5 Cheap, Reliable and Fuel-Efficient Used Cars

The Pontiac Vibe was a sister car to the Toyota Matrix, and it's a great 29-mpg-combined bargain at the moment. (Photo: Pontiac) .

Last week, gas prices dropped a bit, to an average of $3.59 a gallon. Any drop in fuel costs always leads to hand-wringing about what it will mean for electric car sales. But this isn’t one of those stories. From where I’m sitting, $3.59 a gallon is still a lot of money.

Minor price fluctuations aren’t going to send anyone out to buy a seven-passenger SUV. Sales of those behemoths have been dropping steadily. I’ve always loved the name “Nissan Armada” — what is it, a car or a fleet? — and sales of this vehicle were down 19 percent from May 2012 to May 2013.

I think we’ll all be in the market for fuel-efficient cars from now on. I’ve been reporting on the big price drops for electric cars (particularly for leasing) but maybe they’re still out of your price range. You want something cheap? Here are five really cheap, fuel-efficient used cars that are likely to be reliable, too:

2002 Subaru Forester. With this baby you get all-wheel drive, 165 horsepower, a 2.5-liter flat four (a boxer engine like the Subaru unit in the hot Scion FR-S I’m testing), and 25 mpg on the highway (not hugely different from the 27 mpg of the current model). It’s also very space-efficient without being big on the outside. Foresters have a stellar reliability rating and they keep their value. I’m seeing them advertised between $2,600 and $6,500. Don’t worry so much about mileage — it’s more important that the car was well cared-for and got regular oil changes.

1998 Honda Civic. Now here’s a bargain. How about a nice CX hatchback with the 1.6-liter engine? A more reliable powerplant you won’t find. I can recommend these unreservedly, though they’re more like appliances than cars. But who cares, really? I practically need a kidney belt to drive that sporty Scion FR-S. A five-speed manual will help fuel economy, which was 30 mpg combined. There’s also an HX model that’s worth finding, because it got 34 mpg. And $2,500 to $3,000 will definitely score one of these.

1990 Mazda Miata. I admit to having a total jones for the Miata, and am scouting cars of this vintage. The Miata is bulletproof, though you do have to be careful of rust, bad tops and a few other minor maladies. Get the manual version, because otherwise what’s the point? The MX-5 of 1990 was rated at 24 mpg combined. I haunt the classifieds for Miatas, so I can say with confidence that they range from $1,500 for a ratty one to $5,000 for a really nice example. Avoid rodded-out versions with lots of add-on accessories and roll bars if you want reliability.

2005 Chevy Aveo. Admittedly, the Korean-made Aveo is nowhere near in the league of the Spark or Sonic. If you have the money for those, by all means buy one. But for commuting, an Aveo will get you around. And it’s very cheap! The Aveo 5 hatch had 27 mpg combined. Plenty of $4,000 examples around, maybe $5k for a really good one.

2007 Pontiac Vibe. My friend bought one of these, and I really like it. A solid, versatile ride from a company that, alas, is no longer with us. The Vibe, with a 1.8-liter power plant, could manage 29 mpg combined. The Vibe is basically the same car as the long-lived Toyota Matrix, but it never sold as well — consumers actually had prejudice against the American-badged version, but their loss is your gain. And since Pontiac is an orphan brand, you should be able to get a good deal on one now. (Along the same lines, an SX4 from no-longer-in-the-U.S. Suzuki is also worth considering.) You may not be able to find a good Vibe for less than $8,000, but it will be a great car.

(And just for fun, I looked up used car prices on Hummer H3s. They weren’t as giving-them-away priced as I’d thought, but $12,000 should buy a pristine example from 2006 or 2007. Fuel economy of the 2007 model? 15 mpg combined.)