Cheap and reliable are two words that aren’t often seen side by side when it comes to purchasing a car. It’s usually a trade-off. One or the other. However, some vehicles out there strike a balance between both.
This guide is focused on cheap and reliable used cars, primarily under the $5,000 price threshold. Despite the opinion of a lot of people, there are some great buys that will get you from point A to point B consistently and with few issues.
Best Cheap and Reliable Cars Under $5,000 Considerations
It is easy to find a cheap car, but it is difficult to find one that will last far into the future. Oftentimes, reliability goes hand in hand with good upkeep and routine maintenance. As a prerequisite, if you are in the market to make a purchase, it is important to find a car that has been routinely serviced and looked after.
Service History and Upkeep
In a lot of cases, cheap cars are sold without service records or maintenance history. Try your best to avoid these examples, unless you are mechanically savvy, as they might need costly repairs in the future. If the previous owner or dealer cannot provide any vehicle history, it might be worth doing some additional research by plugging the VIN into a service like Carfax to ensure that the vehicle hasn’t been in any serious collisions or has outstanding damage.
With that being said, in addition to being cheap to purchase, most of the cars on this list have low associated maintenance and parts costs as well. It isn’t the end of the world if the car has minor cosmetic, mechanical, or performance issues, but it factors into your buying decision.
Since we are focusing specifically on a pretty low price point as far as used cars are concerned, most of the cars on this list are past their teenage years. While it is generally preferable to find the newest example of a particular model at your price point, old doesn’t necessarily mean bad. It just means that you’ll likely have to perform more minor fixes than on a newer model.
In this guide, we specifically picked vehicles that have a lot of staying power. That is to say that most of the cars listed below are very mechanically solid and can run for hundreds of thousands of miles if properly cared for. Most of the listed cars will fall apart around their drivetrain before you start to encounter any truly severe engine problems. With that being said, purchasing an aging car usually also equates to purchasing interior components, repairing creature comforts like heat and A/C, and other odds and ends.
At the end of the day, it’s much better to have a vehicle that will run and drive without fail than a pretty car that leaves you stranded.
Performance is the third end of the car buying trifecta, with the other two being cost and reliability. As such, it is rare to find a car that hits on all three. However, performance can mean several things other than how fast a car can go. When buying a car in this price range, it is vital to consider the setting that you’ll most commonly be using the car.
For example, if you commute a good distance to work on the highway every day, gas mileage and ride comfort should be high on the performance checklist. Do you like taking camping trips to hard-to-reach places? In that case, durability and 4WD should trump everything else. We’ll suggest a little of everything as far as performance is concerned in this list.
1) Best Cheap and Reliable Cars Under $5,000 – Jeep Cherokee XJ
Years: 1983 – 2001
Price: $1,500 – $6,000
Engine: – 4.0L AMC Inline-6
Drive: RWD and 4WD models both exist, a third RWD model w/ selectable 4WD was also produced
So many lists similar to this are chocked top to bottom with Japanese models. While it’s true that Japanese cars tend to be the least expensive to purchase and repair, there are other options out there as well. The Jeep Cherokee XJ is one of them. In addition to being cheap to own, a beast in poor weather, and comfortable, the Jeep XJ is one of the coolest-looking cars on the list.
When the XJ was released in 1983, the SUV formula that we know and love today hadn’t yet been established. The boxy and practical XJ design helped lay the foundations for what a midsized SUV is truly meant to be.
The XJ boasts 27 cubic feet of storage space with the rear seats in their upright position and a whopping 55 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down, making it a great option for anyone looking for a vehicle to accommodate frequent recreational activities. It’s also a proven off-roader, with selectable 4-wheel-drive.
The 4.0L AMC inline-6 cylinder engine that powers most of the American-market XJs is known as one of the most reliable American engines ever produced. The 2000 and 2001 models have been known to have cylinder head cracking issues at high mileages or if the cooling system hasn’t been maintained properly. Other than that, there are very few common issues to report.
Most XJ examples have over 100,000 miles on the odometer at this point, yet can last well into the 300,000-400,000 mile mark with proper maintenance.
2) Best Cheap and Reliable Cars Under $5,000 – Lexus ES300
Price: $2,500 – $5,000
Engine: 3.0L 3VZ-FE V6
Lexus is a manufacturer that produces some of the most reliable cars on the road that also, for some reason, depreciate like crazy. From where I’m sitting, it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s good news for anyone looking for a cheap reliable car with more than a tinge of luxury.
The second-generation Lexus ES300 has the reliability of a Toyota Camry but provides the comfort of, well… a Lexus. It doesn’t get much better than that for under $6,000. While the interior of the ES300 looks dated in 2022, that isn’t really the point. The true standout attribute is the ES300’s ride comfort. The large and pillowy leather seats cradle you like a grandparent’s hug while the front and rear MacPherson struts absorb road imperfections like they aren’t even there.
The ES uses the Toyota 3VZ-FE 6-cylinder engine that has a Michael Meyers reputation: they can’t be killed. Even if something does go wrong, parts are dirt cheap. As most of the ES’s components are shared with Toyota, repairs are often inexpensive and easy. However, it is important to make sure that you perform regular oil changes, as one of the 3VZ’s downfalls is sludgy engine oil from missed service intervals.
If you’re looking for a cheap and reliable highway cruiser with luxury options like surround sound audio and keyless entry, look no further than the ES300.
