I've Driven Base Models All My Life And I Need Something Nicer! What Car Should I Buy?

What Car Should You BuyThe experts at Jalopnik answer your car-buying questions.

Brandon lives in Indiana and has owned only base model cars. He wants to treat himself to something a bit nicer. He needs to rack up high mileage and has up to twenty grand to spend on a quality used commuter car with some upgrades. What car should he buy?

(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )

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Here is the scenario:

Looking for an upgrade, currently drive a Mazda 5. I want something a bit nicer, I’ve driven base models my whole life such as a ‘92 Lumina base, a 2007 Tucson base, 2005 Bonneville SE, and finally the 2010 Mazda 5 Sport. I’m 6-foot-3 so I need something with a bit of space. I’m not married but I do have an eight-year-old son who needs to fit comfortably in the car as well.

Here is my wish list: leather interior, good gas mileage, easy/low cost maintenance, reasonable insurance cost, at least a mid-size car for easy cruising (20-25,000 miles per year will be done by this car), reliable and dependable, a nice sound system. Oh and it must have an automatic transmission

As for the budget, I can spend up to $20,000.

Quick Facts:

Budget: Up to $20,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Location: Auburn, Indiana

Wants: Leather seats, comfortable, reliable,

Doesn’t want: Large repair bills or a penalty box

Expert 1: Tom McParland - Dial L for Luxury

Brandon, my first inclination for a reliable, comfortable luxury car was a Lexus. The problem I ran into is that in your vicinity, the available Lexus models are either too small—trust me you don’t want to squeeze into an IS250—or too old.

While rocking an older Lexus is certainly respectable, something tells me you desire a ride that is a bit more up to date. So I went with a different upscale brand that starts with L, but one that has a depreciation curve that gives you a bit more value for a dollar, which would be Lincoln.

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While the current crop of Lincolns can be essentially boiled down to “fancy Fords” they do offer a bit more style, and some features not found on their blue oval cousins. I think the Lincoln for you would be the MKZ Hybrid. Sure, it’s based on the Fusion, which is a solid sedan on its own, but the MKZ does stand out from the crowd a bit. It is also a very comfortable place to be on long rides, and the hybrid motor combined with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine can return about 40 MPG. Not bad.

This particular example for just a shade under $20,000 is a certified pre-owned 2016 with only 20,000 miles and is listed as having an upgraded sound system. Enjoy.

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Expert 2: Raphael Orlove - If It’s High Mileage You Want

Photo: Craigslist
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Want to do high mileage in a car? Look to the Lexus LS. First gens of these are unkillable machines, with friend of Jalopnik Matt Farah turning a million miles in his.

I can’t say for sure if the later gens are quite as bulletproof, but they are wonderful, handsome, and exceedingly non-base model. Whatever the opposite of base model is, it’s a Lexus LS460L. The long one. Plenty of space for the kid back there.

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This one is at about 160,000 miles, but it’s also less than half your budget. I’d swing for it!

Expert 3: David Tracy - It’s Not As Strange As You Think

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The first thing that came to my mind when I read that you’re looking for a reliable car with leather seats was “Lexus.” The second thing was “Buick,” and that’s for one reason and one reason only: the 3800 V6, which is one of the most legendary engines in American auto history. Mostly because it has a tendency to not die. Like, ever.

Yes, I realize that this $2,500 2002 Buick LeSabre that I’m recommending is probably a bit older than you’d like, but it’s a bone-simple vehicle with proven reliability. In fact, we’ve even written a story praising the “Ultimate Grandpa Car.”

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From that article:

[The Buick LeSabre] will get you from one side of the country to the other coddled in overstuffed sofas, ice cold A/C, surprisingly good fuel economy, with very little drama for next to no money. And it will do it with 250,000+ miles on it all day long.

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The LeSabre pretty dang boring, but it’s also spacious, reliable, reasonably luxurious, rated at 27 MPG highway, and dirt cheap. That’s a good combo, there.

Expert 4: Erik Shilling - American Luxury

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Let’s not make this too complicated. Here’s a 2016 Cadillac ATS in Indiana for $20,614. No one really wants these these days, so I bet you could negotiate down for even less. The ATS is good enough, and checks your boxes.

And for all it’s been derided in recent years, driving a Cadillac still embodies a certain amount of style. The ATS just looks good. The ATS-V, the V-Series version of this car, is one of Jalopnik’s favorite cars of all time, though I fear probably out of your price range.

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Now, I’m aware that some say the ATS interior isn’t up to snuff with its competitors, and those people have a point. Some people also say that the back seat is on the small side, and those people also have a point. But what would American luxury be without a few downsides. Don’t overthink it, Brandon.

Expert 5: Andrew Collins - Finally A Longroof Fan

Photo: Acura
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This is a good prompt, Brandon. $20,000 seems like a reasonable amount of money to spend on a decently nice car. I am tempted to suggest a Dodge Challenger, which is surprisingly immense and a good cruiser, but I get the sense that you’re looking for something a little more refined.

What about an Acura TSX Wagon? It’s not the most elegant automobile to wear an “A” badge but it’s handsome in its own way. Based on my experience, you could expect a long life with minimal maintenance issues in a car like this. And you’d get a solid luxury upgrade without sacrificing fuel economy or making too much of a step-down in cargo capacity from your Mazda 5.

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It’s like an Audi Avant, but without the intensity. More importantly, the parts counter guy won’t rub his palms together when he sees you walk into the shop.

Cursory research at press time turned up one in Indiana with low mileage for right around $20,000. Full disclosure: I can’t tell you if that’s a good deal, but it does tell us you can afford one of these.

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About the author

Tom McParland

Tom is a contributing writer for Jalopnik and runs AutomatchConsulting.com. He saves people money and takes the hassle out of buying or leasing a car. (Facebook.com/AutomatchConsulting)