Never has there been a better time to buy used. Even two-job couples, with money in the bank and no mortgage, are doing the prudent thing and kicking the tires at OK Used Cars.

It’s not surprising, then, that new car sales have shrunk from more than 16 million to less than 10 in two years. Not only are people wary of the times in which we live, but they’re also skeptical of new-car quality. Why not chose a car that’s proven its worth on the crucible of the modern highway?

So here are five cost-effective, green choices. Shop the back row of the local dealer, or find it on Craigslist, eBay or the local bargain shopper. Be wary of mismatched paint, vibrating steering wheels, smoking exhaust, rust (it never sleeps), and cars that don’t track in a straight line. High mileage shouldn’t necessarily scare you away: If regular maintenance is combined with lots of highway miles from a fastidious commuter, you’re probably fine.

  1. 2007-2008 Honda Fit. Sure, I own one, but the critics are unanimous about the virtues of this model. Just $14,650 when new, the Fit combines great performance from its 1.5-liter engine, very crisp handling, and incredibly versatile cargo capacity. The rear seats fold flat, and the car’s tall stance affords both great visibility and sofa-swallowing load potential. My dealer sent a letter recently begging me to trade in our car, because ’07 used examples are in short supply. Maybe it was a come on, but it had the ring of truth.
  2. 2004-2007 Scion xB. Is it just me, or did they ruin this innovative, carry-all vehicle when they redesigned it for the 2008 model year. I know it’s inevitable that Detroit will make good cars bigger, but say it ain’t so, Toyota! The new xB is not as boxy, has more power and probably handles better, but the charm of the first generation (docked slightly for less-than-stellar emissions) was gone.
  3. BMW 318i (newest one you can afford). As a BMW enthusiast in my youth, I can attest to the nimble performance of Bavaria’s finest when equipped with a small but high-revving engine. I wrecked many! Seriously, the lowest-displacement car in the arsenal is more satisfying to drive than the top of the line long-wheelbase 12-cylinders. A ’95 318i gets 26 mpg on the highway and should amass 200,000 miles at least. Old ones rust, but that’s not an issue now.
  4. 2003-present Honda Civic Hybrid. Never as desirable as the Prius, the Civic Hybrid is in many ways its equal. The model is not as quirky as its Toyota rival, and not even easily distinguishable from a standard Civic (a factor in its slow sales). The first generation, through 2005, used a 1.3-liter engine with cylinder deactivation and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to achieve 40 mpg in the city and 45 on the highway. Shop around; you might find a real bargain with new ones piling up at the dealer.
  5. 1989 to present Mazda Miata. I live in fear that they’ll destroy the Miata’s wonderful simplicity, but it hasn’t happened yet. Quite simply my eternal choice for best fun car. The Miata superficially resembles a 1960s Lotus Elan, but it has none of that car’s notorious unreliability. No wonder the British auto industry died—have you heard the one about the English drinking warm beer? Lucas refrigerators. A fanatical owner of a 1990 model tracked his mileage from new and recorded almost 30 mpg. Did I mention it was fun to drive?

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Five used cars: Cheap, green and fun, too
Never has there been a better time to buy used. Even two-job couples, with money in the bank and no mortgage, are doing the prudent thing and kicking the tires