I bought my first two cars used.
The first, a downmarket European import purchased in a private-party transaction, was about 7 years old and had about 70,000 miles on the odometer. It took me five or six years, and thousands of dollars in repair costs, to drive it into the ground. Faced with the prospect of a crippling engine repair bill that would far exceed the vehicle’s fair market value, I sold it for scrap. Final mileage: 125,000, give or take.
My second car, a downmarket Japanese import, was far more durable. Already a decade old and well into triple-digit mileage when I bought it certified pre-owned from a dealer, it gave me at least 40,000 mostly trouble-free miles over three years. As far as I know, it’s running to this day. The new owner’s social media posts still occasionally feature the trusty old ride, now well into its third decade of service.
It would be wonderful if every car ownership experience were as pleasant as my second. Unfortunately, although passenger vehicles are more durable today than at any point in the past, not all are created equal. Some are destined to last for decades, while others may give up the ghost after just a few years of service.
The difference, in part, comes down to reliability.
Durability, Reliability & Cost of Ownership
The durability of any individual vehicle turns on a slew of factors, many dependent on your driving patterns and habits. Mile for mile, highway driving is easier on cars and trucks than city driving with its constant braking and acceleration, not to mention a greater risk of fender-benders. Aggressive driving takes its toll, too. Sudden, frequent braking wears down brakes faster than gentle stops.
The precise definition of “durability” matters here. You could technically call a vehicle durable if it runs for a long time, but is a hunk of metal really a worthwhile investment when you have to hemorrhage money to keep it running?
A better measure of long-term performance is reliability, otherwise known as dependability. My first car’s frequent mechanical failures made it anything but reliable. My second required little more than routine maintenance, even at its advanced age, and it never quit on me.
All else being equal, highly reliable cars have lower long-term ownership costs than comparably priced cars that require constant care. If your $20,000 car chews through $10,000 in parts and service expenses in the first five years you own it, and your neighbor’s $20,000 competitor model requires just $5,000 in parts and service during the same period, then your neighbor’s car is clearly more reliable.
If you’d prefer not to wait until after you buy to discover that your preferred ride is a lemon, use J.D. Power’s Dependability Ratings to assess the overall reliability of 3-year-old vehicles on the market today. J.D. Power combines verified new-vehicle owners’ problem reports in three main areas: mechanical, interior and exterior, and features and controls. Vehicles with fewer reported problems have higher dependability scores. J.D. Power uses three-year dependability ratings to establish “predicted dependability” ratings for newer models.
Dependability isn’t the last word on long-term vehicle ownership cost, of course. The following factors also affect your new or used car’s impact on your budget:
- Sticker Price. You only have so much room to negotiate. Purchase price directly correlates with sticker price, even if you’re able to talk the seller down. Initial vehicle pricing also directly correlates with long-term vehicle value. Cars that cost more to begin with are generally worth more, in absolute terms, on the resale market. That, in turn, affects taxes, fees, and insurance costs. Luxury brands like Lexus and Acura tend to cost more than mass-market brands like Hyundai and Honda, of course.
- Financing Cost. If you have funds available, it’s cheaper to pay all cash for a new or used vehicle than to finance its purchase price. Secured auto loans generally have low interest rates relative to unsecured loans, but even they can add thousands to the lifetime cost of a car. Unsecured personal loans and credit cards are far costlier.
- Fuel Efficiency. Higher fuel efficiency means lower lifetime fuel costs, assuming driving conditions and miles driven remain constant.
- Cost of Maintenance and Repairs. Budget-friendly cars, especially domestic makes, tend to be cheaper to maintain and repair than imported luxury vehicles. Even reliable luxury imports may have high lifetime maintenance and repair costs.
- Driver Risk Profile. Risky drivers pay more for insurance. The archetypal “risky driver” is an under-25 male with multiple moving violations and reported accidents on his driving record.
- Registration State. Insurance costs and vehicle taxes vary significantly from state to state. According to an Insure.com study, the average annual insurance premium in the highest-cost state (Michigan) was nearly 2.5 times higher than the average premium in the lowest-cost state (Vermont) in 2018.
Apply each of these factors to your own situation to estimate your likely ownership costs.
Pro tip: If you’re going to finance your car purchase, start with myAutoloan.com. You’ll answer a few questions and they’ll provide you with quotes from four different lenders that cater to cost-conscious car buyers.
Metrics for Measuring a Vehicle’s Reliability
Each listing below includes five metrics related to vehicle pricing, durability, long-term cost of ownership, fuel efficiency, and safety. All are key to assessing a vehicle’s overall reliability and budgetary impact.
