5 safe, reliable used cars for under $20,000

Parents and grandparents looking for a car for the recent graduate in the family want something safe, reliable -- and, of course, affordable. If you're in that situation or if you just need a second car at a decent price, a new study pinpoints some good buys under $20,000.

Research site iSeeCars.com found these attractive choices by scanning for 2015 models that depreciated more than the average 35 percent for three-year-old vehicles. That resulted in some three-year-old used cars that you could buy for half their price when new.

When it comes to depreciation, different segments have different forces at work. For example, luxury cars average a 43 percent loss of value after three years, partly because so many of them are leased. And that means lower demand in the used-car market.

On the other hand, pickup trucks hold their value best, depreciating an average of just 23 percent after three years. "People tend to use their pickup trucks for work and hold onto them, which limits the supply in the secondary marketplace," said Phong Ly, CEO of iSeeCars.com.

Depreciation on all SUVs exactly matched the loss in value for all three-year-old vehicles at 35 percent.  

But we're focusing on cars where sharp depreciation has brought them into affordable used-car territory of under $20,000. In addition to this depreciation, the researchers limited their list to cars that originally got the top five-star rating in crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

However, you'll want not only a safe vehicle but also a reliable one. So we took the iSeeCars.com list one step further and limited it to cars that also got an average or better reliability rating from Consumer Reports and showed no serious problem with any individual component in the magazine's survey of car owners among its subscribers.

Here's a rundown of the five 2015 sedans that cleared these hurdles in the order of their average used-car price, lowest first. All have had depreciation between 1.3 and 1.4 times as much as the average 2015 vehicle.

Volkswagen Jetta -- $13,157 As a new car, reviewers praised this Jetta for its performance and comfortable interior. The Jetta got a redesign for 2016, and that tends to hurt the value of the previous year, Ly points out. This is one of two Volkswagens on this list. The company's diesel-emissions scandal could have hurt its reputation and contributed to this above-average depreciation.

Chevrolet Malibu -- $14,370 This midsize sedan ranked well not only for safety and reliability but also for total cost of ownership among reviewers surveyed by U.S. News. Its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine has an EPA gas mileage rating of 25 in the city, 36 on the highway and 29 combined.

Ford Fusion -- $14,920 Ford plans to stop selling the Fusion model and most other sedans in the U.S. within the next few years. But test drivers liked the performance of this 2015 version, Like its midsize competitor Malibu, the Fusion has gas mileage ratings of 25 in the city, 36 on the highway and 29 combined. It gets a better-than-average rating as a used car from Consumer Reports.

Volkswagen Passat -- $14,905 The Passat has the biggest depreciation on this list -- 50.7 percent below its new-car price. And as a new car, it already ranked well for total cost of ownership. Like its stable-mate the Jetta, Passat got a redesign for 2016. The Passat's turbocharged four-cylinder engine is rated at 24  mpg in the city, 35 on the highway and 28 overall.

Mazda6 -- $15,732 The only car on our list over $15,000, the 2015 Mazda6 is down 46 percent from its new-car price. As with most Mazda sedans, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine provides zippy performance. It's rated at 28 mpg in city driving, 39 on the highway and 32 combined.

If you really, really want an SUV and are willing to pay a little more (but still under $20,000) check out the Buick Encore at $17,003 and the Kia Sorento at $17,939. Both get above-average used-car ratings from Consumer Reports. 

  • Jerry Edgerton - feature On Twitter»

    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.