The Best Used Cars You Can Buy for Under $20,000

It’s not hard to see the appeal in a new car: low to no miles, undamaged and unworn parts, and of course, the purest version of that new-car smell. But as any bargain-minded car shopper is sure to tell you, there are far better deals to be found on the used car market. Depreciation slices a good chunk off any car’s value the moment it leave the dealership, and the car’s worth just keeps sliding from there, in an inevitable downward slope that, sooner or later, winds up with the vehicle valued at little more than the market price of the raw materials that can be sucked out of it.

But ruffling through the used car market to separate the clunkers from the charmers can be grueling. (Trust us: We just did it for our Best Used Off-Roaders for Less Than $10,000 piece.) Any information that can help sift the wheat from the chaff is helpful — and the more it can winnow down the massive selection of pre-owned vehicles out there, the better.

Luckily for us, the team at has put together a list of some of the best bargains to be found in the lightly-used car market. For these purposes, they looked at vehicles that are three years old (i.e. coming off a common-length lease term). While the average car lost 38.2 percent of its value in that time, many cars lost far, far more — which makes them great buys in the used car market. And again, given the used car market’s particular focus on value, they further broke down their list to pull out the three-year-old cars you can buy for less than $20,000 today that have seen the steeped depreciation in those 36 months since they first left the lot. In other words: These 10 vehicles are the best buys in used cars you can find today for less than $20,000.

Lincoln MKZ

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $19,855
Depreciation: 55.6%

Inside Pocantico Hills are the lush green expanses of Rockefeller land, acres preserved and/or donated by the oil baron’s trust. At the tenderloin lies the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a bucolic organic farm practicing four-season agriculture. The foundation converted the dairy barns, which date back to the 1930s, into an education center and, notably, the three-star (New York Times) restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Dan Barber. And it’s here that I recently steered Lincoln’s reasonably priced luxury cruiser, the MKZ, over the winding roads.


At a fifth of the cost of the Flying Spur, the MKZ doesn’t feel like a gross reduction of luxury. The team at Lincoln worked to fulfill the mantra of “quiet luxury,” and they’re hitting the marks. When I first walked around the car, in November 2015, I wrote that it fulfilled “the presence of luxury born in Detroit.” And that runs true, for the good. Features found on the more expensive luxury models — Mercedes, BMW, Bentley, Lexus — build up the $36,920 starting price, but don’t skyrocket to unattainable levels.

Engine: 2.0-liter GTDI I-4 (optional: 3.0-liter GTDI V6)
Transmission: Six-Speed SelectShift automatic
Horsepower: 245 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 275 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
Fuel Economy: 21/31/24 (city/highway/combined)
MSRP: $36,920 (base)
MSRP: $54,000 (as tested)

The MKZ I drove on that cerulean day coddled me with a seat massage (better, I might add, than any I’ve felt); controlled the wheel with adaptive cruise control and gentle, non-jarring lane correction; and spoiled with the panoramic roof, ambient light and a Revel sound system. In all, Detroit’s caught on to what the luxury market’s been doing for years, sans a gas-guzzling beast under the hood. The MKZ’s clean lines and mature styling (long gone are the days of the “big-winged” grille) will, the next time it steers in the drive at Stone Barns, have the valets jostling to be the one to open that driver’s-side door.

Kia Cadenza

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $19,508
Depreciation: 50.2%


Ford Fusion Hybrid

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $14,844
Depreciation: 49.7%


Chevrolet Impala

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $17,745
Depreciation: 49.4%

Kia Optima Hybrid

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $16,381
Depreciation: 49.2%


Fiat 500L

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $13,403
Depreciation: 49.1%


Ford Taurus

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $17,587
Depreciation: 48.7%


Volkswagen Tiguan

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $16,235
Depreciation: 47.7%

The Tiguan is Volkswagen’s redesigned compact crossover SUV. With a longer wheelbase, expanded cabin space and sedate style, it is more stately than the first generation, still sold for now as the “Tiguan LImited.” The Tiguan was designed specifically for the American customer, with all that entails.

BUY NOW: $24,295 ($30,180 AS TESTED)
The Good: Classy exterior for a crossover. Clean, premium feeling interior. Tons of space in the trunk and the first two rows of the cabin.

Who It’s For: Explicitly, the American compact crossover SUV buyer. The Tiguan buyer wants style and practicality and has little concern with driving dynamics, leaving the pavement, or maximizing value for the price point.

Watch Out For: Soft steering. Inconsistent acceleration. Tiny, borderline useless third row of seats. A conspicuous lack of fun.

Alternatives: Other family-oriented compact crossover SUVs in this price range include:

Honda CR-V ($24,250, base)

Toyota Rav4 ($24,660, base)

Subaru Forester ($24,295 base)

Review: Volkswagen debuted the redesigned Tiguan with a meteor commercial. The SUV held a large amount of stuff, and it took an apocalyptic external scenario to make driving the Tiguan feel exciting. That is a fair summation. The Tiguan is not a terrible car – it’s just boring. You expect more from a “Tiger Iguana” than a ferocious yawn.

German companies know how to build drivers’ cars, even on a Volkswagen budget. The scariest phrase to read in a German manufacturer press release is “designed specifically for the needs of American customers.” American customers aren’t flying around the Nürburgring. They want room in the caboose and for their cabooses. They want cup holders and USB ports. They need the car to stay straight on the way to Costco. The Tiguan is, indeed, what Germans think American customers want.

