10 Best Used Family Cars Under $15,000

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Overview

10 Best Used Family Cars Under $15,000

Transportation is among a family's biggest expenses, but you don’t have to go to the poorhouse to drive to work or get your kids to school. A used family car can be the best family car, so long as you choose one less likely to A) leave you stranded by the side of the road or B) cost an arm and a leg to keep on the road. To help you do that, our KBB editors have combined forces with our master mechanic to scope out the 10 Best Used Family Cars Under $15,000.

Nissan built this front-drive sedan to please both performance and luxury buyers, and it succeeded on both counts. With styling that has worn well, the 2011 Maxima gives off a sporty coupe vibe while delivering four-door roominess, and its V6 power can be thrilling. At the same time, a poorly maintained Maxima of this vintage can present some issues. One potential problem area is the mass air flow sensor, and the fix requires reprogramming of the ECU. Our mechanic assumes most affected vehicles have been re-flashed by now, and that’s something to ask about. Other questions should be posed about the variable valve timing (regular oil changes are key) and the automatic transmission. Still, a sweet-running Maxima is a very pleasant family car.

The Hyundai Sonata remains one of the most attractive, efficient and affordable 4-door cars in the midsize market, and its price-per-feature ratio has virtually no peer. This is as true now as when it was introduced. And in the interim the Sonata has gained a reputation for largely trouble-free operation. But like all cars, it requires maintenance, and maintenance records are required to take advantage of the vehicle’s lengthy warranty. The air conditioning compressor is the only major problem area, and it might require replacement. But beyond that your Sonata should offer happy motoring.

The Honda Odyssey shines with features, functionality, a strong yet efficient engine and outstanding safety and reliability records. There are many reasons why we at KBB have long believed the Odyssey is one of the best family vehicles on the market. Its economy is aided by the 3.5-liter V6 that deactivates some of its cylinders at cruise speed, a system that works quite well as long as the oil and filter maintenance is done at scheduled intervals. Periodic maintenance is also required for the sliding doors that need lubrication to work properly. Other potential problems involve the ignition system and a recurring battery warning light that usually requires the replacement of the alternator. That said, a well-maintained Odyssey is a remarkably reliable family vehicle.

The Chevy Impala is one of the most beloved and enduring full-size cars on the market. With much better fuel economy than you’d expect from a big American car, the Impala also delivers the comfort and features of some luxury sedan models. The available 3.6-liter V6 is especially desirable, and finally there are no coolant leakage problems from the intake manifold as in the previous 3.4- and 3.1-liter V6s. Still, the Impala is prone to a few issues that need to be checked before you buy. Chief among these are hub bearing and ABS problems. These issues can include everything from hub bearing noise to false ABS stops to ABS codes related to speed sensor/hub bearing failure and wiring harness problems. You might also detect some oil leakage problems from the oil filter adapter area, but adapter gasket replacement is typically successful. By avoiding Impalas with these problems, you can get yourself a sizable, comfortable family sedan for a reasonable amount of money.

Five years ago we said this about the Toyota RAV4: “If you want a small-to-mid-size sport utility vehicle that combines car-like performance, ride, handling and fuel economy with available four-wheel drive and room for up to seven passengers or five adults and a fair amount of cargo, the 2011 Toyota RAV4 is a good choice.” Happily, we’d say exactly the same things today, although we might add that two of the seven passengers better be little kids. Another happy fact is the RAV4 is a very dependable vehicle. Our master mechanic has seen many of these stoutly built Toyotas reach high mileage with few major failures of any kind, especially models equipped with the proven 3.5 liter V6 (uncommon hiccups include occasional water pump and variable valve timing issues, the latter usually caused by dirty oil). Breakdowns are basically nonexistent as long as regular maintenance is performed.

In an effort to catch up to the Honda Odyssey, the Toyota Sienna minivan was completely redesigned for the 2011 model year. The changes included an improved exterior design, better driving dynamics, a more accommodating interior and features that took it up several notches in the hotly competitive minivan category. Some versions were equipped with reclining, leg-rest-equipped second-row seats and an entertainment system that lets the kids watch two different programs on the same extra-wide screen. Useful for moving people or payloads, the Sienna has been notably problem-free. Our master mechanic has encountered some problems with the sliding doors, but most are due to lack of use or lack of lubrication. As with other Toyotas, the 3.5-liter V6 engine is very reliable, though some have experienced water pump failures. Many 2011 Siennas will have a lot of miles on them these days, but they are still a good choice for your family.

The Honda Pilot enjoys a reputation for reliability, comfort and practicality. With seating for up to eight persons and ample room for their stuff, this crossover delivers what people like about SUVs without the poor fuel economy and truck-like ride. It features a spacious interior, plenty of convenience-oriented features and good command of the road. As with most of today’s vehicles, though, maintenance is a huge requirement. Regular oil and filter changes are very important, so look for a used vehicle with thorough maintenance records. The 3.5-liter V6 uses cylinder deactivation, and clean oil is needed to make this system work properly. Timing belt and water pump inspections are also important because valve damage may occur if the timing belt breaks. Happily, the belts are generally good for 100,000 miles, but if the vehicle you are considering is nearing that mark, figure on a timing belt replacement.

What we just said about the Honda Pilot applies equally to the Honda Accord. The car has gained a justifiable reputation for trouble-free operation. It is quiet, comfortable and surprisingly fun to drive as well. Accords equipped with the 3.5-liter V6 need regular maintenance, filter changes and clean crankcase oil. Without those prerequisites the cylinder deactivation will cease to work properly. Beyond that, the only real problem our master mechanic has encountered on these cars is an A/C compressor clutch relay that gets stuck on. If this occurs with the engine off it will drain the battery quickly. If this occurs while the engine is running it can cause the evaporator to freeze into a block of ice and may leave a puddle on the passenger-side floor when the ice melts. While this is worth noting, most 2012 Accords will never encounter this problem and are terrifically reliable.

The Toyota Camry is a very solid car with proven reliability, high resale value and no surprises either bad or good. Along with the commendable ride and handling, the 2014 Camry also gets high marks for its quiet interior, which some have described as eerily silent. The Camry is so trouble-free that our master mechanic generally sees these cars for maintenance only. Oil and filter changes are important for the Camry because it has a variable valve timing engine that uses engine oil pressure to actuate the timing changes. The only potential problem area is “a few water pump problems” on V6-equipped versions, but those are far between. When you use the term “bulletproof” in the automotive context, Toyota Camry immediately comes to mind.

Many families seek a big, soft-riding cruiser with loads of creature comforts, room for five and a massive trunk. And that is the spot-on description of the 2011 Toyota Avalon. With appointments approaching a Lexus level of refinement and comfort, the Avalon is a sizable 4-door sedan that can easily handle competition from domestic and import carmakers. Our master mechanic, who services and repairs all makes, has encountered very few problems with Avalons as long as regular maintenance is performed. Like the up-level versions of the smaller Camry sedan, the 2011 Avalon features a 3.5-liter V6 engine that uses a variable valve timing system to boost fuel economy and improve drivability. Oil and filter services are required to keep this system working happily. A few Avalons suffer water pump failures somewhat earlier than other vehicles -- between 50,000 and 75,000 miles -- so keep an eye on this. Another potential issue is air conditioning problems requiring replacement of the expansion valve. But many Avalons of this vintage are still pleasing their owners with 150,000 miles on the odometer. To us, that’s a great family car.

 

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