A global pandemic. A war in Europe. Worldwide supply chain issues. A massive shortage of semiconductors and materials. Runaway inflation. Rogue protestors and Republican governors shutting down border crossings. Five-dollars-per-gallon gasoline. The market for cars and trucks has gone positively haywire. Vehicles are more expensive than ever—if you can find one. But even now, it is still possible to get a good deal on an adventuremobile.
The average price for a used car less than ten years old is now $33,653. New cars are going for an average of $45,232, up 18.7 percent over last year. With their ability to manufacture large volumes of vehicles restricted, automakers are focusing on making expensive vehicles that earn high margins. And with new cars more unattainable than ever, demand for less expensive vehicles has transferred to the used car market, raising the cost of pre-owned cars.
The problems are amplified if you’re shopping for an adventuremobile. “Off-road is hot right now,” says Joel Feder, content manager for Internet Brands Automotive Group. Feder manages popular car websites like Motor Authority, The Car Connection, and Green Car Reports and says the move toward domestic travel and outdoor recreation that ramped up at the beginning of the pandemic continues to drive car sales.
Take a look at Markups.org, a website started last year that tracks premiums tacked onto car prices by dealers, and you’ll see what Feder is talking about. That GMC Hummer EV I reviewed a few weeks ago? A dealer in Oklahoma has added $200,000 onto its already hefty $112,500 price tag. Want a really nice-looking Land Rover Defender? If you’re shopping in Miami, that’ll be an additional $120,599. What about something humbler, like the new Toyota RAV4? A dealer in California advertised one last year for $96,000, $40,000 over sticker price.
“My best advice? Don’t buy a car right now,” Feder says. “In fact, if you can sell a car without buying another one, sell it.”
I asked the automotive industry expert when we could expect the market to regain some sense of normalcy. “It’ll be at least 2023,” he says. “But I’ve heard rumblings from automakers that they’re thinking it’ll be more like 2024.”
But what if you need to buy something new? The good news is you’re not completely screwed. Feder offers some advice:
- Call around and ask dealers to beat their competitor’s pricing. Get those offers in writing.
- Shop everywhere. There are 50 states, and you can buy a car from any dealer, anywhere. Shipping a car to another part of the country costs about $1,200 and is something a good dealer will be able to help you arrange. Or just fly out and road-trip home.
- Consider the total financial package, not just the sticker price. Even with current inflation levels, it’s still possible to find manufacturer-subsidized finance rates that may make borrowing cheaper than spending cash.
And Feder and I agree that some of the best deals can be had simply by ignoring fashion. Consumer perception increases demand for certain types of car and truck, spiking prices and reducing availability, while less trendy vehicles that are often just as good, if not better, can still be easily found without markups.
With Feder’s help, I assembled a list of common adventuremobile needs and the vehicles most often associated with them, complete with more affordable suggestions. All of our suggestions come in under the $45,000 average transaction price new cars are going for right now, if not much cheaper.
You Want: A Toyota 4Runner
Go For: A Jeep Grand Cherokee WK
WK2 is the internal model designation for the last-generation Grand Cherokee. Jeep is continuing to sell that old model (shorn of the 2) alongside the all-new one as a more affordable alternative. The WK2 first entered the market in 2011, a year later than the current model 4Runner.
While the 4Runner starts at $38,000 and is attracting dealer markups of up to $20,000, the Grand Cherokee WK starts at $37,375, and Jeep is currently offering zero percent financing on 36-month loans. And the Jeep has the 4Runner beat on some key specs. In four-wheel-drive form, the Jeep returns 22 miles per gallon in the Environmental Protection Agency’s combined test cycle, while the 4Runner is at 17 MPG. Drivers will also notice the Jeep’s upmarket interior, modern eight-speed transmission, and superior ride quality.
You Want: A Ford Bronco or Jeep Wrangler
Go For: A Lexus GX
Broncos and Wranglers are some of the most in-demand vehicles of the moment, limiting availability and attracting dealer markups of up to $40,000. The Lexus GX, which has been around in various forms since 2003, won’t be quite as capable if climbing boulders is your thing, but since it’s based on the rest-of-world Toyota Land Cruiser Prado platform, there are plenty of aftermarket parts available and there’s a lot of information on how to get the most out of modifications.
While the infotainment system in all versions of the GX will be dated—especially on new ones, which start around $56,000—Toyota builds these trucks to last through years of hard use. A new one will offer decades of dependable wheeling, while much-abused older models may offer the budget overland rig of your dreams. The sweet spot might be at that $45,000 price point, which nets you a three-year-old example with as little as 20,000 miles.
You Want: A Family SUV
Go For: A Ford Expedition FX4
On sale since 2018, the fourth-generation Expedition was the first of the fully modern three-row, body-on-frame 4x4s. Equipped with a powerful twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6, Ford’s excellent ten-speed automatic transmission, and a then-novel independent rear suspension, the Expedition performs on road and off with a surprising degree of comfort, confidence, space, and economy. The FX4 model adds a locking rear differential and the Terrain Management suite of electronic traction aids. On a good set of all-terrain tires, there won’t be many places this thing won’t haul six kids, and $45,000 will get you into a low-mileage two-year-old example in perfect condition.
You Want: A Practical Crossover
Go For: A Kia Niro Hybrid
Starting at just $24,690, the Niro offers 50 MPG combined fuel economy with upright seating for five adults, plenty of cargo space, and with a four-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There’s also a plug-in hybrid version that returns 105 eMPG and starts at $29,590, plus a full EV with a 240-mile range that starts at $39,990.
You Want: A Ford Maverick
Go For: A Hyundai Santa Cruz
Ford has closed order books for the $19,995-and-up Maverick, and customers who placed orders as far back as last year are still without firm delivery dates. Dealers who have any in stock are charging premiums of up to $21,000. Yes, that is more than the starting price of the mini truck. In the meantime, Cars.com lists a nationwide inventory of more than 1,000 of the similarly sized Hyundai Santa Cruz, which starts at $24,480.
You Want: Lower Gasoline Bills
Go For: The Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid
Starting at $23,600, the Ioniq Hybrid returns 59 MPG combined. It’s a direct competitor for the Toyota Prius, but that vehicle starts at $24,624 and returns only 52 MPG.
You Want: An Electric Vehicle
Go For: A Nissan Leaf
The Nissan Leaf starts at $27,400 and qualifies for the $7,500 federal EV tax credit. Its 40-kilowatt-hour battery returns 149 miles of range. If you need to drive long distances, the Leaf Plus starts at $32,400, has a 62 kWh battery, and can travel 226 miles between charges. Buy a new one so you get that tax credit; Cars.com lists 294 available nationwide.
You Want: A Genuinely Affordable, Reliable Used Car to Take Camping
Go For: A Lexus RX
Feder describes the RX as being like a tube of toothpaste: no matter what you do to it, the RX always has more miles left in it. Are these things fun to drive? No. Are they good-looking? You tell me. Are they particularly luxurious? That depends on your opinion of fake leather and wood-grain plastic. Can it get down a dirt road? Some versions are all-wheel drive, but like any other crossover, capability is completely dependent on the presence of good tires.
But three factors make the RX a good used-vehicle proposition: they’re utterly ubiquitous, they’re cheap, and you can’t kill them. Cars.com lists more than 10,000 of them for sale, starting around $3,000. This car has only 216,000 miles, and photos suggest a straight body and remarkably clean interior. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel a lot smarter driving this thing than I would an overpriced new car.