To help with that, MoneyWatch looked at owner surveys to see which cars look like trouble, focusing on five separate categories. We focused on 2008 models -- the year ranked in the latest dependability study from J.D. Power and Associates. Buying a 3-year-old used car also lets you shop after the biggest new-car depreciation already has taken place: Because used car prices have risen so sharply this year, 1- and 2-year-old used models can make worse financial sense than buying new.
To make our list of used-car rejects, a model had to get the minimum two out of five in the J.D. Power "circle ratings" for dependability. It also had to be ranked below average as a used car by Consumer Reports in its annual April car issue and online car rankings.
Here are our recommendations for used cars to avoid -- plus some better ideas in the same categories. Volkswagen has two entries on our avoidance list.
Next up: Small car
Small Car: Volkswagen Beetle
The Beetle's cute looks and all-around appeal don't save it from being on the least reliable list. Owners of the 2008 model told Consumer Reports that they had trouble with the climate control system and power equipment, both of which can lead to expensive repairs. The convertible model is selling for $19,350 on dealer's lots according to the Kelley Blue Book web site.
- Alternative: Hyundai Elantra. Hyundai has had a remarkably strong sales year for new cars this year. But even in 2008, the company was making quality cars backed by its 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty. The Elantra got the maximum five circles in the J.D. Power reliability ratings and is ranked an above-average used car by Consumer Reports, where survey respondents reported no major problems. This model Elantra is selling for $12,435.
VW New Beetle Photo courtesy of Flickr user skinnylawyer
Next up: Midsize car
Volkswagen strikes out again. Despite being praised by reviewers when new, the Passat gets the minimum J.D. Power two circles and a below-average rating from Consumer Reports. Readers there report problems with the fuel, electrical and climate systems and the power equipment.
The 2008 Passat is selling at dealers for $18,515, according to kbb.com.
- Alternative: Ford Fusion. Ford's first real contender in years against mid-size leaders Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the Fusion won the reliability award in this year's J.D. Power survey. Consumer Reports gives it a top Much Above Average used car rating. Readers there reported no major problems with their 2008 Fusions. Dealers are offering the Fusion for $17,365, according to kbb.com.
VW Passat Photo courtesy of Flickr user retromotoringNext up: Midsize SUV
Midsize SUV: GMC Acadia
Though its quality has improved in recent models, the 2008 Acadia is a repeat loser in this category. With the minimum two circles in the J.D. Power survey, it gets a worse than average used car ranking from Consumer Reports. Readers there reported problems with the suspension and audio system. The Acadia SLE model is selling for about $25,000 at dealerships, according to kbb.com.
- Alternative: Toyota 4 Runner. This 2008 Toyota stalwart won the J.D. Power reliability award and is rated much better than average as a used car in the Consumer Reports ratings, where readers reported no serious problems. Reviewers praise its capability both on the highway and off-road. The 2008 4Runner SR5 version is selling at about $27,730.
GMC Acadia photo courtesy of the manufacturer
Next up: Large SUV
Even if you need large-capacity hauling and can ignore the lame mileage numbers (the Expedition is rated at 12 mpg in city driving, 18 highway), look elsewhere. The big boy of the Ford SUV line (whose model names all start with the letter 'E') gets the minimum two circles from J.D. Power and a worse-than-average Consumer Reports rating, where readers report problems with the transmission and the audio system.
The used 2008 Expedition sells for $23,530 in the XLT version, according to kbb.com.
- Alternative: Toyota Sequoia. In a category with no clear winner, the Toyota entry again looks like the best bet. It gets four out of five circles in the J.D. Power rating and an above-average rating from Consumer Reports. Reviewers praise its roomy seating and comfortable ride for long highway trips. The 2008 Sequoia SR5 version is selling at $31,265 at dealerships.
Ford Expedition photo courtesy of Flickr user Profile Motors GMC and BuickNext up: Minivan
This Chrysler van got the minimum two circles from J.D. Power and a much-worse-than-average used-car rating from Consumer Reports. Readers there reported problems with the suspension, brakes, climate system and power equipment. The 2008 Town & Country LX version is selling at about $16,000 from dealerships.
- Alternative: Toyota Sienna. As it did last year, the Sienna wins the reliability award for minivans from J.D. Power, and it gets a better-than-average rating from Consumer Reports. Reviewers praise its comfort and seating; it holds up to eight people. The Sienna CE version is selling for an average $20,130, according to kbb.com.
Despite Toyota's recent recall problems and lagging sales this year, its dominance of numerous categories in three-year-old used cars is a reminder of what a strong record of reliability it has achieved. Domestic companies certainly should not count out Toyota as a strong competitor.
Chrysler Town & Country Photo courtesy of Flickr user by wjarrettc