2005 subaru impreza wagon interior“Looking for a used car? Get a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic.”

Once upon a time, that truism ran deep. Even men who flew the Maple Leaf in their front lawns advised their neighbors to buy the renowned Japanese compact sedans. In an era where a used Ford Taurus sold for $2,000, the Corolla and Civic fetched twice as much. Estimated costs of ownership were as low as 44 cents per mile.

Unfortunately for used car buyers, the Corolla and Civic also claimed the highest resale values. What savings claimed in ownership costs were often sacrificed upfront. Savvy shoppers needed a dark horse, a vehicle comparable in reliability but with a lower price.

The Report of Recommended Used Cars by BuyingAdvice.com lists the Top 5 Used Cars by Category from model years 1998-2006. Toyota and Honda, predictably, battle for the top in many of the categories. But hot on their heels is another competitor: Subaru. Every Subaru model earned a spot on the lists. All but one model placed in the top three.

Meet the Subaru Impreza: dark horse candidate for the best used small car.

“If you want comfort,” said people, “Get a Corolla. If you want sportiness, get a Civic.”

The Impreza would disagree with the latter. All models have a fully independent suspension. Several have all-wheel drive. Race-inspired variants, like the Impreza WRX (2002+), offer powerful turbocharged engines and over-sized disc brakes. All non-performance 2002-2007 models featured a 165-horsepower “boxer” engine, which drops the center of gravity for improved handling. Northern Yankees loved their “Subies” for their all-weather all-wheel drive, and year after year, Subaru’s were awarded the top safety recommendations by the IIHS-HLDI.

So why did the Impreza not swamp the market and claim its rightful throne? Because the Impreza, like most Subarus of the time, was an ugly duckling. Not until you hopped inside the comfortable, well-built cabin and pressed the accelerator did you realize its potential.

Imprezas were only sold as sedans and five-door hatchbacks. Most were reasonably well-equipped, with things like power-operated exterior mirrors and standard air conditioning. Entertainment was sparse, usually not more than a radio, tape- and CD-player. Yet the Impreza never skipped the niceties: floor mats, cruise control, adjustable steering wheel, etc.

There is a catch. Subaru drivers are notorious for buying and holding. Finding a used Impreza can be a tough catch. But if you do hook one, reel it in. Otherwise, well, get a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic.