Few compact cars have the Honda Civic's reputation for reliability and long-lasting durability, provided, of course, that it's had regular maintenance, such as oil changes, brakes and timing belts. If you're looking for a compact car for around $3,000 or less, you should check out the Civic, and don't be put off by high mileage figures (expect 150,000 miles and up) or noticeable cosmetic blemishes. Instead, take a thorough test drive and, if you're worried about anything, get a mechanical inspection. Then expect to stay behind the wheel of your Civic for years to come.

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6. Chevrolet Cavalier

The Chevrolet Cavalier is a compact car that came before more modern small Chevys such as the Cobalt, Cruze, Spark and Sonic. With more than 440 different Cavalier models currently available on Autotrader for around $3,000 or less, there are a lot of different examples to choose from. If you're intrigued, you can decide between coupe, sedan or even convertible models (assuming you can find one). Expect a sub-$3,000 Cavalier to be any age, made through 2005, with at least 120,000 miles on the odometer.

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7. Saturn S-Series

General Motors designed the compact Saturn S-Series to rival Honda, Toyota and other foreign brands. Originally on sale in the early 1990s, the S-Series got better as it aged, so we suggest checking out later models. Plus, that's where you'll find the bulk of the 420 different S-Series listings for $3,000 or less. Interested shoppers will find a fuel-efficient 4-cyinder engine and a choice between coupe, sedan or practical wagon body styles. Just be sure to get a mechanical inspection and to check for rust before signing the papers.

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8. Toyota Camry

The Toyota Camry is one of the most popular vehicles on the market, so it makes sense that it would turn up on our list of the most popular cars you can buy in the neighborhood of $3,000. Offered over the years in 4-door sedan, 2-door coupe or 5-door wagon body styles, the Camry provides reliable, fuel-efficient transportation and a roomy interior. If you're looking to spend around $3,000 or less, expect to find Camry models from the mid- to late-1990s with around 200,000 miles on the odometer. That may be a big number, but it's far from the end of a well-maintained Camry's life.

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9. Ford Focus

The Ford Focus is one of the most popular compact cars on the market. It's also one of the most popular choices on our list of used cars you can buy with the average tax refund, since there are more than 400 different Focus models to choose from within our price limit. What should you expect from a Focus in this price range? You'll be able to choose from sedan, wagon and hatchback (3-door or 5-door) body styles, along with manual or automatic transmissions. Mileage will likely be well over 125,000, so you may want to get your Focus checked out by a mechanic before you sign the papers.

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10. Pontiac Grand Am

With nearly 400 different examples currently on Autotrader, the Pontiac Grand Am rounds out the top ten most popular cars available today for about the same amount as the average tax refund. While the Grand Am is hardly known for standout styling or a cavernous interior, it does offer some benefits, including fewer average miles than many cars on our list, with typical figures in the 100,000- to 150,000-mile range. Used Grand Am models available for around $3,000 or less are also a little newer than most cars on this list, with most examples hailing from the early 2000s.

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11. Dodge Grand Caravan

If you need to transport your whole family for around $3,000 or less, few cars on our list do it better than the Dodge Grand Caravan. Featuring standard 3-row seating and (for most models made after 1996) dual sliding doors, the Grand Caravan offers the last word in family-toting practicality. Best of all, you should have no trouble finding one within our budget; there are currently more than 370 examples on Autotrader, many of which are early-2000s models with around 150,000 miles on the odometer.

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12. Chevrolet Malibu

The Chevrolet Malibu offers solid, durable construction, a roomy interior and surprisingly powerful engines. Styling is bland and there aren't many advanced features, but the Malibu is an excellent point-A to point-B car, especially if your budget is around $3,000 or less. And you should have no trouble finding a used Malibu in that price range, since there are currently more than 350 examples on Autotrader, most of which are early-2000s models with around 150,000 miles on the odometer.

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13. Ford Windstar

If you're looking for family transport on a budget, few vehicles deliver like the Ford Windstar. We especially like Windstar models made from 1999 and up, since they feature standard dual sliding doors, a big step up from the driver's side-only sliding door of earlier models. We also like the standard V6 and the later models' larger design, which offers more passenger and cargo room than its predecessors. And we like the price; there are more than 340 Windstar models available for around $3,000 or less. If you're looking for a Windstar in that price range, expect it to have around 125,000 miles on the odometer, and be sure to take your kids along for the test drive to ensure your whole family is comfortable inside.

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14. Jeep Grand Cherokee

The Jeep Grand Cherokee is one of the few SUVs on our list, but it's still a good choice for shoppers on a budget. The Grand Cherokee combines off-road prowess with handsome styling, strong engines and a large, practical design. With a budget of $3,000 or less, expect to find a mid- to late-1990s Grand Cherokee with around 150,000 miles on the odometer. And be sure to get a thorough mechanical inspection before signing the papers, because some models may suffer from transmission failure or other potentially expensive issues.

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15. Chrysler Sebring

The Chrysler Sebring is a popular midsize car offered in sedan, coupe or convertible body styles. We like the convertible in particular, because it seats four people, offers many creature comforts and touts several adequate engine offerings. But we especially like the convertible because there are more than 150 different examples available for around $3,100 or less on Autotrader, making it one of the least expensive popular convertibles on the market. If the Sebring convertible sounds appealing, expect our budget to yield a late-1990s or early-2000s example with around 100,000 or 125,000 miles.

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16. Chevrolet Impala

The Chevrolet Impala is a popular full-size sedan that offers a comfortable ride, a relaxed driving experience and standard V6 power. Its design might not set the world on fire, and neither will its powertrain. But armed with the average tax refund, you should have no trouble finding an early-2000s Impala with 125,000 to 150,000 miles on the odometer, especially since there are more than 300 different Impala models within our price range on Autotrader. One tip: Look for 2000 and up Impalas rather than earlier models, which offer poor fuel economy and dismal repair records.

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17. Chevrolet Blazer

The Chevy Blazer was a popular midsize SUV for years, and its long-term popularity helps explain why there are currently nearly 300 different examples on Autotrader for around $3,100 or less. Available in 2- or 4-door and 2- or 4-wheel drive, the Blazers you'll find in our price range will be late-1990s models with around 200,000 miles on the odometer. Given their age and mileage, be sure to get a mechanical inspection before signing the papers. You'll also want to ensure that the Blazer can fit your whole family, plus accessories, since its smaller size is more similar to one of today's compact crossovers than to a midsize SUV.

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18. Chevrolet Silverado

The Chevy Silverado is a full-size pickup that constantly battles it out with the Ford F-150 for the title of America's most popular pickup. Officially called Silverado since 1999 and C1500 or K1500 (for 2-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive, respectively) before that, the full-size Chevy should be easy to find for about $3,000, especially since there are nearly 200 different models currently listed on Autotrader. Just be sure to narrow your search to the model you want, since the Silverado offers a wide selection of cab lengths, bed sizes, drivetrains and engine configurations.

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19. Ford Ranger

The Ford Ranger is a compact pickup with frugal 4-cylinder or muscular V6 power. Sold in its most recent design from 1993 to 2011, the latest Ranger went its entire life with only one substantial update: a big face-lift in 1998. Otherwise, just about every Ranger is mostly the same: a simple, honest, durable pickup, offered in 2- or 4-wheel drive, with as much capability as most truck shoppers will ever need. For your three grand or less, expect to find well-worn examples, with 200,000 miles or more, from the mid- to late-1990s with few frills and almost no modern gadgets.

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20. Pontiac Grand Prix

The Pontiac Grand Prix is a full-size sedan with standard V6 power, eye-catching styling and a roomy interior. Although a $3,100 budget will eliminate most 2003-2008 models, the 1997-2002 Grand Prix is still an excellent car, especially in high-performance supercharged GTP form. Plus, you can choose from practical sedan or handsome coupe body styles. And you should have no trouble finding a used Grand Prix on Autotrader; there are more than 270 different 1997-2002 models currently listed within our average-tax-rebate price range.

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Editor's Note: This article has been updated from the original version.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
20 Used Cars You Can Buy With the Average Tax Refund - Autotrader