Getting a second car is a big step. It can open the door to a more invigorating driving experience, more utility and more overall freedom. The burning question: Is this a time to be logical and buy a vehicle that fits family needs, or go the impulsive route and select something that peels rubber in the face of reason and sensibility? Here we explore all the angles, highlighting our picks that run the spectrum from eco-friendly commuter to trusty family hauler to utilitarian work horse to luxury cruiser to energetic sports car. Some candidates even multitask, and all can be had for less than $15,000.
2008–2009 Subaru WRX
Sporty — If you’re going to make the leap into spontaneity, go for the gusto and shop for a first-generation STI variant. We’re talking about early 2004 or 2005 models. The twist here is you’re getting 305 all-wheel horsepower but may have to take on a high-mileage example. In the realm of regular WRXs, the tipping point is the 2009 model year. The WRX’s turbocharged 2.0-liter Boxer engine went from 224 to 265 horsepower for 2009. No matter the year, the WRX features Subaru’s highly-refined Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive that dishes out power on a 50/50 front to rear bias until slippage gets detected. This is a sporty, fun-to-drive car with a usable back seat.
2013–2015 Honda Fit Sport
Commuter — Look for a 2015 model since Fit was an all-new design for ’15. This generation delivers an edgier look, longer wheelbase which begets 4.8 inches of additional backseat legroom, and a revised CVT. Trims are the familiar Honda hierarchy of LX, EX, and EX-L, with the latter two trims getting paddle shifters, performance tires and a suspension setup more in line with the previous generation’s Sport trim, which is why they are our picks. Under the hood, the ’15 version of Honda’s 1.5-liter Earth Dreams 4-cylinder engine puts out 130 horsepower versus 117 from the previous engine. We love the Magic Seat that contorts to provide a wide array of cargo-hauling opportunities with a max cargo capacity of 52.7 cubic feet — a number that challenges many SUVs. The Fit is an entry-level car that’s a great choice at almost any price.
2009–2011 Infiniti G37
Luxury Cruiser — The G37 is an all-new, ground-up replacement of the G35, and it is superior in every way to its predecessor. Look at this car as a luxury version of Nissan’s racy 370Z. You can get the G in coupe, convertible or sedan configuration and the coupe can be had with a manual transmission. An active stick shift comes in handy stirring the Infiniti’s 328-horse 3.7-liter V6 into a frenzy. Want to look sharp . . . and fast? Opt for a Sport variant, the G37S. These cars have all the luxury amenities of a Lexus but possess performance a Lexus can’t touch.
2010–2013 Honda Civic Si
Sporty — Although reworked for 2012, the Civic received some bad press for sluggish performance, poor fit and finish, and a loud interior. The 2013 redesign hit the mark with an all-new look and improvements across the docket. The performance-oriented Si variant delivers serious fun while staying within the $15,000 budget. Its 2.4-liter 201-horsepower four cylinder has a 61-pony advantage over the base 1.8-liter Civic offerings. The Si is versatile, since it comes in 2-door coupe or 4-door sedan guise, so you have an aura of logic on your side as you explain your purchase.
2010–2011 Ford F-150
Utilitarian — A pickup truck is helpful for home improvement projects, carrying supplies from the hardware store and trash to the dump. Ford breaks down its cab hierarchy with Regular Cab, SuperCab, and CrewCab designations. The big choice here is under the hood. The 2010 model year was the last in which Ford offered three modular V8s in the F-150: a 2-valve 248-horse 4.6-liter; a three-valve 292-horse 4.6-liter; and a 5.4-liter Triton rated at 320 horsepower. Shop the all-new-for 2011 generation and choose from an entirely new lineup of powerplants. The party starts with the base 3.7-liter 302-horse V6. Ford’s highly touted 365-horse 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 is followed by a 5.0-liter 360-horse V8 and a 411-horse 6.2-liter V8. These high-tech engines and the overall refinement in 2011-and-up F-150s make them tough to beat if your second car needs to be a truck.
2007–2011 Honda CR-V
Family Hauler — Honda’s worldwide sales leader, the CR-V is all about three things: refinement, refinement and refinement. Although the CR-V hit the road in 1997, our possibilities start with the 2007 model; a redesign year wherein the CR-V took on its current shape, gained 10 horsepower to 166, and came equipped with a 5-speed automatic transmission as standard fare. In 2010 the CR-V received a power bump to 180, a revised front fascia and rear bumper, new 10-spoke alloy wheels, and Bluetooth connectivity added to nav-equipped models. Stone-cold reliability, a feature-packed standard equipment list and a smooth ride make the CR-V a capable second car.
