10 Best Late-Model Used Cars Under $15,000

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10 Best Late-Model Used Cars Under $15,000

A little over a century ago Thomas R. Marshall, the 28th Vice President of the United States, famously said, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.” These days, Marshall’s plea could be amended to read, “What this country needs is a good $15,000 used car.” The happy news is they exist, and with the help of our Master Mechanic, we at Kelley Blue Book have compiled this list of the 10 Best Late-Model Used Cars Under $15,000. Some individual examples of these cars might be priced higher than 15 grand, but we expect you’ll be able to find serviceable versions in your area. And while we’re talking about service, our Master Mechanic advises that when you identify a vehicle for possible purchase, take it to the technician of your choice for an assessment. The inspection could pay for itself, because often the mechanic will find reasons the seller should discount the price.

In 2013 the Kia Optima stepped up its game and began to rival top-tier midsize vehicles like the Accord and Camry in ways it never had before. The car’s exterior styling, its easy-to-operate controls and its extensive feature set moved it up in class, but it still did not reach the quality/reliability level of the finest vehicles in the segment. So we recommend it, but offer a few cautions. Some Optimas have had engine problems, including total failure. Owners have also encountered failures of the high-pressure fuel pump, and this can leave you stranded. The saving grace here is Kia’s lengthy warranty. When you buy, make sure it is in effect and you have the paperwork to keep it in effect. A properly maintained, well-warranted Optima can be a loyal family friend for years to come.

No one will label the 2014 Hyundai Sonata as exciting, but in your quest for cost-effective transportation we’d bet you’d trade some excitement for extra peace of mind. The overriding positive is Hyundai’s class-leading 5-year/60,000-mile warranty, all of which is transferrable to a second or third owner. If you intend to purchase a Sonata and take advantage of the warranty, make sure all the previous owner’s maintenance records are available and come with the vehicle. Hyundai is very particular about that. Why do you want to keep the warranty in effect? These vehicles have a larger-than-typical percentage of engine failures, and without warranty coverage, replacing an engine is very expensive. Some Sonatas also have encountered problems with engine oil cooler leaks, resulting in a mix of oil and coolant. This may be why there are so many engine failures. So look for a low-mile example, make sure the warranty is in effect and keep the Sonata well-maintained.

The Nissan Maxima was once marketed as “the four-door sports car,” and though that wasn’t its 2012 tagline, the Maxima still has a sporty aura. In fact, its driving manners and well-finished interior are its key calling cards, and a nicely maintained Maxima is a pleasure to own. So why isn’t it toward the top of the list? Two words: transmission problems. This expensive-to-repair failure can crop up with around 90,000 miles on the odometer, which means if you are eying an example with mileage in this range, have the transmission checked thoroughly. A best-case solution would be to buy a Maxima whose transmission has recently been replaced. The reason the Maxima makes the list is its combination of upsides that include a comfortable, upscale interior, expressive exterior style and easy-to-understand entertainment system.

The Mazda3 is a perennial favorite of ours at KBB, a multi-time Coolest Cars under $18,000 overall winner and a blast to drive. In our experience the Mazda3 is the best handling of the compact cars and offers a feature set that rivals more expensive European models. Since the 2015 Mazda3 is the most recent model on this list, and thus typically still under warranty, our mechanic has limited firsthand experience with the car. His research indicates in some early versions the oil change reminder monitor did not work correctly and required a re-flash of the onboard computer. Also some of the vehicles built in Mexico came with the wrong and insufficient amount of antifreeze installed. This inexplicable combination caused multiple problems with the cooling system. Those teething problems seem to have been sorted out, so a 2015 Mazda3 you purchase today should be both reliable and a pleasure behind the wheel.

When seeking the epitome of a reliable sedan, many people default to the Honda Accord. The only reason we rate it #6 instead of higher is because our Master Mechanic has seen several alternator failures and also some electric power steering motor failures. In the past, some Accord owners have also reported oil consumption problems, but Honda has largely fixed that issue. Overall, the Accord boasts the fabled Honda dependability, but these issues detract from that. Still, minor potential quibbles aside, the Accord is a terrific value -- solidly built, comfortable, feature-filled, safe and economical to own.

Subaru Forester owners seem more particular than others about keeping their vehicles well-maintained, and for that reason alone a Forester is a good choice as a used vehicle. The fact that all Foresters are all-wheel-drive vehicles is another plus, particularly if you live in an area plagued by bad weather. Our Master Mechanic reports a service bulletin for “long crank on startup” whose fix involves reprogramming of the PCM and possible replacement of the crankshaft-position sensor. Some Forester owners have also encountered oil seepage from the front crankshaft seal. But neither problem is as bad as it might sound. The Forester might not be as feature-filled as some of the competitive vehicles, but it’ll take you a long way hassle-free.

Low initial cost and low overall cost-to-own in a versatile, fun-to-drive crossover utility -- that’s what you get with a 2012 Toyota RAV4. Our Master Mechanic calls it one of his favorite vehicles because of its simplicity and problem-free nature. Owners have encountered some issues with oxygen sensors causing codes P0136 and P0138, but this generally happens in the higher-mileage vehicles. Happily it’s a relatively inexpensive repair that only requires replacement of the sensors. Other than these minor issues, the RAV4 is typically bulletproof, offering versatility, comfort and all-weather handling.

The Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid is both one of the most reliable vehicles on the road and one of the most fuel-efficient. If eye-popping fuel economy is your goal, this vehicle is an excellent bet, but there are a few caveats. As a plug-in it features a sizable and expensive ($3,000-plus) battery, which is warrantied for 8 years and 100,000 miles to 10 years and 150,000 miles, depending on individual state emission laws. This means a high-mileage example might be bumping into the end of the battery warranty. The Prius Plug-in also works best in conjunction with a specialized charging station that requires a 240-volt, 20-amp outlet. Installing this could require an electrician and another investment. The reward is off-the-charts high fuel economy, so the Prius Plug-in is a topnotch commuter car if you can deal with its needs.

Dependability might well be spelled C-A-M-R-Y. The midsize Camry is substantially roomier than many other cars on this list and has a smoother, more comfortable ride, yet it is also supremely reliable. The 2014 model has had some problems with the A/C compressor, but this is not a catastrophic failure even if it needs to be replaced. A percentage of 2014 Camrys were recalled for ball joint-to-control arm mounting problems, but our mechanic assumes most have been inspected and repaired by now. Do a test drive and ask the question before you buy. The only other issue of any scale is with the evaporative emissions system that may require replacement of the charcoal canister, a fairly inexpensive fix. Camrys have been known to turn in 200,000 trouble-free miles, so its high rank is warranted.

With its reputation for reliability, safety, comfort and excellent resale, the 2014 Honda Civic is our choice as the best-value used car under $15,000. For 2014 the Civic could be had in many flavors -- sedan, sporty coupe, racy Si, frugal hybrid or ultra-clean CNG model -- but for sheer value we recommend the gasoline-powered 4-door sedan. We place it number one on the list because our Master Mechanic reports it has the fewest failures of all vehicles on our nomination list. The only potential problems are with the evaporative emissions system revolving around failures of the Evap purge solenoid. This is an inexpensive fix, will not strand the car, and it usually occurs on high-mileage vehicles. Very dependable and extremely economical, the 2014 Civic is also surprisingly fun to drive.


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