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10 of the most reliable used cars in Australia

(pictured: Honda Civic VTi-L 2012 sedan)

Now look, obviously telling anyone that a particular second-hand car will have bulletproof reliable is a bit like telling them that skiing is a totally safe hobby, or advising them to invest in blue-chip stocks.

Sometimes, things just don’t work out and if your friend ends up with a broken leg, an empty bank account or a total lemon of a car on their driveway - it can be embarrassing, or a friendship killer.

So, we must proceed with caution, and caveats. We’re also trying to live in the real world here. I have good reason to believe, for example, that Porsches are hugely reliable. I once asked a Porsche engineer whether it was true that every single part of the company’s cars was over engineered by 200 per cent, and he looked truly offended and said “No! No, it’s more like 400 per cent.”

This might explain, at least partly, why Porsches are so expensive, and why they remain pricey, even as second-hand cars. So, by all means, if you can afford a used 911, it’s probably a good investment, it’s just not one we can all make (more realistically, if you want a second-hand sports car, it’s hard to go past a Mazda MX-5, of any vintage, because they are fantastic to drive, reliable and relatively affordable).

At the other end of the spectrum, we don’t want this list to be entirely dull. There’s an argument, particularly from people who only buy Toyotas and believe in them religiously, for suggesting that all of the 10 cars on this list should be Corollas, Camrys, Yarises, Priuses and so forth.

Yes, Toyota is fairly famed for its unbreakable reliability, and Top Gear certainly did its best to help that reputation with its failed attempts to destroy a HiLux.

But here’s an interesting wrinkle for you. When Australians were asked by Canstar, to rate their own cars for reliability, just last year, the results were telling, and fascinating.

Coming in first, by a clear margin, as the most reliable brand, was Mitsubishi. Sure enough, Toyota came in second, followed by Kia, Mazda, Suzuki, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Hyundai, Honda and Volkswagen.

The less-loved five, hanging behind the top 10, were Nissan, Holden, Audi and Ford. So you won’t see any of their cars on this list, although we’d still like to recommend used versions of the VF Commodore to those of you who don’t mind taking a slight reliability risk, just because they were such fantastic cars, and clearly the last big sedans that will ever have been built specifically for our conditions.

And just one other personal caveat. Whenever people ask me what sort of second-hand car they should buy I give the same answer - “whichever Subaru you can afford, and in whatever shape suits your lifestyle”. I still stand by this, because in my experience the brand has rock-solid reliability, combined with excellent driving dynamics, all-wheel drive and tough, hardy interiors. It’s just a shame they mostly lack visual appeal.

Here, then, in no particular order are our careful recommendations.

Mazda 2 | Best Used Light Cars

Mazda 2 owners praise its fuel economy, as well as its performance, roominess and comfort (pictured: Mazda 2 Genki 2012).

The Mazda 2 might be too pretty for some people, but it’s really not fair to hate things for being too attractive. Being small and cute is one of the 2’s design parameters anyway, and it hits that brief out of the park.

Being tall of roof, it also provides surprising headroom for such a small car, and with its short wheelbase and wheel-at-each-corner stance, it can be a lot of go-kart-like fun to drive as well.

Those who remember it’s even more sugary predecessor, the jelly-bean Mazda 121, might be shocked to hear that the 2 has been part of our landscape in this country since 2002, and it is an absolute favourite on the second-hand market, in large part because it is so reliable and long-lived.

CarsGuide’s used-car experts have previously reported that “there are no widespread issues to be concerned about, the 2 is a solid car that has been soundly engineered and well built”.

And further to that, its owners praise its fuel economy, as well as its performance, roominess and comfort.

Mazda 2

Mazda 2
Based on Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)

Toyota Yaris | Best Used Light Cars

The Yaris comes with all the rock-solid reliability you’d expect from a Toyota (pictured: Toyota Yaris YRX 2012).

No, it didn’t take us long to get a Toyota on the list, but the Yaris is hard to go past. I know serious motoring journalists and performance-car freaks who have bought multiple Yarises, and recommended dozens more for family and friends.

That’s because the Yaris comes with all the rock-solid reliability you’d expect from a Toyota, plus a bit more flair about its design than the Japanese white-goods-on-wheels maker generally offers (the more recent the Yaris, the more exciting it looks).

A quality, hard-wearing interior only adds to the desirability of this popular model, with well over 200,000 sold.

First released locally in 2005, when Toyota dropped the Echo, the three- but more commonly five-door hatches have become a common sight on our roads, particularly wearing L and P plates, ever since.

CarsGuide’s experts point out that the four-speed automatic could do with another gear, and add that: “Handling of the little Toyota is safe but not exactly inspiring. Which can be a bonus to used-car buyers as it’s unlikely to have been thrashed. Rough sealed roads can challenge the suspension and the ride may be bumpy on occasions.”

