Best used cars under $20,000 for families

Need new wheels on a budget? These used car options offer great value for you and yours.

CNET Cars staff
10 min read
Ford Flex
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Ford Flex

We'll always appreciate the boxy-cool styling of the Ford Flex.


Times are tough, and new cars are expensive. But that doesn't mean there aren't a bunch of great options for spacious, efficient family-haulers on the more affordable end of the spectrum.

We've put together a list of great used cars from the past decade, all of which can be easily found for less than $20,000. Whether you need lots of space for people, cargo, pets or just a rugged little runabout to get you and your family where you need to go, these used cars offer everything you need without having to break the bank.

The 2015 Ford Flex is boxy and bold

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What is the best used vehicle for families with around $20,000 to spend? That's a tough question to answer, as there are probably dozens of solid choices out there. But for folks who care as much about style and luxury as they do about interior space and versatility, I suggest checking out a Ford Flex.

This boxy machine defies classification. Is it a station wagon, a crossover or just a minivan without sliding doors? Yes, yes, it is. You may love this vehicle's looks, as I do, but just as many folks seem to hate it. And that's kind of the point. The Flex is a polarizing product, one that generated a lot of buzz for Ford . Even though it never sold in huge numbers, over its 10 or so years on the market, it proved to be a very popular product in America's coastal cities.

The Flex offers three spacious rows of seats, has an upscale interior and it's plenty refined, making it an excellent family vehicle. As for mechanicals, it was offered with either front- or all-wheel drive. Two engines were also available, including a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 that, depending on model year, delivered up to 287 horsepower. Of course, a twin-turbocharged EcoBoost version of that six-shooter was also on the menu. It whipped up 365 hp with nearly as much torque, enough pork and beans to make this machine far quicker than you'd ever expect. Depending on things like mileage and condition, plenty of fine used examples of the Ford Flex are available in my area from the 2015 to 2017 model years. You should have no trouble finding a good one for less than 20 grand.

-- Craig Cole

2019 Chevrolet Volt: The plug-in hybrid champ gets even better

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The Volt may not seem like a family vehicle, but I assure you it's quite the versatile machine, with phenomenal fuel economy to boot. Granted, this pick is probably best for smaller families, but nevertheless, the Volt is a solid all-around vehicle.

First of all, it's a hatchback, and the rear seats fold flat to reveal a surprising amount of cargo room. This one time, I squeezed 20 bags of mulch into one. The Volt is also a plug-in hybrid with an estimated 53 miles of electric range at the driver's disposal. With the small battery, you can easily plug it into a household outlet overnight without needing to wait an extraordinary amount of time. Even if you forego charging the car up, the hybrid powertrain delivers 42 miles per gallon. Families won't need to worry about budgeting for fuel all too often.

Now, the rear seats aren't the most wonderful place, especially with a tight middle seat, but they'll easily strap a couple of kids in the rear and keep them safe. Buyers will find a wide assortment of low-mileage, second-generation (2016-2019) Volts with the more mainstream design well under $20,000. The Premier model will toss in all the goodies, but even a Volt with the Comfort Package includes comforts such as heated seats and a heated steering wheel. Seriously, there's a lot to love about Chevy's now-discontinued plug-in.

-- Sean Szymkowski

The Volkswagen Golf TDI Sportwagen is a nifty, thrifty hauler

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You can still buy a brand-new Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen, but the TDI diesel model was only available for a few months in the 2015 model year. (I think you probably know why.) VW eventually came out with a fix for the car, allowing it to go back on sale, and now there are tons of Mk 7 TDI Sportwagens on the used market for $20,000, even with low miles.

The Mk 7 Golf is one of my favorite compact cars, and the wagon is even better. It adds a ton of usable cargo space and looks great, plus the rarity factor is always a bonus. And the diesel is the one you really want, as its 236 pound-feet of low-end torque is great around town and on the highway. It gets excellent fuel economy, even after Dieselgate adjustments, with a 40-mpg highway rating from the EPA and a range of over 450 miles.

Oh, and did I mention the TDI Golf wagon was available with a six-speed manual transmission, even on the highest trim level? Because it was. It's entirely possible to find a manual Sportwagen with under 50,000 miles for around $18,000, with features like HID headlights, a panoramic sunroof, heated leather seats and navigation. The Golf Sportwagen is already a great family car no matter the version, but a used TDI is the pick of the litter. You'll have the satisfaction of knowing you have something cool, even if others don't.

