Want a practical car that looks good and performs well? Reject the SUV life and try one of these instead. Here are the best used sedans that you can buy in 2024.
Master of the freeway, that’s you. Every night in a different Motel 6, smoothing out your Macy’s polyester-cotton blend in the Corby trouser press, rinsing the minibar for fun-size Pringles tubes and coagulating Haribo. The alarm’s set for the crack of dawn, because you have places to go and people to wow. Time is money, my friend, and the execs signing cheques in Boise or Boulder won’t be impressed by someone who arrives in the office car park in a disheveled old Impala. The bottom-of-the-range diesel runabout just wouldn’t cut the mustard with your go-go lifestyle – you need your executive saloon to be the big-power variant, with the brawny motor and all the toys. Because nice guys finish last. If you want to dominate the highways, these are the used cars you need to have on your wish list.
In this article:
- Best Used Sedans To Buy Under $15,000/£15,000
- Best Used Sedans To Buy Under $25,000/£25,000
- Best Used Sedans To Buy Under $50,000/£50,000
Best Used Sedans To Buy Under $15,000 / £15,000
Lexus IS 300
The idea was simple: build a car to take on the BMW 3-Series. However, putting that idea into practice is easier said than done. Still, the first-gen Lexus IS/Toyota Altezza was a pretty excellent attempt. To this day, it still looks good on the outside, and while the interior might have aged ungracefully, its mechanicals are still pretty desirable. Under the hood of the Lexus IS 300, you’ll find the 3.0-liter 2JZ-GE straight-six; a non-turbo version of the 2JZ-GTE that Supra fans love dearly. As such, although it only puts out 217hp from the factory, the tuning potential for these things is sky-high.
The IS 300 is set atop a RWD platform and can be sourced with a 5-speed manual gearbox as well as a 5-speed auto, and some even have factory LSDs. If yours doesn’t, that’s where the aftermarket comes in. Consequently, these cars are popular with drifters, and as they’re old and affordable, most on the market will have been ragged a fair bit. Still, if you find a good example, it’ll undoubtedly serve you well.
Fancy a fun fact to end on? Oh, go on then. This car’s chief designer, Nobuaki Katayama, also worked on the Mk4 Supra and the AE86. Not a bad pedigree…
The Mazda 6 is an excellent sensible family car. Just look at it, it’s incredibly boring. It’s the sort of car bought by people who thought even the most mundane sedans were slightly too exciting and wanted something truly moribund that they could just park up and ignore.
But wait… we know that Mazda isn’t a boring company, don’t we? And sure enough, the tedious 6 range does have a surprising ace up its sleeve in the form of the Mazdaspeed 6. This perky little sleeper hides a dark heart beneath its drab skin: it’s packing a brutal 2.3-litre direct-injection turbo motor kicking out a wholly surprising 274bhp in USDM trim. A slightly less savage version was sold as the Mazda 6 MPS in other markets.
The max torque is available from just 3,000rpm too, and the whole lot’s underpinned by a crafty and hyperintelligent all-wheel drive system. So it’s very quick, and it handles and grips like an absolute champ, but you won’t look like a hooligan when you go to pick up the kids from Little League. Win-win.
The genius of the Volkswagen Phaeton was that it was fundamentally quite a silly idea. Not a silly car of course; on the contrary, a very impressive and formidable car. But it was a gamble on VW’s part that never really paid off: the company were reasonably convinced that people would be prepared to pay massive amounts of money for a luxury saloon if they put one to market, but unfortunately the sort of people who’d be happy to pay those prices took one look at the Phaeton and said “Er, no thanks, it looks like a big Passat”.
But their loss is entirely your gain. Because some people did buy these cars – not a lot of people, but some – and today you can pick up a used Phaeton for Passat money, which isn’t bad for a car that’s based on the Bentley Continental floorpan and which was designed under a specific brief to be driven all day at 186mph, in 50-degree heat, in total comfort. Yes, it does look like a big Passat. But there’s way, way more to it than that.
There are no cars in the world more advanced than the Mercedes-Benz S Class, that’s just a fact of life. Sure, there are more expensive cars, and faster cars, and cleverer cars, but the S Class has always been the model that pioneers new technology before any other manufacturer in the world has a chance to catch up.
Since 1972, the S Class has been revealing world-firsts – from padded steering wheels to airbags, LED lights to Magic Body Control. These things come to market in the big Benz, and over the course of years they trickle down to all the lesser cars.
What makes this such a good second-hand buy is the fact that the S Class depreciates like a stone through a wet paper bag. Our hot tip is the W220 model – the one that was sold from 1998-2005. It came with a huge and often baffling range of engines – fourteen different ones! – so you might as well just throw your hands in the air and opt for the S 600, because that’s got a 5.5-litre twin-turbo V12, and life’s too short to be completely sensible, isn’t it?
The second-generation S60 represents exceptional value right now. How many other cars can you name that can be bought for as little as $12,000, offer a mighty 325bhp, but can also fit a full family inside along with a reasonably generous Ikea haul in the trunk?
