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Shopping for a used car can be challenging, especially if your needs and wants don’t match your budget. And consulting a used car buyer’s guide might cause more confusion and headache. Most guides recommend the same vehicles from the same manufacturers (hello, Honda and Toyota), driving up demand and prices. 

However, you can find decent vehicles for less money if you veer off the beaten path. These cars can be as reliable and rewarding to own as the most popular nameplates but have fallen out of favor because they lack some features buyers want or don’t have the same eye-catching styling. And because they have fallen out of favor, that makes them cheaper — sometimes by thousands of dollars — than other vehicles.     

Not all used cars are created equal

Cheap unpopular used car: Volkswagen Routan
2009 Volkswagen Routan | Tim Boyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Like fashion and music, cars go through fads. Vehicles that were popular five or 10 years ago can fall out of favor fast. Before you know it, they’re sitting in the back row at the car lot. In some ways, they’re like the kid in school who wore knockoffs or hand-me-downs instead of trendy brands. 

Anyway, unpopular cars are cheaper cars, many of which are also good cars. Shopping for affordable, less popular vehicles is its own reward. You can score a bargain on something different that will give you years of rewarding car ownership. Think of it like thrifting or going to secondhand stores and consignment shops, which, incidentally, is popular these days. 

Right now, there’s a small 2014 SUV in my neck of the woods with under 100,000 miles for $9,995. It has most of the features you’d expect in a vehicle, such as power windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control, etc. According to RepairPal, it has an above-average reliability rating and a relatively low ownership cost. 

What’s this steal of a vehicle, you ask? It’s the Chevrolet Captiva, a small SUV made in Korea by a GM subsidiary and sold in Asia, Mexico, South America, and other markets. Stateside, it was the staple of rental car companies in Florida and is cheap to buy. 

If the Captiva isn’t your thing, you can find numerous used Ford Escapes, Nissan Rogues, Jeep Compasses, and the occasional Cherokee for under $12,000. All are 2014 or newer, with less than 100,000 miles.       

Want a used sedan instead? You’ll find plenty under $12,000, including the Nissan Sentra, Volkswagen Jetta, and VW Passat. I also found a 2014 Volkswagen CC, the four-door coupe version of the Passat. It had heated leather seats, power everything, and a stereo with Bluetooth and navigation for under $11,000. 

How do you find these cheap cars? The easiest way is to use a website like Autotrader, TrueCars,, or CarGurus. Then enter your search criteria, such as the type of vehicle, maximum price, maximum miles, and desired features. Most of these sites will also let you sort by price, and the unpopular cars will show up as the cheapest options.   

Unloved badge-engineered cars are bargains

Believe it or not, Volkswagen produced a minivan from 2009 to 2014. The Routan had a VW badge and some VW trim pieces, but underneath it was a Dodge Caravan. It used a Chrysler engine and transmission, and most of the parts could be ordered from a Dodge or Chrysler dealer. 

The Routan is what’s called a badge-engineered vehicle, a car made by one company and sold by another. It can be a completely different company, like VW and Chrysler, or it could be within the same automaker, like the Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, and Cadillac XT6. 

Typically, consumers overlook badge-engineered cars. So although these vehicles have the same features, they can be several thousands of dollars less than the name-brand model. In the Routan’s case, it typically costs about $2,000 less than the comparable Dodge Caravan or Chrysler Town & Country.  

Other cheap, unpopular used cars

Think of these vehicles as the “pound puppies” at your local animal shelter. They aren’t the designer breed everyone falls in love with at the pet store. But given a chance, they will be loyal friends.

Years ago, my wife wanted a Toyota 4Runner, but we couldn’t find one to fit our budget. Eventually, we settled on a used Nissan Pathfinder. It had everything my wife wanted in a vehicle while costing $5,000 less than the 4Runner. Since then, we’ve been Nissan owners. I owned an Infiniti I30, a badge-engineered Nissan Maxima, for many years. And a few years ago, we bought a used 2017 Nissan Murano for almost 50% less than the original sticker price.

Like Honda and Toyota cars, Nissan vehicles are at the top of the food chain. But you can find other nameplates that are immensely appealing because of their low price. If you’re looking for a midsize sedan, the Chevy Malibu is a solid pick. There’s nothing special about it, but there’s nothing wrong with it, either. The same goes for Kia and Hyundai cars, which typically don’t hold their resale value as well as vehicles from other makers. However, that has started to change recently.  


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