And if you can't save up the $5,000 to buy the car, having the cash on hand to do the proper repairs and maintenance could be a chore.

The right $5,000 car owner has some cash, has been around the automotive block and has the tools to gracefully shepherd his or her purchase. You should:

  • Know a good mechanic. A trustworthy independent mechanic will make ownership of an older vehicle much easier.
  • Understand the basics of how cars work and be conversant in some of the intricacies in order to make good service and repair choices. (Here's a head start.)
  • Be diligent. Once you've found a meticulously maintained used car, it's bound to thrive if you continue that maintenance. If you're a maintenance procrastinator, consider using public transportation. Some buses are clean.

With that in mind, here are a few simple strategies for finding an excellent $5,000 used car.

Smart doesn't have to mean boring

Most important is to scale back your expectations. Buy a $5,000 Porsche and you will wind up commuting by bus. A cheap, old, high-mileage BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ or Mercedes S-Class may be tempting, but those cars are complex beasts overstuffed with a lot of things that can go wrong. And when it comes time to fix them, parts and mechanic labor rates are often higher than those for less loftily pedigreed machines. Ordinary cars may not be as exciting, but they're cheaper to fix.

And while conventional wisdom is that the smart used-car shoppers start off looking at the nicest Toyotas or Hondas they can afford, by doing so you overlook the biggest bang for your buck. Cars like the easily overlooked 1998-2002 Mazda 626 come to mind.

"No one even thinks about the 626," Reed says. "And it's a great car. It's well-built, fun to drive and generally cheaper than a comparable Accord or Camry."

"I like the Mazda Miata," says MSN Autos editor-producer Perry Stern. "There are a good number of mid- to late-'90s models available around that price. They're reliable, fun and super-fuel-efficient."

Of course, they're also not that great at hauling kids or plywood, but for the right person, the Miata has always been a solid choice.

There has rarely been a more boring car built than the 2000 to 2007 Ford Taurus. But hundreds of thousands were sold as rentals, and now relatively low-mileage 2001, 2002 and 2003 models are available below the $5,000 price point. Just about the same can be said for the similar 2000 to 2005 Chevrolet Impala.

"You can't assume every Honda and Toyota will last forever," adds Stern, "and you can't assume every Ford and Chevy will instantly fall apart."

Car dealer Lang makes his living finding the hidden value in older cars, but there are some even he won't touch. "Any Dodge Intrepid with the 2.7-liter, V-6 engine will be a piece of garbage," he says. "I sold one that had been owned by the Salvation Army, gently driven and perfectly maintained. Within three months of selling it, the engine blew up."