- MSRP (Year): “MSRP” stands for “manufacturer suggested retail price,” known colloquially as the sticker price. Actual retail pricing for new vehicles may be above or below MSRP; retail pricing for used vehicles is almost always lower. “Year” indicates the model year. Most cars on this list are model year 2019 or 2020. Unless otherwise noted, the MSRP figure is for the base trim, or the cheapest version of the model.
- % Reaching 200K Miles: This denotes the share of vehicles in each model that reach 200,000 miles driven before their operational lives end, as reported by iSeeCars.
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: This is the total estimated cost of ownership (TCO) over five years, as calculated by Edmunds. Edmunds’ proprietary TCO calculation includes depreciation, plus average estimated costs for loan interest, taxes, fees, insurance premiums, fuel, maintenance, and repairs. Your actual cost of ownership will vary depending on where you live, how much you drive, your driving habits, and other factors, but TCO is a good benchmark for planning and budgeting purposes. All TCO calculations below assume 15,000 miles driven per year.
- EPA Mileage: This is the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimated mile-per-gallon (MPG) rating, a standard measure of fuel efficiency. Unless otherwise noted, each rating applies to the base trim with the least powerful engine option.
- IIHS Crash Safety (Year): The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety issues crash safety ratings for all new vehicles sold in the United States. “Year” indicates the model year. Unless otherwise noted, each rating covers the base trim with standard safety features. The ratings, in order from best to worst, are “good,” “acceptable,” “marginal,” and “poor.”
Most Reliable Hybrids on the Road
In no particular order, these are the most reliable gas-electric hybrids on the road, as of the writing of this article.
1. Toyota Prius
- MSRP (2021): $24,525
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 1.7%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $30,527
- EPA Mileage: 54 city/50 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2020): Mostly good; passenger-side and headlights (for crash avoidance and mitigation) are average
The Toyota Prius is Toyota’s original hybrid model. It’s been in production for more than two decades, though its present hatchback configuration dates back about 15 years. Older versions were smaller and boxier. The Prius family has since expanded to include multiple distinct models and various trims. The Prius c model makes the cut below.
With ample trunk space and a deceptively roomy passenger cabin, Prius is an ideal in-town vehicle for smaller families. Like most hybrids, it gets better gas mileage on surface streets, where the electric powertrain rules, than highways. A slew of safety features helps mitigate crash risk and keep the vehicle on the road longer.
2. Toyota Highlander Hybrid
- MSRP (2021): $38,410
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 3.1%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $46,141
- EPA Mileage: 36 city/35 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2020): Mostly good; passenger-side and headlights are average
The Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a midsize SUV built on the same chassis as the Toyota Camry midsize sedan. Other than the hybrid-electric powertrain, which boasts a city fuel economy of 30 miles per gallon, this eco-friendly ride is functionally equivalent to the gas-powered Highlander. Despite frugal fuel consumption, Highlander Hybrid’s standard powertrain achieves 306 horsepower, better than many comparably sized crossovers.
Highlander got its start way back in 2000 as a slightly more refined alternative to the off-road-capable Toyota 4Runner. The hybrid version has been around since the late 2000s, accounting for the number of vehicles that have reached 200,000 miles. Today, both versions boast classy bells and whistles including LED daytime running lights and optional leather seats. A fold-flat third-row seat makes this a great eco-ride for larger families.
Most Reliable Sports Cars on the Road
Most sports cars aren’t known for their durability. These models defy expectations.
3. Mazda MX-5 Miata
- MSRP (2020): $26,580
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 0.6%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $38,577
- EPA Mileage: 26 city/34 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating: Not rated
The Mazda MX-5 Miata may be the most fuel-efficient pure sports cars on the road. It may also be among the most reliable, an impressive achievement in a class not known for durability. With a curb weight of only 2,339 pounds and 181 horsepower, the MX-5 Miata exploits the laws of driving physics – low weight plus high power equals zoom – to deliver an exhilarating, old-school driving experience.
Just don’t expect to fit the whole family in this tiny two-seater. And know that the laws of driving physics cut both ways; safety is not this car’s strong suit. Still, with care, your first MX-5 Miata could someday be your kid’s first MX-5 Miata.
4. Audi TT Coupe
- MSRP (2021): $49,800
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 0.4%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $58,744
- EPA Mileage: 23 city/31 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating: Not rated
One of the more affordable luxury cars on the market, the two-seater Audi TT Coupe is a solid step up in performance and price from the MX-5 Miata. The addition of 40-odd horsepower lops a few miles off the TT’s mileage rating, but 31 highway is still pretty good for a coupe with a 0-to-60 rating of 5.2 seconds.