2011–2014 Nissan Rogue
Family Hauler — Nissan’s Rogue debuted in 2008 as a mid-level SUV, but in 2011 it was redesigned with an eye toward the upscale. Rogue received fresh styling, a reworked interior and an expanded standard amenities list. The Rogue is a crossover based on the Sentra platform. The 2.5-liter 4-cylinder Sentra-sourced engine generates 170 horsepower and is backed by an Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission. All-wheel drive is available as an option. Shop for a 2014 since it’s a redesign year with a fully revamped interior and exterior, as well as an increase in material quality. The ’14 Rogue grew in wheelbase and overall height and width, and optional third-row seating was added to the mix, further broadening its popularity.
2007–2010 Toyota Tacoma
Utilitarian — As we move forward in life we tend to gather a lot of stuff. If you need to move that stuff you need a pickup as a second car. Today’s pickups do much more than haul cargo — they can have the seating of an SUV and the amenities of a luxury car. The Tacoma is available in Regular Cab, Access Cab and Double Cab configurations. All 4x2s get the base 2.7-liter 159-horsepower four cylinder except the X-Runner and Double Cab PreRunner. These models and all 4x4s are powered by a 4.0-liter 236-horsepower V6 engine.
2010–2011 Volvo C30
Sporty — Never see your car’s doppelganger again. The C30 is not a common sight, and the Swede has a nice blend of style, practicality and performance. It’s a good-looking hatchback motivated by a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline 5-cylinder engine rated at 227 horsepower. It can haul a decent amount of stuff although its back seats can be cramped when accommodating adults. The C30 received a facelift in 2011; updates included the grille, hood, fender treatment and headlights. If you want to maximize the sporty factor look for an R-Design variant. It has a 30 percent stiffer suspension, lower ride height, and upgraded wheels and tires.
2011–2013 Honda Odyssey
Family Hauler — Starting your own basketball team at home? Here’s a family hauler that is up to the challenge. The Odyssey feels like it was designed by someone who likes minivans. Some of its standout features include third-row seating, a built-in vacuum, a large pull-down multimedia screen with a DVD player, an integrated cooler for road sodas, and tons of savvy storage solutions. Thanks to its 3.5-liter 248-horsepower V6 engine, the Honda has the pull to haul an entire starting lineup, and the engine’s variable cylinder control delivers up to 28 mpg on the highway.
2010–2013 Volkswagen GTI
Sporty — The glorious GTI can trace its lineage back to the original GTI from the early 1980s — a car famously dubbed the first “hot hatch.” All these years later the pocket rocket is still up to its old tricks. The thrills are generated by VW’s longstanding 2.0-liter turbo four with 200 horsepower at the ready. The GTI was built in 2-door and 4-door configurations, and 2013 was the last year for the sixth-generation GTI, so keep your eyes peeled for a 2014, which gets you into a current-generation model.
2012–2015 Scion iQ
Commuter — We know it looks like a high-top sneaker with wheels, but the Scion iQ gets the nod based on daring alone. It possesses the interior layout of a regular car fitted into a proportionally-challenged micro car. From the driver’s seat it’s a normal experience . . . until you turn your head to look out the rear to see the hatch a scant foot or two away. It’s a city car made for darting about in crowded urban environs, as evidenced by the Scion’s 36 mpg city / 37 mpg highway mileage numbers from its 1.3-liter 94-horse 4-cylinder engine. Nonexistent overhangs make the iQ a lesson in stubbiness. It’s designed with staggered front seats for easier ingress and egress, and reasonable rear legroom for one back seat passenger — a brave soul indeed. With the seats up, a briefcase is a challenging fit in the rear cargo area. Seats down and there is ample storage for daily life. Shop for a TRD model and score some cool styling and suspension upgrades.
2009–2011 BMW 3 Series
Luxury Cruiser — Bavaria, known for beer and Bimmers, is the country of origin for the 3 Series, which is part luxury cruiser and part sports car. There are coupes, sedans, convertibles, and wagons to choose from. For the 2009 model year the entire lineup received modest interior and exterior enhancements. There were three inline 6-cylinder engine choices: a 3.0-liter with 230 horsepower on tap, a brutish twin-turbo 3.0 liter, and a 3.0-liter turbodiesel. The diesels were rare and boosted 335i versions may be out of our price range, so you’re looking at a 328i with a balanced, well-appointed ride. There were more updates for the 2011 model year, when the 3 Series got new front and rear fasciae, innovative headlights and new sideview mirrors. The engine lineup carried over and the turbo engine got a bump to 320 horsepower in the 335is coupe and convertible.