Mitsubishi Mirage | Best Used Light Cars

Mitsubishi’s Mirage has also offered good safety gear over the years (pictured: Mitsubishi Mirage 2013).

Clearly, Mitsubishi is a brand for which Australians feel a lot of love, and feel safe investing their money in.

While the Lancer and the Pajero, and before that the ubiquitous Magna, were very much the face of the company for many years, today it would be the small SUV that is the ASX and the very light Mirage.

Quite literally a light car, with a kerb weight that sits below 900kg, the Mirage has long been able to make do with small and very economical engines that would struggle to get heavier cars up a hill.

Since 2013, that engine has offered a mere three cylinders, yet still does the job, and the Mirage has been the first car of many a new, young motorist.

Mitsubishi’s Mirage has also offered good safety gear over the years, including six airbags, with full-length curtain airbags, plus useful electronic driver assistance systems.

Mazda3 | Best Used Small Cars

The Mazda3 is pretty much a rock-solid option as a used-car buy (pictured: Mazda 3 SkyActive 2013).

It might seem strange to mention the Volkswagen Golf when talking about its fiercest competitor in this country, the Mazda3, but the fact is it’s difficult to recommend any other small car without touching on the global behemoth that is VW’s small car.

The Golf has been a great little car, the perfect city car or small family car, the vehicle that Jeremy Clarkson recommends as all the car anyone really needs, the Swiss Army Knife of motoring, for as long as most of us can remember. In many ways, I’d like to recommend that you buy one, because they are great to drive, and German, but the fact is, there have been far too many reliability issues for the VW to make this list. Many of those issues have involved DSG gearboxes, and clutch packs, so you could suggest shopping for a manual version only, but then there have been engine issues as well.

You might want to just take your chances and buy one anyway, except that you don’t have to, because Mazda built the 3.

It’s hard to overstate just how successful and popular this car has been in Australia since arriving in 2004 - at times it has even been the best-selling vehicle in the country. An even better 3 lobbed in 2009, before a third generation arrived in 2014, so there are a huge number of them available on the second-hand market.

It is also clear that no car that could be this popular for this long is going to carry a reputation as being unreliable, because that would kill sales. The Mazda3 is pretty much a rock-solid option as a used-car buy.

As CarsGuide’s used-car gurus put it: “Excellent styling, the so-called Kodo design, has certainly played its part in the Mazda3's success, but the Japanese company's well-deserved reputation for building reliable, high-quality cars is another major factor.”

The fact that the 3 is damn near as good to drive as a VW Golf helps as well.

Mazda 3

Mazda 3
Based on Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)

Toyota Corolla | Best Used Small Cars

The Corolla changes hands in huge numbers on the second-hand market (pictured: Toyota Corolla Levin ZR 2012).

It’s a well-worn trope to say that people who buy Toyotas want transport, not a car, or utility rather than excitement, but it’s hard to argue with the global sales success, and lauded reliability, of a car like the Corolla.

Yes, they have looked dull and boring for a long time, but with recent models, even that has begun to change. Not bad for a car that’s been in our market for more than 50 years.

Toyota offers the Corolla as both a sedan and a hatch, but the hatch - built in Japan while the sedan comes from Thailand - is the obvious choice, and the one most people make. The Corolla changes hands in huge numbers on the second-hand market, so you’ll never have trouble finding one at a good price with the mileage you’re happy with.

The word “indestructible” seems not out of place when describing the Corolla’s engine, which is often claimed to be good for more than 250,000km.

Frankly, as a sensible choice for a used car, a Toyota Corolla is almost too obvious. But there’s a good reason for its huge popularity.

Hyundai i30 | Best Used Small Cars

The Hyundai i30 is good, cheap, reliable and mechanically sound transport (pictured: Hyundai i30 SR 2012).

It’s not that many lifetimes ago that Hyundai had a very different reputation to the one it now enjoys. A Hyundai Excel never really carried the same happy glow of quality that an i30 does, and yet today, this small car is described by CarsGuide’s own used-car experts as combining “some of the flair of a European machine with the cost advantages of an Asian car”.

Good, cheap, reliable and mechanically sound transport - that’s what the Hyundai i30 has come to mean in Australia since it was first launched here back in 2007. This car has been a large part of why Korean cars are now so much closer to Japanese ones when it comes to public perception, but this was not always the case.

For several years, Hyundai has also been going to the trouble of tuning its suspension and steering for Australian conditions, and for the way we like our cars to feel. This is a major selling point.

Better yet, Hyundai was one of the first companies to offer a five-year/unlimited distance warranty, which passes on from the original purchaser of the car to the second-hand buyer. So, getting one that’s less than five years old is obviously ideal.

