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Used Car Lemons and Lemonade

Knowing where to place your bets with a used car can be tricky. The horror stories are all too common -- the pieced-together parts, the unexplained and unexpected sounds and smells, the bodies in the trunk ...

Okay. Maybe the last one isn't quite as common.

But buying used doesn't have to be such a gamble if you do your research. There's a wealth of online information available that can make it easier to avoid a lemon.  With the federal government's vehicle defect notices and  J.D. Power and Associates' reliability data the most common mechanical issues are all easy to trace. In addition, U.S. News' used car listings make the search easier for the best used car options in your area.

But we've already done the research to help you narrow down your choices. Check out our list of the best and worst used cars. Remember, while this list is a good start, all used cars are different. Before buying, make sure you give any used car -- even one on our best list -- a thorough inspection.

 

Best Used Cars:

Honda Civic

There's a reason the Civic shows up on many auto experts "Best" lists: When it comes to outstanding quality, safety and dependability, there are few better cars. Cars.com notes the Civic is one the most popular used cars sold from July to September of 2008, while Consumer Reports chose it as the best used car in the small car class because its "reliable, economical and fun to drive." CarComplaints.com finds that some Civic owners have had transmission problems with the 2001 and 2002 models, but the current generation Civic, first sold in 2006, has a strong reliability record and few federal government defect notices.

Subaru Impreza

If you're looking for a distinctive design or thrills on the road, the Impreza probably isn't your first choice. But critics say the car is a safe choice, literally and figuratively. Writers praise the Impreza's secure dynamics with standard all-wheel drive, and highlight the safety features and strong safety scores from the federal government and insurance industry. J.D. Power and Associates lists the 2006 Subie Impreza as a top pick in its 2009 Vehicle Dependability Survey. Although Cars.com reports the 2009 Impreza has one of the best resale values (which means finding one that's used and cheap could be a challenge), Edmunds suggests an Impreza made between 1998 and 2001 as one of the best used cars for those on a tighter budget. "We found high-mileage (150,000-plus) 2.5RS models starting at around $4,500 on Auto Trader," they report. There's an even better deal in U.S. News' used car listings: a 1999 Impreza with 98,746 miles for only $3,995.

Toyota Prius

With every model year the Prius seems to make advancements in fuel efficiency. But even an older model Toyota Prius offers outstanding gas mileage. In 2001, the first year the car was available in the United States, the EPA gave it a combined rating of 41 mpg. Cars.com notes the 2009 Prius has one of the strongest resale values, and J.D. Power and Associates lists the 2006 model as the most dependable car in the compact category in its 2009 Vehicle Dependability Survey.

Ford Mustang

Car writers say nothing looks, drives or feels like a Ford Mustang, whether you buy one new or used. More importantly, buying used rather than new will help you get that retro-cool vibe the current Mustang is known for. According to Edmunds, any Mustang made between 1986 and 2004 is perfect "if you prefer a V8 rumble to drown out the rattles from your cheap ride's aging interior," and you should be able to find one from that time period for less than $5,000. Cars.com reports the Mustang is one of the top-10 most popular used cars based on reports from dealers and private sellers.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

It's sexy and affordable. It corners on a dime, and with an impressive reliability record, it's built to last. While it's not as powerful as some affordable sports cars, numerous automotive experts say the Mazda MX-5 Miata's nimble handling is great no matter what model year you choose. Edmunds notes, "this little roadster proves that the right sports car formula has real staying power," and notes that first generation Miata's made between 1990 and 1997 "are readily available for well under $5 grand." Not only that, but J.D. Power and Associates chose the 2006 Miata as the most reliable compact sports car in its 2009 Vehicle Dependability Survey, and Consumer Reports selected the Miata as its Best Used Sports Car.  

 

Worst Used Cars:

GMC Canyon

The GMC Canyon successfully balances an imposing stance on the highway while providing coddling comfort in the cab. Reviewers also praise the 2009 model's new V8 engine for helping the Canyon effectively compete with meatier trucks in its segment. But Consumer Reports cites the Canyon's troubled reliability history as the reason it makes their Worst Used Cars list. According to Consumer Guide, Canyons from 2004 through 2008 are "underpowered for anything other than daily commuting," with pronounced road noise and a tiresome ride depending on the trim. Consumer Guide says some commonly reported problems for these model years include electrical wiring problems with the OnStar system and weak exhaust valve springs that could cause the engine to misfire.

Chrysler Sebring

As Chrysler dealerships close across the country, you can expect unbelievable prices on both new and used models of the Sebring sedan or convertible. It's just too bad that shaky reliability, poor cabin quality and disappointing performance lead most reviewers to say the Sebring was never a great buy to begin with. Consumer Reports chose the Sebring convertible as one of the Worst Used Cars based on reliability data from vehicles from 1999 through 2008. Meanwhile, CarComplaints.com shows many Sebring owners have reported problems with the engine, air conditioning and heating systems and airbags on both the 2001 and 2002 Sebrings. 

Ford Explorer

The current generation of the Ford Explorer ranks mid-pack among affordable midsize SUVs, and is praised for its off-roading capabilities and a spacious cabin. But according to CarComplaints.com, car owners have recounted problems with the third generation of the Explorer -- made from 2002 to 2005 -- for cracked window panels and faulty transmissions. Consumer Guide also recounts this generation of Explorer has commonly had problems with coolant and oil leaks, rattling timing belts and ticking valves in the 4.6-liter engines.  

Dodge Intrepid

The Intrepid was a Consumer Guide Best Buy or Recommended Pick almost every year of its 1998 to 2004 run. Reviewers liked the sedan's passenger and cargo room and praised the nimble handling, especially for the car's size. But a large number of Intrepid owners have reported engine troubles with the 2000 model, and the federal government previously recalled Intrepids for faulty airbags and seatbelts. Consumer Guide notes the Intrepid's most commonly reported mechanical problems include electrical problems with the cabin lights and headlights, plus an engine tapping noise when driving a V6 Intrepid.

Pontiac Aztek

The Aztek's brief four-year run in Pontiac's lineup is a testament to this midsize crossover SUV's unpopularity. We could fudge it and say that disdain for the SUV had to do with its low gas mileage or lacking cabin quality, but truly, critics say the biggest problem with the Aztek was its ungainly dimensions. According to Britain's Daily Telegraph, the Aztek's obtuse shape was "proof that Americans do ugly better than anyone else." On our side of the Atlantic, Consumer Reports lists the Aztek on its Worst Used Cars and TIME Magazine dinged the 2001 model as one of its "Worst Cars of All Time." According to TIME's writers, "This car could not have been more instantly hated it if had a Swastika tattoo on its forehead. ... a bulky, plastic-clad mess. ... The Aztek violates one of the principal rules of car design: We like cars that look like us." But if you can get around the Aztek's unconventional look, reviewers admit the SUV is a competent performer with stable handling and minimal road noise.