2012–2014 Toyota Prius
Commuter — Tree huggers unite! In 2012 Toyota began serving their original hybrid in three flavors. The Prius c is the runt of the litter. The c stands for city — not compact. The small hybrid and its 75-horsepower 1.5-liter / 45 kilowatt drivetrain delivers the goods: 53 mpg city / 46 mpg highway. The larger Prius v is more like a minivan dimensionally and the v stands for versatility. Its 1.8-liter four cylinder with a 60-kilowatt electric assist is rated at 44 mpg city / 40 mpg highway. The regular Prius is the conventional 5-door hatch spotted so often on American roads. You’ll drive past the pump for days with 51 mpg city / 49 mpg highway fuel efficiency. Do you have a long commute or a penchant for road trips? Here’s your ride.
2008–2011 Lexus IS
Luxury Cruiser — The IS family tree has two distinct branches. The IS 250 is powered by a 204-horsepower 2.5-liter V6 engine that can be backed by a manual or automatic transmission. It comes in rear-drive and all-wheel drive configuration. The IS 350 sports a more robust 3.5-liter V6 rated at 306 horsepower and backed only by an automatic. For the 2010 model year an all-wheel-drive version of the IS 350 joined the mix. A hardtop convertible version of the IS was introduced in the 2011 model year, but it may be out of our price range. Don’t be surprised to see mostly IS250s when you search the classifieds.
2013–2015 Kia Soul
Family Hauler — Launched in 2009 to much-ballyhooed hamster-infused fanfare, the Kia Soul has been a solid performer. The 2014 model represents a major redesign. Although the silhouette is pretty much the same, the 2014 edition gets all-new front and rear fasciae, updated suspension and improved interior materials. The reworked models drive much better than their predecessors, so shop for a 2014-or-newer example. The engine has been the constant, since few changes have been made to the Soul’s 1.6-liter 130-horsepower base four cylinder and up-level 2.0 liter rated at 164 horsepower and available in Plus and Exclaim trims.
2006–2008 Toyota 4Runner
Family Hauler — Two-faced in its on-road and off-road abilities, the 4Runner also delivers bulletproof reliability from its mechanicals, top notch fit and finish, and a stout resale value, which is why we’re turning back the calendar to 2008 — but given Toyota’s reputation, it’s worth it. Standard-issue 4Runners feature a 236-horsepower 4.0-liter V6 engine, but we suggest doing some extra legwork and landing a V8-powered example. At 260 horsepower, the 4.7-liter V8 produces plenty of punch for towing, cruising or myriad other modes of family fun.
2013–2015 Hyundai Veloster
Sporty — The Veloster is a swoopy long-back hatch with muscular body lines and a proper stance. The car is a three door with an elongated driver door and two passenger side doors to aid ingress and egress. Although getting into the rear seats is easier, passengers may find the Hyundai a bit cramped back there since the hatch impedes headroom. Drivers may find rearward visibility hampered by the design as well. The base Veloster is powered by a 1.6-liter 138-horsepower engine. Want a little more gusto? The athletic 201-horse turbo variant also falls into our price range.
2008–2011 Chevy Silverado 1500
Utilitarian — With Regular Cab, Extended Cab, and Crew Cab models, Chevy has the simplest cab names among the pickups on our list. The Blue Bow Tie camp also keeps it straightforward under the hood. At the close of the first decade of the new millennium, three V8s were offered. A 4.8-liter with 302 horsepower was standard fare, while a 315-horse 5.3-liter and 403-horse 6.2-liter were on the options list. Despite their size and output similarities, the 5.3 liter is preferred over the 4.8 liter, and it should be mentioned that the base Work Truck models are sparse on amenities and refinement — so look up a level.
2014–2016 Ford Fiesta
Commuter — Here’s one for the Point A-to-Point B crowd. This is Ford’s cheapest car with a starting MSRP barely over our $15,000 budget maximum. You’ll get a low-mileage, higher-model trim, and let the original buyer take the hit in depreciation. You’ll be looking at up-level SE and SES versions and you could end up driving a pristine Fiesta with nav, a sunroof, a bunch of amenities, and the seller gets a wallop in the wallet. The Fiesta is offered as a 4-door sedan or 4-door hatch, and is powered by a rather meek 120-horse four banger — the only discernable downside.