Notably, after accounting for purchasing costs, the total five-year cost of ownership is proportionally smaller than the MX-5 Miata’s. Both exceed MSRP by just under $14,000, but the TT’s sticker price is about twice as high.
5. Chevrolet Camaro Coupe
- MSRP (2021): $25,000
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 0.1%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $41,672
- EPA Mileage: 16 city/24 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2019): Mostly good; roof strength is average
The modern iteration of the venerable Chevrolet Camaro – in production for most of the past 50-plus years – is a throaty muscle car that, in black, vaguely resembles the Batmobile. Despite a heavier frame, Camaro’s most basic version is nearly as efficient as the Audi TT.
More powerful engine options up to 455 horsepower sap fuel efficiency and increase the sticker price north of $40,000. For a classic, wallet-friendly experience, opt for the 275-horsepower LS trim with six-speed manual transmission.
Most Reliable Small Cars on the Road
These compact cars pack a budget-friendly punch and take their place amount the most reliable vehicles on the road.
6. Chevrolet Sonic Sedan
- MSRP (2020): $16,720
- % Reaching 200K Miles: Not listed
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $32,763
- EPA Mileage: 26 city/34 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2020): Mostly good; child seat anchors are marginal
Because Sonic is relatively new, iSeeCars doesn’t include the model on its 200,000-mile lists, but that will change with time. This fuel-efficient sedan has already proven its mettle with hundreds of thousands of cost-conscious owners, and many more are lined up in the wings.
With the lowest MSRP and second-lowest TCO of any vehicle on this list, the Sonic is among the best cars for college students – particularly the high-capacity hatchback version, available for a slight premium over the sedan. As General Motors works to clear out its remaining inventory of prior model-year Sonics, look for dealers selling at deep discounts to MSRP. If you can snag one at a bargain price, your ride’s resale value may hold up better than expected over time, especially if gas prices rise.
7. Honda Civic Sedan
- MSRP (2021): $21,250
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 1.2%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $30,656
- EPA Mileage: 30 city/38 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2020): Mostly good; child seat anchors are average, and headlights are poor
The Honda Civic has been around nearly as long as the Camaro, and without any production interruption to boot. The model has come a long way from the 1970s when early models were reviled in North America for their boxy look, underwhelming performance, and spotty reliability. Today, the Civic is among the world’s most popular and reliable passenger sedans. The coupe version is a little snazzier, but not as practical.
The Civic has grown steadily more popular in recent generations too. In international markets where household income is low and gas is comparatively pricey, this reasonably spacious five-seater is a popular family vehicle. On this side of the pond, it’s not the first choice for suburban families, but if fuel efficiency is a priority and you’re not interested in paying more for a bigger ride, the Civic will do just fine. Plus, with careful use, it’ll be ready to hand down to your kids when the time comes.
Most Reliable Mid- & Full-Size Cars on the Road
These larger passenger cars are perennially popular – and perennially functional.
8. Toyota Camry (Gas Engine)
- MSRP (2021): $24,970
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 1.4%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $34,515
- EPA Mileage: 28 city/39 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2020): All good
The Toyota Camry needs no introduction. Between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s, the Camry was the best-selling passenger car in the United States. Millions of vintage Camrys still travel American highways and byways – dependable as ever, if slightly the worse for wear.
Like the Civic, the Camry is a good vehicle for eco-conscious families. With heavy city driving, the slightly pricier hybrid version pays for itself after a few years. The Camry’s roomy, refined backseat and overall dependability make it an ideal vehicle for side hustlers driving for Lyft or Uber too.
9. Toyota Avalon (Gas Engine)
- MSRP (2021): $35,875
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 2.5%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $46,212
- EPA Mileage: 22 city/32 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2020): All good
The Toyota Avalon is a sort of grown-up Camry. By share of vehicles reaching 200,000 miles driven, it’s even more dependable, though the substantially higher lifetime ownership cost may render it unsuitable for penny-pinching buyers.
Like the Camry, the Avalon has a hybrid version. Unlike the Camry hybrid, the Avalon hybrid is priced just $1,000 higher than the gas-only base model. If you’re driving for Uber or Lyft, Avalon may be luxe enough to qualify for higher fares in the apps’ premium tiers.
Most Reliable SUVs on the Road
These SUVs stand the test of time.
10. Toyota Sequoia
- MSRP (2021): $50,100
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 7.4%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $57,805
- EPA Mileage: 13 city/17 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating: Not tested
According to iSeeCars, more Toyota Sequoias reach 200,000 miles driven than any other passenger vehicle on the road. The Sequoia’s sleek, muscular profile conceals a spacious interior that can hold most of your little soccer star’s fellow starters. Eking out just 17 miles to the gallon on the highway, it’s the most wasteful vehicle on this list, but that’s tempered by unmatched durability. More than 7% of Sequoias reach the 200,000-mile club, enough to top iSeeCars’ longest-lasting cars list.