I’ll start with the good. The Tiguan is smart looking. It’s not stylish per se. But, it looks like a sane, rational adult designed it. The lines are clean. The proportions are correct. There’s nothing weird, aggressive, or neon. That sobriety is refreshing in the crossover SUV market. The Tiguan also has a clean, considered Volkswagen interior that somehow makes cheap materials feel more expensive than they are. Looks alone will be enough for many buyers.

To be honest, though, the revamp may have been overkill. If the first generation Tiguan was your kooky, fun friend from college who needed some refinement, the second generation is him a decade later, 20 pounds heavier, and prattling on about his middle management job. Objectively, he’s more useful and suited to requirements. But, you kind of liked him better before.

The Tiguan is quite practical. The cabin is spacious and comfortable. Large people fit. Average-sized folks have almost too much space to move around. The second-row bench seat can recline and move back and forth seven inches. It does have a third row, technically. But, that third row serves little functional purpose. It is the smallest I have seen on a vehicle. As an average-sized male, I could not close the second row back up. I could barely fit across the two seats horizontally. When you fold down that tiny, useless third row, however, you get a capacious trunk. I was able to lay my son’s behemoth stroller flat and vertically and still had enough space for a full grocery shop.

Charm fades when you shift the Tiguan into drive. The second generation is longer, heavier and less powerful (down to 184hp from 200hp) than the first. It handles like it. Many fun to drive cars share Volkswagen’s famed MQB platform. The Tiguan is not one of them.

The steering felt soft and imprecise, a particular sin for a Volkswagen. My Sportwagen dives right into sharp turns. In the Tiguan, I found myself slow banking in the middle of an intersection. The throttle was finicky. Neither my wife nor I could find consistency with it during a week of driving. Rapid acceleration felt jerky with the engine’s auto stop/start, turbo lag and the more than occasional premature upshift. Sometimes the acceleration caught the turbo full bore. Sometimes things were normal. It was never predictable.

One could forgive the Tiguan’s imprecise driving dynamics – crossover buyers tend not to be performance driving enthusiasts – if the car, say, got good gas mileage. It doesn’t. EPA rated my FWD tester for 24mpg combined. The FWD version of the Honda CR-V, for comparison, gets 30 mpg combined.

VW does offer an array of driver assistance features with the Tiguan. Those include forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian monitoring and a blind spot monitor with rear traffic alert. That’s an $850 option on the S trim and supposed to be included with the SE. My SE tester, somehow, did not have them. It did include the $1,200 panoramic sunroof package. Normally, I don’t care for sunroofs because I don’t look straight up while driving, I don’t notice any ambient natural light and they don’t make the car feel like a convertible. I don’t like presenting an inviting target for divebombing birds. This one did a decent job damping down the road noise and left me sweating because it was 87 and humid.

Pressed for an overall driving impression from the Tiguan, my wife responded: “it’s fine.” I understood what she meant. The Tiguan looks like a Volkswagen. It’s practical like a Volkswagen. It offers the most disengaged, utterly unmemorable driving experience I have ever experienced in a Volkswagen. I was not sad to see the Tiguan go after a week. A couple times I forgot I had it and had to walk back inside to swap keys.

The Tiguan may be “enough” for the Crossover SUV market. But, there are more fun crossovers. There are more efficient crossovers. There are more capable crossovers. There are cheaper crossovers. Some, such as the Honda CR-V and the Subaru Forester are all of the above.

Verdict: The Tiguan looks like a Volkswagen. It’s practical like a Volkswagen. It has none of the precise driving and charm one would expect from a Volkswagen. The noteworthy part is just how forgettable it is. There are better options in the Crossover SUV market. There are more economical options. There are options that are both.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The problem is that this two-ton package (when the driver is in place) is propelled by an overwhelmed 184-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four engine. And despite its 221 lb-ft of torque being routed through a strong eight-speed automatic, the Tiguan’s engine rarely feels comfortable when pressed at speed.” – Mark Rechtin, Motor Trend

• “A good compact crossover is like a good winter coat: it’s nothing to get excited about, but its ability to satisfy several functions can be very pleasing. The 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan is like a good winter coat.” – Robert Duffer, Chicago Tribune

• “Volkswagen, hungry for US-market sales in the wake of a public-image nightmare, has done what’s needed to make the Tiguan more appealing to American crossover shoppers: make it bigger and more comfortable.” – Murilee Martin, Autoweek

2018 VW Tiguan SE Key Specs
Engine: 2.0L turbocharged inline-four
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Horsepower: 184
Torque: 221 lb-ft
Weight: 3,777 lbs
0-60: 8.2 seconds
Fuel Economy: 22/27/24 mpg

BUY NOW: $24,295 ($30,180 AS TESTED)

Fiat 500

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $11,469
Depreciation: 47.2%


Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Average Three-Year-Old Price: $16,303
Depreciation: 47.0%

The rakish, sleek Sonata, with its creased sheet metal, doesn’t sag after its hippie-pleasing green makeover. Instead, the Sonata Hybrid benefits from a beefed up 35kW electric motor and a total output of 199 horsepower; combined with a shocking 235 lb-ft of torque, the Korean four-door boasts a 0-60 time of 8.1 seconds. You’d swear it wasn’t a sleepy hybrid. And in another show of brilliance, Hyundai spared us a CVT, delivering a smooth-shifting six-speed step-gear automatic transmission instead. You won’t win any slaloms with those skinny tires, but that blue hybrid badge belies the Sonata Hybrid’s great acceleration numbers, and its relaxed driving experience and top-notch cabin puts it at the top of its segment.
BUY NOW: $26,000


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