-- Daniel Golson

2017 Chrysler Pacifica is the smart way to drive your family in style

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Listen, friends. You know it, and I know it. The best solution for family transportation is the humble minivan. You might think you want a rough-and-tumble SUV or a sport sedan with a backseat just big enough to wedge in your progeny. The truth is, power sliding doors, a phalanx of cupholders and enough room so that your kids can't play "stop hitting yourself!" on the way to jujitsu is the best recipe for family harmony. What you want for your $20,000 is the best Chrysler Pacifica you can find.

As an added bonus, the Pacifica isn't just roomy, it's the best-looking minivan extant, and it's one of the sharpest-driving examples, too. We've had a couple of long-term models at Roadshow, including the plug-in hybrid, and they're fantastically flexible daily drivers, coupling a thoughtfully laid-out cabin with class-leading infotainment tech and lots of advanced safety gear.

For $20,000, you should be able to secure a low-mileage 2018 model, potentially even a higher-end Touring or certified model. Heck, you can probably sneak into a 2019 model, too. Seek out the lowest-mileage example you can, and focus on the gas-only model. As good as the Hybrid version is, it also makes a lot of unbecoming powertrain noises, and its powertrain's added complexity is a bit of a wild card when buying secondhand.

-- Chris Paukert

The Volvo XC70 is a rugged, luxurious wagon

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Nothing screams "family adventure time" quite like a Cross Country wagon. And though the Swedish automaker's modern longroof offerings are all about svelte style, I still love the butch aesthetic of the slightly older models, particularly the .

With lots of ground clearance, all-wheel drive and a spacious cargo hold, the Volvo XC70 can go just about anywhere and handle just about any task you throw its way. In its later years, the XC70 was available with both four- and six-cylinder engines, and was one of the first models to introduce Volvo's City Safety feature -- one of the earliest examples of automatic emergency braking.

More than anything, though, I always loved the XC70 for how damn comfortable it was, with a simple interior design with some of the best, cushiest, most supportive front seats ever made. You can pick up a mid-2010s example these days for just under $20,000, and don't worry about cars nearing the 100,000-mile mark. If there's another big thing Volvo wagons are known for, it's their longevity. 

-- Steven Ewing

Compact Subaru Crosstrek is a back country-capable city wagon

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When I think family on a budget, particularly an active family who lives somewhere it gets cold, my mind typically falls to Subaru, and for this money I think you're best off looking at a Crosstrek. I checked my local dealer inventories and you can easily get yourself into a low-mile, 2016 or 2017 Crosstrek Premium that'll be a perfect fit for most families.

First off, it's a wagon, so bonus points there. Secondly, standard all-wheel drive means a little more confidence in the winter, or absolutely unstoppable performance should you decide to step up to a set of snow tires. You don't even have to compromise on the fuel economy stakes, with the Crosstrek delivering an impressive 34 mpg on the highway.

How does an AWD wagon do so well? By having absolutely no power. The gutless, 2.0-liter flat four is paired with a CVT that further sucks dry what little performance it has to offer. But, if you can deal with that handicap, you won't do much better at this price.

-- Tim Stevens

The Honda Accord is a safe and solid family sedan

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When it comes to used car recommendations, the Honda Accord is always the first car I throw out there, no matter the budget. Even if you had $5,000, you'd be able to find an Accord from a few generations back with plenty of life left in it. With a $20,000 price ceiling, you'll easily find a clean, low mileage, ninth-generation example that ran between the 2013 and 2017 model years.

While the previous-generation Accord is not quite as stylish as the model currently in showrooms, it's not a bad-looking four-door. It has a nice ride and handling mix, a very spacious cabin and a sizable 15.5 cubic feet of space in the trunk. A 2.4-liter I4 making 185 hp and 181 lb-ft of torque serves as the base engine, which can be teamed with a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission. Those who want a little more kick can get a 3.5-liter V6 with 278 hp and 252 lb-ft, paired with a six-speed automatic.