Unlike the first-gen cars, in T6 R-Design-spec, the second-gen S60 could be had with Haldex all-wheel drive – the perfect companion to its fireball six-cylinder turbo motor. And there are two really compelling reasons to choose this as your family runaround: number one, it’s a really easy notion to sell to your better half – Volvos are ridiculously safe and solid with all the world-class safety tech you could wish for. And secondly, it’s a sedan, not a wagon. Yes, the equivalent V70 may be big enough to carry a couple of washing machines, but not everyone is prepared for station wagon life, and the sedan version allows you to slip through the traffic without making overt lifestyle statements. And unless they know what they’re looking at, few people will suspect that you’re hiding massive horsepower and limpet-like handling prowess.
Best Used Sedans To Buy Under $25,000 / £25,000
Stealth is crucial when it comes to deploying big power without garnering unwanted attention, and that’s the reason we’ve always loved a sleeper. And sleepers don’t get a lot sleepier than the Subaru Legacy. Look at it, it’s just a big sensible-person car that middle-aged folks take to the garden center, isn’t it?
Aha, but of course there’s a twist. And its name is ‘2.5 GT Spec B’. This is a little-known curio whose name is whispered with reverence in Subaru circles. An unassuming sedan within which resides a 250bhp flat-four. Its factory-fit Bilstein suspension makes it a backroad weapon, extremely rapid and with astounding all-wheel-drive handling and grip. But nobody will ever suspect a thing. Well, until someone in a WRX STI pulls up alongside you at the lights and gives you a knowing nod.
The JDM/European equivalent was the 3.0R Spec B. This was essentially the same package but with a 3.0-litre flat-six and an Impreza STI manual gearbox. Either way ‘Spec B’ is a badge of honor for those in the know.
There comes a point in life when you feel compelled to own a Jag. It comes to us all. But there are many different ways to go about this – do you drop a few grand on a clunky XK8 and hope for the best, or sell a kidney for an E-Type, or start pondering the confusing quagmire of XJ6 generations?
No, the sweet spot today is the imposing XF sedan. Specifically, it’s the XF R that you want, which comes equipped with the supremely impressive supercharged 5.0-litre V8; that’s good for 503bhp underpinned by enough torque to ruck up the tarmac like a Viennetta. The interior’s like Blenheim Palace with a steering wheel, and the transmission tunnel doesn’t have anything as gauche as a gearstick or a handbrake spoiling its smooth lines. This is the ultimate combination of Jaguar values: extreme poshness, and silly performance. How can you resist?
Dodge Charger SRT-8
There aren’t many names as iconic in the sphere of American motoring as the Dodge Charger. An evocative badge, for most people it’ll conjure images of the second-gen model of the late 1960s, a bruising two-door coupe with HEMI under the hood and a bad attitude.
Fast-forward to 2005, and the sixth-gen Charger was a whole other ball game. By this point it had evolved into a four-door sedan, but don’t go thinking it had gone all sensible. Sure, you could buy one with a basic 2.7-litre V6 if you wanted, but you only live once and there’s no point in half-measures. The really thrilling used buy today is the SRT-8, which came packing the full-fat 425bhp 6.1-litre HEMI along with massive Brembos, bucket seats and 20” forged rims. There’s plenty of room inside and it’s got a full complement of doors, but this is a true-blue American muscle car through and through.
The E60-gen BMW M5 arrived in 2004 and stayed in production until the turn of the 2010s, during which time it caused quite a stir. The reason for that was two-fold; one, people were not enamored with Chris Bangle’s styling work, and two, it had a whopping great V10 under the hood!
Let’s address the styling ‘problem’ first. I remember at the time, pretty much every motoring journalist on the planet was bemoaning the new direction of BMW’s styling language. Sound familiar? Heck, despite being in school at the time, even I could tell there was something off about the way the E60 looked. Fast forward to 2023 though, and somehow mass opinion of the E60 has become way more positive. Was Bangle a genius after all?
Then there’s the engine. As the story goes, BMW wanted the M5 to feature a V10 in order to for their customer base to be able to draw parallels between its F1 project and its production range. As a result, we got a maniacally fast super sedan (capable of around 190mph if de-restricted) with a blissful exhaust note. What’s not to love about that? Well, word on the street suggests that with age and hard use they can can go bang, so treat any used purchase with caution. Still, that caveat aside, the E60 is a wonderful machine, and for that reason it has to be on this list.
Subaru WRX STI
It’s well-documented these days that a WRX STI can make an outstanding daily-driver for families. This is an inspired choice for people who have young kids and have to tackle a speedbump-ridden school run every day, but don’t want to compromise on their performance car adventures and/or show car dreams. The kids will love turning up in the coolest ride at the school gates. And the journey home again via the back roads will always be hugely grin-inducing.
On a practical level, the WRX STI is a bit of a gimme as a usable family option as it’s so spacious, safe and dependable. And let’s not forget that the car serves up comfortably over 300bhp in stock factory form, mated to a devastatingly capable AWD chassis, and a huge rear spoiler that you might be able to convince the family is actually a bike rack and thus ideal for adventurous weekends away. Makes a strong case for itself, doesn’t it? And as the welcoming ownership scene will tell you, the tuning aftermarket is huge for these cars too.