Sequoia’s long-term cost of ownership is dear – nearly $58,000 for the base trim. But a towing capacity north of 7,000 pounds and ample cargo room mean near-endless versatility. Few rides are better equipped to run support for a long-distance bike ride or haul piles of camping gear.
11. GMC Yukon XL
- MSRP (2021): $50,700
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 4.0%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $66,501
- EPA Mileage: 16 city/20 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2020): Not tested, except child seat anchors (average)
The GMC Yukon XL is a near-copy of the better-known Chevrolet Suburban, which also earns a spot in iSeeCars’ 200,000-mile club. Without the nameplates, they’d be virtually indistinguishable.
Like the Sequoia, the Yukon XL is a beast of a full-size SUV, with a seating capacity for nine and a towing capacity of up to 8,500 pounds. Somehow, the Yukon XL manages 22 miles to the gallon on the highway, mitigating long-term ownership costs for families with long commutes and jam-packed leisure time schedules. However, Edmunds’ five-year estimate is higher for the Yukon XL than for any other vehicle here, so budget accordingly or opt for a cheaper family vehicle.
12. Ford Expedition
- MSRP (2021): $49,995
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 5.0%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $63,361
- EPA Mileage: 17 city/23 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2017): Most elements were not tested; child seat anchors are average
By comparison with the Yukon XL, the Ford Expedition trades one seat for 2 miles per gallon. If you’re hyper-focused on trimming fuel costs, that’s probably an acceptable bargain. The Expedition’s five-year cost of ownership is slightly lower than the Yukon XL’s.
And given the Expedition’s impressive durability – 5% of vehicles make it to 200,000 miles – you can rest easy that you’ll get plenty of use out of it for years to come.
Most Reliable Pickups on the Road
These are the most reliable pickup trucks on the road today.
13. Toyota Tacoma Double Cab
- MSRP (2021): $26,150
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 2.6%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $39,251
- EPA Mileage: 18 city/22 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2021): Mostly good; headlights and child seat anchors are average
The Toyota Tacoma emerged in the mid-1990s as a compact off-road cargo vehicle – basically, a glorified Jeep with a rudimentary pickup bed. Though no less off-road-capable, today’s third-generation Tacoma is roomier, more refined – most trims come standard with three USB ports, for instance – and easier on the eyes.
A towing capacity approaching 7,000 pounds nearly matches that of the far bulkier full-size SUVs above, at as little as half the long-term ownership cost.
14. Toyota Tundra Double Cab
- MSRP (2021): $33,675
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 2.6%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $44,692
- EPA Mileage: 13 city/17 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2021): Mostly good; driver-side is average, passenger-side is poor, and headlights and child seat anchors are average
When the Tacoma isn’t quite enough, there’s the Toyota Tundra. For a premium of about $5,000 to start, Tundra buyers get 3,500 pounds of additional towing capacity and nearly 2 liters more engine capacity, the latter of which shaves off a few miles per gallon.
15. Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Double Cab
- MSRP (2021): $28,900
- % Reaching 200K Miles: 1.9%
- Estimated 5-Year Cost of Ownership: $51,780
- EPA Mileage: 23 city/33 highway
- IIHS Crash Safety Rating (2021): Most systems not rated
The Chevrolet Silverado 1500 is, first and foremost, a work truck. Its Durabed truck bed is supposedly tougher than the competition’s, a flared-out bed design adds up to 20% more carrying capacity, and the base trim comes with 12 tie-downs. If you plan to transport bulky loads of heavy or sharp cargo, you could do worse.
The optional 12,220-pound towing package tops Toyota’s offerings too. Throw in six available drive modes, including Snow/Ice and Off-Road, and you’ve got one versatile truck.
ISeeCars complemented its most durable cars list with a roundup of new cars resold as used within the first year of ownership. The results aren’t particularly surprising. Because they’re more expensive to operate and maintain, expensive European luxury cars tend to hit the resale market faster than economical American and Asian models, like Buick and Kia, that cost less to begin with. The eight makes most frequently given up within the first year of ownership are European, with BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Land Rover taking the top four spots.
That isn’t to say you should steer clear of European makes, just that you should heed anecdotal evidence and empirical data in equal measure when weighing your car-buying options. That I had a bad experience with a European make doesn’t mean you will. I know plenty of happy Volkswagen owners, even if I won’t be joining their ranks anytime soon. As they say, your mileage may vary.