Five excellent used car buys for the New Year
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Let’s look back at the year that’s been and take stock of the second-hand buys that surprised us with their practicality, build quality and strong bang-for-the-dollar. As always, we place a premium on reliable rides that avoid garage hoists and provide a satisfying ownership experience.
Here are five late-model used vehicles that came through with flying colours – and one you’d be wise to avoid.
2018-2020 Kia Rio
You might not know it, but the subcompact Kia Rio is one of the automaker’s most popular models, selling almost half a million hatchbacks and sedans worldwide annually. What started out as a low-buck econobox introduced in 2000 evolved into a European-flavoured “supermini” in its fourth generation. Designed jointly by Kia teams in Germany and California, the Rio is a crisply drawn car that delivers unexpected refinement, high-value content, and a dollop of driving fun.
The cabin is surprisingly handsome and free of gimmicks. Assembly quality is above reproach and the switchgear clicks and moves with Audi-like precision; climate controls utilize the classic three-dial array that’s easy to regulate. The seats are firm, but supportive with decent bolstering. The split-folding rear bench can accommodate three for short durations – legroom is in short supply – and the cargo space is reasonably deep and shaped usefully.
There’s just one available engine, a 1.6-L DOHC four-cylinder making 130 horsepower and 119 lb-ft of torque, tied to either a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed automatic. It was displaced by a more fuel-efficient 120-hp four-cylinder and CVT transmission for 2020. Rio drivers praise their cars for their solid construction, nimble handling, comfy seats and low ownership costs. A few have reported issues with the infotainment screen going blank, the manual-transmission clutch wearing quicker than expected, and the Korean-sourced tires may be prone to failure.
Mazda’s entry in the (formerly) hotly contested midsized sedan segment has flown under the radar of many shoppers for reasons that confound us. The latest Mazda6, introduced in 2014, is a handsome family sedan with its long hood and fluid sculpting, characteristic of the automaker’s Kodo design language. Its front-drive architecture uses lots of high-strength steel for better structural rigidity and reduced mass, the product of Mazda’s “Skyactiv” engineering ethic developed to improve engine output and fuel efficiency.
Inside, the aesthetic is both fashionable and functional. Materials exude quality and the fit and finish are among the best in class. Most controls are simple and user-friendly, but the touchscreen interface is a step behind the best systems. There’s generous headroom, even for those taller than six feet, although the sedan’s sloping roofline makes the rear windows smaller. Its 2.5-L four cylinder produces 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque, paired with either a six-speed automatic or manual transmission. An optional 250-hp turbo four is offered starting in 2019.
Careful chassis development yields above-average driving satisfaction for a family sedan, although the standard engine feels a little underpowered. Mechanical issues? The automatic transmission may emit an audible whine at speed, though post-2016 models appear to have fewer tranny woes. Windshields are prone to cracking easily, a Mazda foible. Beware of fussy infotainment units that may reboot on their own or fail to display intermittently, as well as peeling aluminum wheels and fast-wearing clutches.
2017-2020 Mini Countryman
When is a Mini not a mini? When it’s the second generation of the Countryman crossover that’s found a bigger audience, thanks to BMW’s UKL2 modular platform that underpins several front- and four-wheel-drive Mini and BMW models. The Countryman offers a certain roominess unknown to other Minis, with an abundance of headroom and decent legroom in the back seat. The bigger cabin is dramatically improved with better finishes and more premium features.
The base 2017 Countryman Cooper uses a 134-hp, 1.5-L turbocharged three-cylinder engine that’s mated to a manual gearbox or automatic transmission, both six-speeds. The Cooper S comes with a 189-hp, 2.0-L turbo four-cylinder, available with an optional eight-speed automatic. The John Cooper Works trim joined the party in 2018, featuring a more potent version of the turbo four with 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, paired with the six-speed manual or optional eight-speed automatic. Note that all these engines require premium fuel.
Minis have never been particularly reliable cars, but the latest generation is considerably better, according to J.D. Power. One mechanical issue cited by owners relates to the high-pressure fuel pump failing at low mileage; driveability issues such as stalling in traffic is a warning worth heeding. Watch for dashboard warning lamps lighting up in unison. Minis typically come with run-flat tires that are roundly despised by drivers for wearing out quickly, riding roughly and being costly to replace. It’s wise to have a budget for fresh rubber.
