5 of the Worst Used Cars Under $5,000

August 19, 2015

Bad cars are everywhere. If you’re looking for a used car under $5,000, you know you’re going to have to buy a vehicle that’s old, has a lot of miles or has a few problems. And that’s OK. What you want to be careful of are bad used cars that look like a good bargain but have insurmountable problems. Here’s a guide to five of the worst used cars under $5,000.

1. Trade-Ins That Even the Dealers Don’t Want

Former car dealer and auctioneer Steven Lang figured out a clever way to identify the worst used cars. He gathered data on trade-ins sent to wholesale auctions by large used-car dealerships. These vehicles have so many expensive problems that the dealers would rather unload them instead of fixing them up to sell. After crunching the numbers on 300,000 vehicles, Lang came up with a list of the worst used cars to buy. It includes some upscale models that might surprise you, such as:

  • Jaguar S-Type
  • Land Rover Discovery
  • Mazda CX-7

All of these used cars have significant engine or transmission issues and/or cheap interiors that don’t wear well, Lang reports. Even if you find one of these used cars under $5,000, it may not be worthwhile.

2. Models that aren’t made anymore

You know how the grocery store puts big discount stickers on items that have been discontinued? The same is true of cars. When buying a used car, you may get a good deal on a vehicle that’s no longer being made — but it’s not necessarily a smart buy.

Chrysler_PT_CruiserConsumer Reports’ list of the worst used cars to buy includes several discontinued vehicles, such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser (canceled in 2010) and the Dodge Grand Caravan, which saw its long run end in 2015. Do your homework first and find out why the car was discontinued. If the answer is poor quality or customer complaints, steer clear. If the body style just wasn’t popular, that’s a different story.

Even worse is buying a used car by a manufacturer that’s no longer operating in the United States. “The parts supply may be more questionable,” Autotrader says, for vehicles made by departed makers like Saab, Suzuki and Saturn.

3. Cars with a high cost of ownership

The sticker price can be misleading. Used cars under $5,000 aren’t necessarily a bargain if the cost of ownership — the amount you’ll pay for maintenance, repairs, fuel, insurance, financing and depreciation — is high. Edmunds has a great feature that allows you to assess the cost of ownership when you’re buying a used car, although it only covers model years 2009 and later. For instance, the 5-year ownership cost of a 2010 Ford Focus is $27,805.

4. Vehicles with no title

You may see a used car under $5,000 that’s in pretty good shape but missing one crucial component: the title. A vehicle title is a legal document that establishes the owner of a vehicle. If you buy a car without it, you may find that your new vehicle has been salvaged or stolen.

Each state has its own process for allowing vehicle owners to apply for a replacement title, but this process isn’t always easy. Title companies can help, for a fee. But in general, buying a used car without a title is a bad idea.

5. Cars with a funky smell

No mechanical issues, no rust, no dents — but open the door and you’ll immediately discover why a used car is listed under $5,000. When you’re buying a used car, a strong odor is a danger sign.

  • Smoking while drivingGasoline smell: If you smell fuel, that could mean a leaking gas tank or fuel line.
  • Burning smell: A burning smell can signify an oil leak, a slipped belt, a loose hose or brake issues.
  • Sweet smell: “A sweet or maple-syrup-like smell indicates that the car is leaking engine coolant, the heater core has failed, or another component of the car’s cooling system has been compromised,” warns Autotrader.
  • Mildew smell: This could mean the car has a windshield or sunroof leak, or just that the windows have been left down in the rain too many times.
  • Smoke smell: Cigarette smoke permeates a car’s upholstery and can linger for years. There are ways to reduce the smell by thoroughly cleaning and deodorizing the car, but there’s no guarantee you can get rid of it.
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