These models have strong reliability and performed well in Consumer Reports.
Toyota Corolla 2003 to 2005
The practical Corolla delivers decent performance and admirable fuel economy. Expect 29 mpg overall. While ride quality is absorbent and unobtrusive, handling is uninspiring. The cabin offers good access and a decent rear seat, but the driving position is a bit compromised because of a steering wheel that’s too far away. Although ESC was first offered in 2005, it and curtain airbags were rare options before 2009.
Toyota Prius 2004 to 2005
The Prius is ideal for anyone purely interested in low running costs and practicality. It gets 44 mpg overall and can drive at low speeds on electric power alone. The ride is firm but compliant enough, although road noise and engine drone are noticeable. Handling is secure. Some controls are complicated, and the interior feels basic. ESC was available starting in 2005.
Pontiac Vibe 2003, 2005
Overall, the Vibe is a sensible alternative to a small SUV. Its 1.8-liter four-cylinder drones loudly and performs modestly. GT models use a stronger version of this engine and come only with a six-speed manual. Handling is fairly nimble, and the ride is compliant if a little jittery. Access is very easy and the rear seat is quite roomy, but the driving position is only so-so. The optional all-wheel-drive system works well but hurts acceleration and fuel economy. Folding the rear seats creates a large, flat load floor. While ESC was first available in 2005, it may be difficult to find a Vibe that was built with it.
Toyota Matrix 2005 Quick Take
Practical and reliable, the Matrix is a small wagon available with front-wheel drive or AWD. Cabin access is easy, the rear seat is roomy, and the cargo floor is big. Performance is modest from the 1.8-liter four-cylinder, which drones loudly under acceleration. Handling is fairly nimble, and the ride is compliant but a little jittery. Limited left footroom and a long reach to the steering wheel combine to hurt the driving position. ESC became optional in 2005, so try to look for one that was built with this important safety feature.
Midsized and Large Sedans
Honda Accord 2004 to 2005
The Accord is a roomy and reliable car. Most will have a four-cylinder engine that together with the automatic make for a smooth, unobtrusive powertrain. High-end versions have a V6 engine that’s quiet, slick, and powerful. Handling is quite nimble, the ride is steady and controlled, and switches and gauges are intuitive. If you can, focus on a 2005 model, because those came with standard curtain airbags that provide more protection.
Lexus ES 2003
Solidly embodying the traditional Lexus values, the ES 300 is a comfortable cruiser. It’s a well-rounded package with a nicely furnished, quiet, and accommodating cabin and very few flaws. The V6 provides powerful acceleration, the transmission shifts flawlessly, and the ride is isolated and composed. While handling is far from sporty, it’s ultimately secure. The front seats are supportive and the rear seat is comfortable for two passengers; three adults will find it snug. Fit and finish are well executed and luxuries abound.
Toyota Avalon 2002 to 2004
The Avalon is essentially a stretched Camry with more upscale features. High points include a silky-smooth powertrain, Lexus-like road isolation, and impressive fit and finish. Rear-seat room is generous, it’s easy to get in and out of the cabin, and visibility is aided by huge windows. Ride quality is smooth, though handling is considerably less than athletic. Touring models handle better. ESC became optional in 2005, so try to buy an Avalon that was built with the system.
Toyota Camry 2002 to 2004
The Camry is a roomy, easy-to-drive car with a smooth powertrain, comfortable ride, and quiet interior. Most versions have a four-cylinder engine, which is quite sufficient and returned 24 mpg overall in our tests. High-end models have a V6 engine, which is slick and powerful but sacrifices some fuel economy. Look for models with the optional curtain airbags. Without them, this generation of the Camry received a Poor rating in the IIHS side-crash test.
Honda Pilot 2004 to 2005
The Pilot combines the best virtues of a wagon, an SUV, and a minivan. Its slick V6 delivers punchy performance and respectable fuel economy of 17 mpg. We found the ride to be comfortable and handling secure, with little body roll. Road noise is pronounced, however. The standard split third-row seat folds neatly into the floor to create more cargo room, but there’s little cargo room with the third row up. The interior is simple but well put together and offers lots of cubbies and bins. ESC was optional in 2005.
Toyota RAV4 2001 to 2004
If you can, buy a 2004 RAV4 because that’s the year it first got ESC. Otherwise, the RAV4s of this vintage have nimble handling and compact dimensions that make them fun to drive and very maneuverable. Ride comfort and noise isolation were okay for the time but aren’t a match for newer versions. The side swinging door makes loading and unloading rather cumbersome and doesn’t provide shelter from rain. Rear-seat room and cargo volume are modest.