3) Ford Crown Victoria
Years: 1992 – 2009
Price: $2,000 – $5,000
Engine: Ford Modular 4.6L V8
The Ford Crown Victoria is as legendary as it is infamous. Remaining the United States police force’s primary choice of vehicle throughout its production run, there has to be a reason. And, spoiler alert, there are a few. If you know anything about current Ford and their core values, you’d know they go something like this: affordability, ease of maintenance, reliability. This pretty much sums up the Crown Victoria, plus a few other additions.
While lacking some luxuries found accouterments on the ES300, that’s not really what the Crown Victoria is about. The Crown Vic is an American workhorse and it acts that way. The interior is about as stripped back as can be. While air conditioning and AM/FM radio do come included, those are the only notable interior features. If heated leather seats and powered mirrors are a necessity, look for a Vic with the LX Sport package.
The Crown Vic is powered by a modular Ford 4.6L V8, capable of 250 horsepower in its highest trim. While not the beefiest V8 out there, it’s undoubtedly that the Vic has some get-up-and-go. If you’re looking for more power, Ford V8s never lack a wide array of mod options. They’ll be reliable horsepower too, as Ford V8s are designed for longevity.
As mentioned above, the Crown Vic is an easy and cost-efficient car to own. Placing high among the top ten most reliable cars ever produced, the Crown Victoria will rarely leave you stranded. Most cheap V8 cars have a hard time doing what a Crown Vic can do. Ultimately, it does what a car should do really well, and not much else.
4) Best Cheap and Reliable Cars Under $5,000 – Mazda 6
Engine: 2.3L MZR Inline-4 cylinder / 3.0L Duratec 30 V6
Unlike most of the other cars on this list, the Mazda 6 is aimed at providing a more sport-oriented experience. With that being said, it is let down a bit by its front-wheel-drive layout. That’s a bit of a trade-off, as the front-wheel-drive platform allows the Mazda 6 to perform better in poor weather conditions than other comparable rear-wheel-drive vehicles.
The Mazda 6 comes in multiple different chassis styles including a sedan, hatchback, or wagon. The Hatch and wagon are pretty cool-looking and very unique options if a sedan isn’t your speed. The 6 is available with a 5-speed manual or an automatic transmission in both 4-cylinder and V6 models. The automatic is more prone to failure than the manual transmission, especially on early model 6s.
The Mazda 6’s cabin is a pretty nice place to be too. To match the 6’s sporty overall demeanor, the steering wheel, leather seats, and illuminated orange instrument cluster all have a gaudy feel. To add yet another element to the Mazda 6’s solid performance characteristics, they feature a double-wishbone front suspension layout. Simply stated, the Mazda 6 is an impressively handling car that has a very smooth ride.
Both the inline-4 and V6 found in the Mazda 6 are incredibly reliable engines. Since the 4-cylinder option comes equipped with a timing chain, engine services are infrequent outside of standard oil changes. The Ford-sourced V6 is also a gem. It is known to have issues with oil leaks at high mileages, but other than that, it is very dependable.
5) Chevrolet Tahoe
Years: 1995 -1999
Price: $2,500 – $5,000
Engine: Chevy L05 Vortec V8
Drive: RWD / 4WD
Taking a departure from highway-cruising sedans, a Chevy Tahoe is our top V8 SUV pick. With the Tahoe name being synonymous with ‘giant family-hauler’ for almost three decades, most people disregard its capabilities.
Like what makes the other vehicles on this list stand out, the first-generation Tahoe is a solid owner’s car. At its root, that phrase encompasses high comfort, easy maintenance, unfaltering reliability, and joyful driving. Having owned a 1995 Tahoe, I can attest that all were, for the most part, present.
Starting with the first-gen Tahoe’s comfort level, it’s hard to beat. Honestly. The front seats feel more like a used sofa with a bit more support. Where many cheap V8 cars lack in the comfort department, Tahoe’s do not. In combination with the planted but forgiving suspension, it can feel like you are stationary at 80 mph a lot of the time. It is hard to imagine a better long-haul vehicle than a first-gen Tahoe.
It is also a key point that the first-gen has 7 seats, plenty for your whole family and your neighbors. With the rear seats in a downward position, a full set of living room furniture will fit in the back. Of all of the vehicles on this list, the Tahoe is unquestionably the most versatile.
That brings us to the first-gen Tahoe’s LO5 small-block V8; a strong and reliable powerhouse. Pumping out 225 hp and 335 lb-ft of torque, highway overtakes in a first-gen are easily done. The ample amount of power will make you forget how heavy the car is at times.
Best Cheap and Reliable Cars Under $5,000 Summary
Whether your old car gave up and you need something temporary to keep you going or you are looking for a good choice for a first car, the vehicles listed above are all solid choices. Cheap cars often have the stigma that they will let you down often, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Picking a model that is known to be mechanically strong and internally resilient has the potential to break that stereotype.
With that being said, you must find a cared for example of any car that you choose if you want it to last well into the future. Unfortunately, a lot of vehicles in the $5,000 price range are there because they were neglected. For that reason, it is important to do your diligence when purchasing one of these vehicles. That could mean performing a Carfax search of the car or taking it into a trusted shop to perform a pre-purchase inspection.
As you can see from the variety on the list, there are cheap and reliable cars of all shapes and sizes at the $5,000 price point. The key is finding one that suits your daily needs.
If you liked this article, but you’re looking for something with a little more displacement, check out our Best V8 Cars Under $10,000 Guide. As always, safe driving!