Looking to buy one? Check out our Subaru WRX STI buying guide.
Best Used Sedans To Buy Under $50,000 / £50,000
Tesla Model S
If you want a premium EV experience without splashing out on something new (and cripplingly expensive), the Tesla Model S is the best option there is. This luxury sedan popularized electric cars amongst the wealthy when it launched in 2012, and since then it’s had numerous revisions.
The P100D is our top pick of trim level at this point in the market. If you take our advice, you’ll get a practical sedan with 589hp and 920lb ft of torque on tap. In ‘Ludicrous Mode’, that translates to 0-60mph in just 2.3 seconds – which frankly is bonkers for a car of this genre. Plus, if range is a concern that you have with EVs, you can rest easy knowing that the P100D offers 315 miles from a full charge, though you can also buy a Long Range variant which will do an impressive 405 miles in one go. Even better, Tesla also offers the best charging infrastructure in the world.
Got cash burning a whole in your pocket? Keep an eye out for examples of the Tesla Model S Plaid. The insane performance of those hyper sedans will ensure that you win every single traffic light drag race, no matter who or what your opposition is…
Lexus IS F
Ever wondered what the ‘F’ stands for in Lexus’ model nomenclature? Well, the answer is Fuji – a nod to the race circuit which serves as a test bed for hot Toyota and Lexus models. Anyway, you might be wondering why a sedan of this age warrants such a strong price tag, but the answer is simple: it’s a true modern classic. This unassuming but beefed-up Lexus IS is capable of 60mph in 4.2 seconds, and is electronically limited to 170mph. Considerate of Lexus to keep it so low…
That pace comes from a 3.5-liter naturally-aspirated V8, which pumps out 400hp and is as characterful as you’d imagine it to be. The IS F isn’t just a straight-line brute either. It genuinely handles well through the twisty stuff as well. Though, some pick fault with its 8-speed auto gearbox and lack of limited-slip differential. Overall though, if you want a highly capable sports sedan which is rare but won’t attract much attention, look no further.
Another sports sedan that’s well and truly entered ‘modern classic’ status is the B7-generation Audi RS4. Now, we must acknowledge that any European readers will be rather bemused that, like the aforementioned Lexus IS F, it’s this far down our shortlist. The thing is, when it comes to pricing, the RS4 is a bit of an oddity. In North America, it’s held onto its value remarkably. The reason being is that, whereas the RS4 flooded the European market, it was pretty darn scarce even when new in the States. As a result, prices in North America can be up to double the amount you’d expect to pay for a similar example elsewhere.
Regardless, the Audi RS4 is a worthy mention for several reasons. First, it’s got Audi’s renowned Quattro AWD system. So, while it may be a bit understeer-y at pace in normal conditions, it’s very capable in poor weather (so long as you’ve got comparably capable tires). Under the hood, you’ll find a 4.2-liter V8 with an 8000rpm redline, hooked up to a 6-speed manual transmission. Expect power outputs of around 410hp and a 0-60mph time of around 4.5 seconds. Brisk enough for most of us, that.
Alfa Romeo Giulia
Beauty is subjective, but can you honestly tell me that there’s a prettier sedan out there on the used market? This Giulia ‘s attractiveness is more than just skin-deep though. In Quadrifoglio form, the striking looks are backed up by class-leading handling. And as for the engine, you get a 2.9-litre V6 which rockets the car to 60mph in just 3.8 seconds. Then, assuming you pull onto the Autobahn or a private runway, you’ll find that once unleashed it’ll climb all the way up to 191. As for the sound, it may not quite be up to the Busso standard, but it’s still very easy on the ears indeed. For a more in-depth overlook, check out Matt’s review!
Of course, it’s no secret that Alfa Romeo had its fair share of reliability issues in the past, which no doubt contributed to this car’s comparative lack of success compared to the F80 M3 (more on that next). But while that’s bad news for Alfa, it’s good news for you, as second-hand prices for these are becoming increasingly enticing.
Everybody with even the slightest interest in cars loves the M3. It’s just a legendary thing. Growing from 1980s homologation regs into an enduring fast-road weapon across the generations. Whether it’s the pure E30 that you love, or the brawny six-pot E36, or the ballistic E46, these are supremely desirable performance machines. It also comes with a badge that’s always sure to impress people when you slap your keys down on the bar.
Now, the front grilles on the new G80 M3 might grow on you, or they might not. But for a lot of enthusiasts, the preceding F80 is looking like a stellar buy right now. It was the last M3 to have sensible-sized kidneys, and there’s a lot more to it as well. Powered by the revered S55 twin-turbo straight-six, this was the first turbo M3. It’ll catapult itself to 60mph in four seconds. It’s also superbly well equipped, luxurious, spacious and practical. So if you want a sports car, a track car and a sensible family car, but only have room for one… well, this can do it all. And do it well. If you’re interested, make sure to read our F80 M3 buyer’s guide.
Words by Dan Bevis & James Bowers.