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IT’S 5:15

We’re on the cusp of summer, and with graduations, summer jobs and – if your teen is a mother or father – Mother’s Day and Father’s Day on our calendars, there’s a lot going on. And for many families, this period of transition often brings the need for transportation, along with the financial peril shopping for a new or pre-owned car will impose. Although it’s been 20+ years since my wife and I confronted that need, and this post-Covid environment has upset most retail conventions, basic rules for used car shopping still apply, even if the cast of characters continues to evolve.

A friend, Kevin, has a daughter with a summer internship in Dallas, and while she’ll live close to her work – and Dallas has far more shared-ride choices than it had twenty years ago – her family is shopping for a car; you know, a reliable, pre-owned car. Although their sweet spot is around $10K, that number won’t get you much in this post-Covid, hyper-inflationary environment – especially if you regard ‘reliable’ as a requirement. Given their need and my professed knowledge of the subject, Kevin asked me for ideas on what to shop and what to spend. And as you’ll guess from the headline, I came up with five ideas, each for around $15K. Four of these suggestions are no-brainers, while the fifth – a Fiat! – is the wild card. 

HONDA HR-V: For 2023 Honda has redesigned its HR-V, and as you’ll see in the majority of redesigns from most OEMs, the HR-V has grown larger, its dimensions stretched to almost the size of a CR-V. (The CR-V has also grown in its recent redesign, so there isn’t the overlap we might have expected.) While liking the new HR-V, I loved the old one, finding it the perfect runabout for intown errands and, notably, intown parking. And in case you’ve forgotten, it has the magic seat, which makes the rear compartment great for friends…and absolutely magic for those runs to Costco. 

Since it’s a Honda, used prices will reflect Honda’s historically good resale value, something you’ll also see in the Subaru and Toyota picks. But I found a 2016 HR-V EX with all-wheel drive for $15,490. And while it has just over 100,000 miles, it has no accident history – and should be good for another 100,000 miles. Obviously, a pre-purchase inspection is a good idea, as is a lengthy demo drive. I can’t imagine a better car for an older teen or 20-something, especially if wanting to keep monthlies at around $200/month. (That’s calculated using $5K down and financing $10K for 60 months – at 7%. You’ll need decent credit – and no, I won’t co-sign.)

NISSAN ROGUE S: The beauty of Nissan products is that they depreciate faster than Hondas or Toyotas. And that’s, of course, because Nissan doesn’t build Hondas or Toyotas. But the company does build good cars and crossovers, capable of delivering reliable service over a number of years. And since they don’t hold their value like the ‘H’ and ‘T’ teams, you can buy newer for less. My brief search located a 2016 Rogue S with just 82K miles for $14,500. 

If you could find one, another attractive Nissan for a teenage driver is the Rogue Sport. Your kid won’t be able to carry as many friends, but for a young driver and his or her anxious parents, that’s not a bad thing. 

SUBARU FORESTER: In just over a decade I’ve been to the Subaru showroom twice, buying a Forester in 2011 and, having sold that to our son, purchasing a Crosstrek in the fall of 2014. Subaru comes highly recommended ‘cause I highly recommend it. And I’m still a fan, thinking the footprint and capability of Subarus work well for anyone of any age, but certainly work well for young drivers.

In my online search I found two attractive choices, narrowed to one Forester when the Crosstrek – a 2016 with 130K miles and an accident history – was disqualified. The Forester, also a 2016, had 96K miles, a clean CarFax (meaning no accidents) and an asking price of $15,990. I’d be all in, and if you can find something similar you should be all in.

TOYOTA RAV4 LE: The RAV4 is typically at the top of the U.S. sales charts, for any number of good reasons. Its just-right sizing is propelled by capable powertrains, while the availability of hybrid and, more recently, a plug-in hybrid preceded the rush to better efficiency and fewer emissions. If we go back six or seven model years, however, a RAV4 is slightly smaller than today’s version, and will probably be powered by a conventional drivetrain.

Again, I found in an online search a 2016 RAV4 LE with 77,000 miles and an asking price of just under $16,000. Given Toyota’s rep for quality assembly and long-term reliability, there’s probably another 150,000 miles of reliable service, taking your kid through college, his or her first job and (potentially) his or her first kid. Toyotas can typically serve multiple generations, handed down like the family farm.

AND THE WILD CARD! FIAT 500X: Fiat’s compact crossover, the 500X, was an outgrowth of the first model in Fiat’s stateside revival, the 500 2-door. Looking somewhat like a stretched 500 with four doors and more ground clearance, the 500X brings with it a charm – and quiet distinctiveness – not present in the more ubiquitous CR-Vs and RAV4s. 

Of course, Fiats aren’t known for bullet-proof reliability – FIX IT AGAIN, TONY! – and a marginal dealer network when the company returned to the U.S. is now even more marginal; sales have dropped and consumer interest has waned. But a 2016 Fiat 500X Lounge, with just 24,000 miles, is available for $16,651; that’s essentially a new car for well-used money. You’d want to do a pre-purchase inspection before committing. And if Catholic, have your parish priest bless it.

Boldt, a contributor to outlets such as, Kelley Blue Book and Autoblog, brings to his laptop some forty years of experience in automotive retail, journalism and public relations. He is a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, The Washington Automotive Press Association and L.A.'s Motor Press Guild. David is the Managing Editor of txGarage, a regular panelist on the AutoNetwork Reports webcast/podcast, and the automotive contributor to Dallas' Katy Trail Weekly.

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