Old Used Car or Newer Used Car, Which is Better?

Case study of two used cars with similar mileage but different ages

A newer used Nissan Versa makes more sense than an older Toyota Corolla. Photo Nissan

An interesting conundrum when it comes to used cars: is older with low mileage or newer with low mileage a better choice when both cost about the same.

This case study, which is what I am calling it, arose from a message posted on Facebook. A friend, who writes in-depth about cars (kind of a hint who it is), posted this question on his Facebook status: "Friend is looking at a 2011 Versa with 25k miles an an '03 Corolla with 20k miles. Both decently priced. They are not car people and they have a baby. What do you guys think?"

Low Mileage 2003 Toyota Corolla

The 2003 Toyota Corolla with a hypothetical four-speed automatic and some other basics thrown in (like AM/FM/cassette with CD player) had a private party sale price of $6,278 and a dealer retail price of $7,305 back when this piece was first written in 2012 [The article has since been updated]. This is with the assumption of it basically being a clean car. After all a nine-year old car with 20,000 miles on it should be in at least clean condition.

High Mileage 2011 Nissan Versa

The 2011 Nissan Versa has a hypothetical four-speed automatic and no options thrown in because it comes pretty well loaded. It had a private party sale price of $10,170 and a dealer retail price of $11,071 when this article was first written in June 2012 (and again since updated). This is with the assumption of its basically being a clean car, just like the Corolla. Because of its age, and average use of 25,000 miles over two years (even over one year), I would hope it was in clean condition.

In my friend's comments, he added this about the used Nissan Versa: "Soooo, Versa turned out to have no power locks or windows. Rode hard, put away wet." I can almost guess, not having seen a vehicle history report, that it's some sort of rental car. It's going to run well, but the suspension will be less than stellar, the interior will be worse for the wear, and the rental-car company would have wanted only the base features.

As I have written in the past, buying a used rental car is not a bad thing. No used car should automatically be disqualified for that reason.

Old Cars with Low Miles

On the other hand, the 2003 Toyota Corolla, with just about 2,200 miles a year on it, also has me concerned. I'm not against low-mileage used cars but there has to be a good reason why a car was only driven short distances like this.

An important first step would be to get the vehicle history report. Make sure it's in effect a one-owner vehicle. It would be great to see all the maintenance records included on that vehicle history, too.

Why is one-owner status important? Anything more than that and the mileage just doesn't seem believable any more. It's entirely possible to have one owner drive a used car only a couple thousand miles a year. (Heck, my wife only drives her 2002 Dodge Neon 8000 miles a year but we also own another car and I write new car reviews so the press cars usually bear the brunt of our mileage.)

Did the Used Car Sit?

Also, you might have to probe to find out how long the car may have been sitting because this low mileage could suggest it is part of an estate and may have been sitting for a couple of years while the former owner might have been ill, died, and then all the papers were put in order to sell it. (What can I say? I used to cover the probate courts in Connecticut. I think of these things.)

The unknown factor in all of this, too, is the baby. Children are a big factor when it comes to buying a used car. Don't bring children on a used car test drive but do bring their seats. Take into consideration how much front-room legroom there will be with a rear-facing child seat.

But, don't rule a car out if the ride is only snug. Buy the car if you like it and can suffer through the tight space for a while. After all, the child will eventually move (within a year's time) to a different car seat that allows more front-passenger legroom.

So, where do I come down on all of this? Based just on what I read, if price isn't an object, the buyers should go with the 2011 Nissan Versa. Newer with low mileage is always going to beat out older with old mileage. Odds are some kind of warranty is still available on the newer car. Plus, basic items like seals and hoses should still be in good condition.