Hyundai i30

Hyundai i30
Based on Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)

Honda Civic | Best Used Small Cars

The Civic has a reputation for build quality and reliability (pictured: Honda Civic 2013).

It’s a strange thing how the perception of brands can shift over time. Honda was long known for Japanese excellence and precision, for engines that never give up and never die, and for the ubiquity of this small car in particular, the Civic.

As CarsGuide has pointed out before, the Civic has “a reputation for build quality and reliability that once lifted it above the pack in the image stakes in Australia”. It’s not so much that the company’s ability to make reliable cars has changed, it’s more that a lot of other car companies have caught up.

Honda has also just become less visible as a brand in this country, a move that you can track by thinking about a car like the Honda Accord, which also used to be very common and is now far more rarely seen. The Civic lives on, although more modern versions can be a little bit challenging on the eye, so going for a good, well looked after older model could be a wise choice.

The Civic has always been relatively simple mechanically, so a good amateur mechanic can do work on this car themselves, should they want to.

Honda Civic

Honda Civic
Based on Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)

Mazda6 | Best Used Sedans

The Mazda 6 was has always had excellent build quality (pictured: Mazda 6 Touring 2013).

No look, obviously no one should buy a car purely because it looks good, but let’s face it, many of us do. And when it comes to choosing a sedan that’s actually genuinely attractive, it’s hard not to walk straight past the ordinary Toyota Camry and into the loving embrace of a Mazda6.

Better yet, the 6 adds to its good looks and practically by being enjoyable to drive, with excellent ride and handling balance. Happily, the Mazda6 was never really bought by fleets, so you’re less likely to find examples that have been belted over many kilometres.

The obvious competitors include the Honda Accord Euro and the Subaru Liberty, neither of which have the visual flair of the Mazda, although both are also enjoyable to drive.

The 6 was launched here in 2002 as a replacement for the also popular Mazda 626 and its build quality has always been excellent, in typical Japanese style, although not as quality in feel, obviously, as a German sedan. You can also take choose to get the 6 as a station wagon, if you prefer that level of practicality over an SUV.

Mazda 6

Mazda 6
Based on Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)

Kia Optima | Best Used Sedans

The Kia Optima has an attractive design (pictured: Kia Optima 2013).

With most of the models on this list, we’re happy to recommend you buy the best one you can afford, regardless of how long ago it was made. Obviously, all cars get better over time, and the more modern a car you can get the better, particularly in terms of safety.

With the Kia Optima, however, there is a sweet spot for second-hand buying. By all means, if you can afford to, grab one of the upgraded models that was launched back in 2015, but if not, be sure to shop in the era from 2011 up until that upgrade, because before that time the Optima lived back in the world where Korean cars were good… but not great.

Indeed, the Optima, much like the Hyundai i30, is an excellent example of just how much the perception of Korean vehicles has changed, and how much more reliable and popular they have become.

The Optima also represents the vital shift that Kia, in particular, has made towards attractive design, ever since hiring Peter Schreyer, the man who famously gave us the beautiful Audi TT, to head up its team of crayon wielders.

In terms of reliability, what you need to know is that the CarsGuide experts sum it up thus: “Build quality on these post-2011 Optimas has improved out of sight when compared with early Korean cars”.

And that the introduction of Kia’s seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty can provide you with amazing peace of mind. And happiness of wallet.

Subaru Outback | Best Used Station Wagon

The Outback can be surprisingly rugged (pictured: Subaru Outback 2013).

Personally, while I would not want to provide a list of 10 reliable Toyotas you could buy, because it would make me sad, I wouldn’t be too unhappy to write a list of 10 Subarus you could safely choose as second-hand transport.

Many engineers and repairers have told me over the years how few problems Subarus have, and even Porsche is in some awe of how this (relatively) tiny Japanese company manages to do such a good job with tricky boxer-engine technology.

In the case of cars like the Outback, they can also be surprisingly rugged, their all-wheel-drive set-up makes them feel planted and safe on unsealed roads, and provides excellent grip in the wet, even on sealed surfaces. The one letdown of Subarus, of course, is that they tend to look about as attractive as someone who cares not one jot what other people think about them.

They’re also not quite as nicely appointed inside as some of their Japanese competitors, choosing hardiness over flashiness, every time.

While the Outback seems to fall between two chairs, by being a high-riding station wagon, but not quite an SUV, it has long found its fans among those who want to (lightly) go bush in comfort, and who still appreciate the driving pleasure afforded by a (slightly) lower centre of gravity.

In short, if you’re after a station wagon rather than going the full SUV, and you want reliability and value, it’s hard to go past the Subaru Outback.