Why You Shouldn't Buy a Brand New Mid-size Sedan.
Midsized sedans such as the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion are some of the best selling new cars on the market today. High sales numbers would seem to imply that a car such as this is a smart buy. However... for most people it isn't!
One can spend less money on a 1-3 year old model of the same vehicle, or can purchase a "better" (whether this means bigger, faster, more luxurious, etc. is up to the buyer) car on the same budget. Oftentimes, even increased maintenance costs associated with buying an older car can be offset by the savings on the purchase price. Unless having a clean and unused vehicle is a major requirement, you should take a strong look at the used car market before purchasing a new midsize sedan!
Do you currently own a mid-size sedan?
Comparisons between similar models new and used
(All used car prices based on Carsoup listings for the Minneapolis/St. Paul area)
A brand new Toyota Camry is going to cost roughly 22-30k based on options and dealer specials.
A quick look at the used market, and one can find a number of 2-4 year old Camrys including a number of '08 models with 50-90k miles costing 13-14 thousand dollars, a major savings compared to the price of a new model. Toyota motors are going to last long past 100,000 miles, so the mileage shouldn't be a huge concern, although I would recommend a pre-purchase inspection.
A new Ford Focus, for example, is going to cost you about 21-28k, while you can pick between a selection of 2010 models with as few as 30,000-ish miles on them ranging in price from 11-16k asking price.
Options on the Used Car Market for 22-30k
I will try to provide a number of examples of vehicles that I have found (with multiple examples) for the estimated cost of a new mid-size sedan. I am going to assume that the average purchaser-to-be of one of these vehicles is seeking something that'll seat 4-5 people, so I will focus on sedans (with a few exceptions, as I love my 2-seater sports cars!)
1. BMW 3-series: BMW's smallest sedan, the various models within the 3-series pack a punch with BMW's trademark straight-6 engine. You shouldn't have a problem finding a 2008 model with 30-60 thousand miles in the low to mid twenties.
2. Mercedes-Benz C-class. Mercedes' rival to the 3 series, is another option if luxury is your goal with your mid-size sedan money. All Benz sedans are going to be very well equipped for the pricetag with various tech gadgets and features. Whatever you're looking for, whether it be heated leather seats, futuristic automatic gearboxes, or even AWD, you can find it in a 2007-2009 C-class and only pay anywhere from 16-25k.
3. Audi A4/A6. You should be able to find a good number of 2-5 year old Audi sedans for 20-25k with a choice of a 2.0L Turbo 4 in the A4 or a number of V6 engines available in the A6. All Audi's come with the legendary Quattro AWD system, so inclement weather and slippery roads can be handled without difficulty. In addition to the performance and safety, the interiors of these cars are fantastic with leather seats, sat-nav, and a sunroof on certain examples.
4. Lexus ES/LS. Because these are Japanese, you can assume that your used Lexus will be about as reliable as... the 4 seasons coming and going every year. There are tons of slightly used ES models available for the low to mid twenty thousand dollar range, and you may even be able to find a V8 LS example within that same price range if you're lucky. These cars are, like the ones previously mentioned, going to be significantly faster and more luxurious than the mid-sized sedan you could buy for the same money.
What if you just want to have fun?
If for some reason you are thinking about buying a mid-size sedan just because you need a car... here are a few more interesting options to keep in mind! (years and prices are estimates based on examples for sale at time of publishing). Remember that because these cars are sports cars, they won't be particularly fuel efficient or cheap to repair...
1. 2003 Mercedes-Benz CL600: German coupe with a twin-turbocharged V12 for less than a well-equipped Toyota Camry? Sign me up!
2. 2003 BMW E46 M3: Perhaps the greatest car ever produced by BMW's M division, you can find a good one for roughly $20,000 or less.
3. 2003 Chevrolet Corvette: Probably the best overall American sports car, you can have a Corvette of your own for the mid-twenties or less based on year and mileage.
4. Porsche 911 (996): Thought you couldn't afford Porsche's famous sports car? Think again! The 996 generation was the first 911 with a water-cooled engine, which has decreased the demand from 911 purists and therefore lowered the value. You should be able to pick up a 996 (1997-2005) for 20-25k, but make sure you get the car inspected before purchase. Porsche parts and labor are expensive, so you'll need to make sure the car isn't just coming up ready for major work!
5. Nissan 350Z: You can find a wide variety of Nissan's well-selling sports car for 15-25k. Its got a V6 making roughly 300hp which is more than enough to spin those rear wheels!
6. Honda S2000: A true driver's car, the S2000 was only ever made with a short-throw manual transmission and rear-wheel drive. The 2.0/2.2L 4 cylinder engine (depending on year) makes about 240hp- less than its rivals. Honda has countered this by reducing weight and perfecting weight balance for better handling.