Safe Used Cars Under $5,000 (And One Under $2)

Volvo 760

The safest car ever?

Remember the Top Gear episode where Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May had to find a cheap used car, put it through a series of tests and see which vehicle performed the best? One stunt in particular stands out above the rest, which went something like this:

The presenters had to crash their cars at 30mph into a wall. 10 points were lost if the presenter dies, 5 for each broken bone and 1 for each blood injury. The only injury was done to Jeremy, later revealed by Hammond with an X-ray, who broke his thumb. Jeremy had crashed at about 40mph because his speedometer was broken and he incorrectly guessed how fast 30 mph was.

Funny stuff, right?

Regardless of whether or not you see the humor in potential death, blood and broken bones, the issue of safety in used cars is an important topic. If safety is tops on your list when shopping for a used car, keep reading. Just don’t expect cheap safety to also include stellar MPG numbers or even top-notch reliability.

If you ever crash into a wall at 30 (or 40) mph, you’ll want to be in one of these:

A Volvo

Clarkson’s car on the aforementioned stunt was a Volvo 760 GLE V6. It was able to be driven away from the wall it crashed into, which says something about the rigidity of those older Volvos. Known as one of the safest cars on the market for decades, an older model Volvo, even without airbags, is still one of the safer cars on the road. Volvos are also reliable and run consistently, making an older model a cheap, safe bet.

A Saab

The Swedish know safety. Back in Saab’s heyday, the company routinely racked up excellent safety ratings. Of course, we all know where things stand today in the sad Saab story, as the company appears to have been purchased for just $150 million by a Chinese company. Will the heritage of safety continue? Frankly, I think it died in the ’90s after GM took over. (Side note: GM paid $500 million for half of Saab in 1989.)

A Big-Bodied German

Stout German entries from the late ’80s and early ’90s (think the 1988 BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E Class or S Class) are safe and cheap. Find one that’s been loved, and it will have some decent reliability. If you can handle some potentially high maintenance costs, these cars will keep their shape and protect you and your passengers in the event of an accident.

Oh, and just as a reminder, Clarkson picked up his Volvo for about $1.60. See? Safety doesn’t have to break the bank!

What do you think is the safest cheap used car you can buy?


Find Used Cars in Your Area at CarGurus

Used BMW 5 Series
Used Mercedes-Benz E-Class
Used Mercedes-Benz S-Class


  1. P.S. when I say vans, I mean those big G-van passenger vans, not minivans. Many of the minivans are among the safest cars you can buy. See the web sites, which you should always consult before buying a used vehicle.

  2. The fallacy of the volvo is the rigid body structure. That’s not necessarily that good unless you’re rolling over, when it’s great. (Unless you fake that rigidity as Volvo did for their TV ads.) What you want is a vehicle with a good roof structure, especially in the A-pillars, and a good crush design that absorbs energy. That’s what you’ll find in common in all the current five-star rated designs. Look to the NHTSA and IIHS web sites for information on older vehicles.

    While you might think that big vehicles like Suburbans and vans are the safest, you might be wrong. Vans, especially large passenger vans are among the unsafest vehicles on the road due to their propensity to roll over, and many older suburbans (also prone to roll over) have poor structure in the front (as do many pickups) that crush the front seat passengers in a roll over. Remember that a very high percentage of fatal crashes are rollovers.

  3. I bought a ’91 Cadillac. Try damaging that. I still get 27 mpg highway out of the 4.9L V8, also.

  4. If it’s big and safe and poor mpg you’re looking for, why not an old Suburban or something? There’s not much that’ll put a dent in those.

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