2017-2020 Hyundai Ioniq
The Ioniq is Hyundai’s first model designed from the ground up as a gas-electric hybrid that follows the Toyota Prius recipe pretty closely, minus the weird Jetsons’ styling. The five-door hatchback features an Atkinson-cycle 1.6-L gasoline engine, a dual-clutch, six-speed automatic transmission and a compact 1.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. If the engine’s 104 horsepower sounds skimpy, know that there’s a 43-hp AC electric motor on hand to help shoulder the load under acceleration.
The Ioniq’s interior is straightforward enough with a simple analog-look instrument panel and a conventional PRND gear selector. There’s plenty of soft-touch materials of good quality. There’s more interior volume than the Prius can muster, although the slope of the roof makes anyone taller than six feet feel cramped sitting in the back seat. The hatchback offers cargo flexibility, but there’s the matter of the obtrusive lift-over height to contend with. Drivers noted there’s no rear wiper to clear the glass.
Owners are thrilled with the hybrid’s utility, real-world fuel efficiency, comfortable ride and perfectly ordinary driving feel, as well as its reasonable pricing. On the negative side, the Ioniq doesn’t have the best brakes or handling in the segment. Mechanically speaking, early builds did exhibit a few issues with the gasoline engine stalling or reverting to low output. Other hiccups include Bluetooth connectivity issues, short-lived air conditioner evaporators in small numbers, and a few transmission and steering column replacements. There’s an 8-year/160,000-km warranty on hybrid components.
2017-2020 Honda Ridgeline
Not content to imitate the Detroit Three by building another body-on-frame pickup truck, Honda set out to design a vehicle for people who need a family cruiser for commuting and school-shuttle duties, combined with a cargo bed for lumber and cottage runs. Its pickup took the form of a midsize, five-passenger, four-door crew cab with a 5-foot cargo bed – its sole configuration. Using the Pilot’s SUV unibody platform, engineers reworked it to ensure the Ridgeline has some genuine truck capabilities, including towing a 5,000-lb trailer.
The second-generation Ridgeline, introduced for 2017, provides all the same benefits – including the trick tailgate and the watertight trunk under the bed’s composite floor – but in a more stylish wrapper to appeal to traditional truck buyers. Occupants enjoy a spacious cabin reminiscent of the Pilot with the same layout and premium amenities. The front bucket seats are generous and sightlines are excellent all around. Rear seating is set at a comfortable angle and the bench flips up to yield a flat floor for carrying bigger items, such as bicycles.
The lone powertrain is a 280-hp 3.5-L V6 working through a six-speed automatic transmission. Its standard torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system works well on all surfaces – but don’t confuse it with a true 4×4 system with low-range gearing. With its class-leading ride and handling, garage-friendly size and all-weather AWD, the Ridgeline ticks all the boxes. The few reported reliability issues include faulty fuel injectors in 2017 models, an inoperable rearview camera due to pinched wiring and a fussy HondaLink infotainment interface.
One to avoid: 2017-2020 Chrysler Pacifica
Chrysler arguably invented the front-wheel-drive minivan in 1983, and in 2017 released its next-generation model to replace the aging Town & Country and, eventually, the Grand Caravan. Sleekly styled and filled with innovative options including a triple-pane panoramic sunroof, parallel and perpendicular parking assist and hands-free power sliding doors, the automotive press anointed the Pacifica with numerous awards. But how does it hold up as a second-hand buy?
The Pacifica utilizes Fiat’s “compact wide” platform, complete with an independent rear suspension that permits a low cargo load floor and improved handling and ride characteristics. Its roomy interior accommodates up to eight people using clever Stow ’n Go seating, whose second and third rows collapse into the floor, transforming it from a school bus to a cargo van ready to accept 4×8 plywood sheets in minutes. Powering the Pacifica is Chrysler’s 287-hp Pentastar 3.6-L V6 paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission. There’s also a modified Pentastar with two electric motors for a combined 260 hp in the Hybrid model – a minivan first.
Owners adore the Pacifica for its comfort, advanced safety features and fantastic flexibility in terms of carrying people and cargo, but some have suffered too many problems to recommend it. The ZF automatic transmission exhibits jerky operation, unexpected downshifts, front-axle vibration in low gears and outright mechanical failure. The engine may spontaneously stall in traffic, which distresses drivers. Other faults include blank infotainment screens, intermittent electric power steering, rusted hoods, sliding doors that open on their own, creaking panoramic sunroofs, and a fire risk in Hybrid models. Be wary of this one.