This generation's Accord technology also isn't shabby even by today's standards. Higher trim levels use Display Audio infotainment interface with a 7-inch touchscreen featuring satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and available navigation. The driver-assistance tech menu offers adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, auto high-beam headlights and Honda's slick LaneWatch camera system.

-- Jon Wong

2015 Toyota Sienna offers all-wheel drive and lots of space

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Turn the time machine's dial back about five years to get the most out of your $20,000 or under. A used Toyota Sienna will deliver just about everything you need in a family vehicle, probably with some room left over, to boot.

There's a fresh new generation of the Sienna arriving later this year, but the version that was revealed several years ago and updated for 2017 remains at dealers. Thus, you can reach a little further into the used market without bumping into hella-outdated technology. And it's still a minivan no matter what, so you get oodles of space for both cargo and people.

An older variant is still pretty decently equipped under the hood. Its 3.5-liter V6 produces 266 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque, while achieving 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway with front-wheel drive. Spend a little extra on all-wheel drive -- yes, it was available even back in 2015 -- and you lose some fuel economy in favor of a little extra bad-weather traction.

-- Andrew Krok

2017 Mazda6 goes hard on the refinement

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The correct answer to this question is the Toyota Camry, but the right answer is the third-generation Mazda6, which can be fairly easily found fully loaded for under $20,000. With a backseat big enough for kids, a decent-sized trunk and fairly efficient 30 mpg combined from its 2.5-liter engine, the 6 basically does everything the Camry can, but wrapped in much more handsome sheetmetal and, if you're lucky, juicy Soul Red paint.

So many automakers claim that their volume sedans have the soul of a sports car, but Mazda actually backs it up with sharp handling and much better driving dynamics than anything else in this class. Sadly, you probably won't be able to opt for the more powerful turbocharged engine, which came online in 2018, but the standard I4's 184 hp feels better than it sounds on paper, powering the 6's lightweight chassis.

Modern driver-aid technologies are available on upper trim levels, but the Mazda6's cabin tech wasn't great at launch. Thankfully, Mazda recently started retrofitting models dating back to 2014 with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which basically solves most of the sedan's tech woes. Make sure your example has been updated or be sure to swing by your dealer shortly after taking delivery. Look for a Touring or Grand Touring for the most family-friendly tech goodies or -- if you love an engaging drive -- find yourself a pre-2019 Sport model with a six-speed manual transmission.

-- Antuan Goodwin

2014 Toyota 4Runner is the old/new car for fun-loving families

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For the adventurous family that wants true off-road capability, it's tough to go wrong with a 4Runner. It's remained largely unchanged since 2014, so picking up one in this year means you're essentially getting what is currently on the showroom floor.

At $20,000, you'll probably only be able to afford the base SR5, but that can be had with four-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case, skid plates and hill-descent control. You might even be lucky and find one with the optional third row. A 4.0-liter V6 engine produces 270 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque while a five-speed automatic transmission gets the power down to the pavement.

The aftermarket is robust for the 4Runner, so should you want to upgrade its capabilities you'll not want for options. However, you may get the most peace of mind with Toyota's long-standing superior reliability. That older 4Runner with 100,000 miles on the clock is most likely nowhere near its waning years.

-- Emme Hall

The Acura TSX Sport Wagon is the perfect Japanese family wagon

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If there's one cliche car journalist hill that I'm willing to die on, it's that wagons are the ultimate automotive form, and that's even before you consider the practicality that it brings to a family. That's part of why I'm picking the 2011-2014 Acura TSX Sport Wagon. Not only is it an affordable wagon, it's a really good one, too, thanks to its awesome 201-hp K24 engine and surprisingly competent chassis.

Something else that a family needs is reliability, because if the family truckster breaks down, so does everything else, right? That makes the Acura even better because "reliable" and "Honda" (Acura's parent company) pretty much go hand-in-hand. Furthermore, you can be reasonably sure that the TSX wagon will not only be cheap to buy, but cheap to own thanks to infrequent repairs and reasonably priced maintenance.

If you've got kids, you have to consider your car's interior and the Acura's should stand up to kid duty without issue thanks to hard-wearing (if not overly opulent) interior appointments. That's not to say it looks or feels like a penalty box, though. It's still a nice place to spend time and if you're going to be spending a lot of time in it, you'll also appreciate the car's relatively frugal engine as it returns 22 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

-- Kyle Hyatt

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