Buying on a budget? Here are the best lightly used cars for under $20,000

What many of us do is buy the best used car we can afford. But even that's expensive.

A used car lot in Hawthorne, Calif.
–Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Until the promised era of self-driving, subscription-based transportation arrives, many of us have no choice but to have a personal vehicle to get where we need to go.

You can lease, but you won’t own anything at the end of your term. You can buy new, but you’ll take a big depreciation hit the minute you drive off the lot.

So what many of us do is buy the best used car we can afford. But even that’s expensive. Slightly used cars today can cost as much as new cars cost a decade ago.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel asked the folks at iSeeCars.com, a national vehicle sales and research site, to identify the best 2016 model-year cars available for less than $20,000, and the best 2013 cars available for less than $15,000.

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They compiled two lists of models with the longest life expectancy, based on miles driven, based on average life since 1981 or as long as the models have been in production.

Toyota’s luxury sedan, the Avalon, topped both lists. An average 2.5 of every 100 Avalon models sold last more than 200,000 miles. That’s significantly better than the second-best vehicle on both lists, the Honda Accord. An average 1.9 percent of Accords surpass 200,000 miles, iSeeCars found.

Kelley Blue Book, which provides estimated prices and reviews for new and used cars, calls the 2013 Avalon “a smart buy for value-conscious shoppers” and the 2016 “a new gold standard” for large, comfortable sedans.

Not surprisingly, Hondas, Toyotas and Nissans dominate the lists. Vehicles by those companies have long been among the best-selling, most affordable, and most reliable sold in the world.

The same nine vehicles show up in the same order on both lists. That’s because the same longevity scores were applied to 2013 vehicles with average prices below $15,000 and 2016 vehicles with average prices below $20,000.

Average prices, however, vary widely within the lists.

One model, the Chevy Impala, stands out for its comparatively high longevity score — 1.7 of every 100 sold exceed 200,000 miles — and low average price after five years — $8,363.

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Three years earlier, the average price of that same Impala was nearly twice as much — $16,185.

One reason could be the Impalas reputation as a plain and simple fleet vehicle — many cities use them as police cars.

Another is that 2013 marked the last year for this particular style. They became more rounded and modern-looking beginning in 2014.

Best 2016 model-year cars under $20,000:

Each vehicle is followed by average current price and projected number per 100 sold that exceed 200,000 miles of longevity:

Toyota Avalon — $19,416 — 2.5%

Honda Accord — $17,429 — 1.9%

Chevrolet Impala — $16,185 — 1.7%

Toyota Prius — $19,153 — 1.7%

Ford Taurus — $17,419 — 1.6%

Toyota Camry — $15,082 — 1.4%

Toyota Camry Hybrid — $17,968 — 1.2%

Honda Civic — $15,727 — 1.2%

Honda CR-V — $19,261 — 1.1%

Nissan Maxima — $19,027 — 1%

Nissan Pathfinder — $19,071 — 1%

Hyundai Santa Fe — $18,995 — 1%

Best 2013 model-year cars under $15,000:

Each vehicle is followed by average current price and projected number per 100 sold that exceed 200,000 miles of longevity:

Toyota Avalon — $14,845 — 2.5%

Honda Accord — $12,604 — 1.9%

Chevrolet Impala — $8,363 — 1.7%

Toyota Prius — $11,475 — 1.7%

Ford Taurus — $11,814 — 1.6%

Toyota Camry — $10,906 — 1.4%

Toyota Camry Hybrid — $12,893 — 1.2%

Honda Civic — $10,606 — 1.2%

Honda CR-V — $14,135 — 1.1%

Nissan Frontier — $14,390 — 1%

Dodge Grand Caravan — $10,378 — 1%