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Staff Picks: The Used Cars We’d Buy Right Now for $15,000 or Less

The trick is avoiding the mainstream to find something special and unique.

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15 grand. This is a tough price range. Just enough to get a low-mileage, pristine older car or a gently used newer car. The trick is using your power budget for good: to find a truly special, interesting car.

In many ways, choosing which used car we’d buy right now for $5,000 was far easier. In fact, this casual thought experiment has evolved into a full-fledged inter-office competition; each of us paces around and shares links and sweats bullets to find the best — and each of us thinks he or she has won the title. Click each option below to see — and maybe act on — the “buy it now” listing (we used stock photos to keep quality consistent).

What do you think? What would you do? Whatever your opinion, stay tuned for many more cutthroat installments of this series.

1989 BMW 325ix Touring

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I promise my picks won’t all be BMWs, but… come on. The E30 325 touring never made it stateside, but thanks to your local congressman even the last models are within 25-year import rules so all you need to do is get it shipped. Since they’re not pixie-dust cars in Europe, you can usually find them under $10,000 in pretty solid shape, meaning you can have one stateside for under 15 grand, all in. Once it’s over here, you have all the joys of a small station wagon, plus all the joys of an AWD E30 325, plus all the joys of reasonable maintenance costs, plus all the joys of having one of the rarer BMWs in the country. Your dog will be equally thrilled. – Henry Phillips, Deputy Photography Editor

Mileage: 103,769 miles
Original MSRP: $30,750

~$13,000

2006 Audi S4 Avant 6-Speed

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The B7 S4 may look like your typical German-made wagon but looks can be deceiving. This generation is the last of the V8-powered S4s and, sadly, the last time Audi brought an S4 wagon to the US market. This makes it special: far more space than the sedan counterpart yet the same amount of power (around 340 HP from it’s fluttering 4.2 liters — and this one listed has a third pedal). This wagon version is less common, therefore automatically cooler and, in my opinion, has more attractive body lines which have helped it age better. To really enjoy this car, install a set of mid-length headers coupled with a catback exhaust and you’ll have one of the meanest sounding long-roofs on the block. – Hunter Kelley, Design & Photography Apprentice

Mileage: 115,190 miles
Original MSRP: $47,400

$14,995

1979 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ45 Troopy

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Yes, it’s rough; yes, it’s slightly impractical. But it’s a Troopy. Originally designed as a military troop hauler, the Toyota Land Cruiser FJ45 Troopy is the ultimate adventure vehicle. A little TLC would turn this thing from rust bucket to a glampers dream. It has oodles of space in the back for a bed, or for tossing in six bikes and all of your friends for a weekend shred session. The right-side drive is a bit of an issue — you might have to learn to shift with your left hand — but that’s all part of the fun. – AJ Powell, Assistant Editor

Mileage: 44,198 miles
Original MSRP: NA

$9,900

2008 BMW 535xi Wagon

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City life means trading in the old Ford Explorer for something with ample room that’s less of a monstrosity, but has a roof rack, and still has all-wheel-drive for weekend trips to the mountains. Specifically, I’ve been looking for a reliable, mildly stylish wagon. This one’s right up my alley; no fancy navigation needed, but fancy heated seats are a plus for weekends upstate. And you can’t go wrong with that Space Gray exterior. – Caitlyn Shaw, Social Media Coordinator

Mileage: 84,963 miles
Original MSRP: $52,375

$13,999

1978 BMW 320i Coupe

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The great thing about the $15,000 range is that it’s a nice sweet spot where you can get cars that were great in their era but fly under the collectors’ radars today because, technically, they’re not really special cars. I can vouch for the E21 generation 320i, though; my buddy had one in high school and I still use it as a benchmark for how a car should handle. And not only is this the cleanest BMW 320i I’ve ever seen, but the black-and-tan color combination is unbeatable, too. – Bryan Campbell, Staff Writer

Mileage: 60,799 miles
Original MSRP: $11,465

$12,750

1991 Toyota Celica GT-Four RC

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I already bought my dream car under $15,000 (a Volvo V70R with a stick, thanks for asking), but if I were to do it again I’d probably end up with something like this. Toyota never sold the Celica GT-Four homologation special in the U.S. (the rally version won the World Rally Chapionship in 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1994, by the way) and only 5,000 of the RC edition exist. Points for rarity. It came with a 222-horspower turbocharged engine, all-wheel-drive and a stick. Points for rally-bread fun. Oh and pop-up headlamps? This baby has everything, and best yet, it comes in well below the budget. – Andrew Connor, Associate Staff Writer

Mileage: 95,000 miles
Original MSRP: $21,500

$9,600

1990 Mercedes-Benz 500SL

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My uncle’s two-tone Smoke Silver 1991 500SL (not SL 500, as they’re now called) was the first “nice” car I’d ever driven. If you buy me a beer and don’t mind a lot of swearing, I’ll tell you the story. I’ve been transfixed since. The 500SL is a beautifully simple, high-tech, taut and sporty touring car that feels solid and strong as a leather-wrapped block of billet steel. If I close my eyes, I can hear the automated top pop and whirr as it retracts up and over my head — when I was a boy, I’d sit on the rear shelf and duck when cops drove by. Great memories; great car. – Nick Caruso, Associate Editor

Mileage: 82,800 miles
Original MSRP: $89,000

$9,950

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