Close this window
Get Hotcars Premium. Start your free trial today
German engineers, designers, and inventors have shepherded development and innovation over the past century and a half.
A common misconception among car owners in America is that Henry Ford invented the automobile. In fact, Henry Ford only popularized the automobile for American consumption with his use of assembly-line production and the car as we know it first came into being thanks to Karl Benz, a German inventor whose name makes up half of the Mercedes-Benz brand. Since the very first cars, German engineers, designers, and inventors have shepherded development and innovation over the past century and a half, helping to define the automobiles on the road today. From the Wankel engine to Quattro all-wheel drive, Germany's contribution to the industry can't be understated.
Updated February 2022: If you're looking to purchase a used German car, you'll be happy to know that we've updated this article to help you make a better and more well-informed decision.
Germany's modern manufacturers tend to occupy higher market positions based on luxury and performance when compared to American or Japanese companies. Powerful sedans, nimble coupes, and stately SUVs are shipped by the thousand from Germany to the United States every year. German cars make up a large part of the secondhand market as well, thanks to a history of reliability and engineering prowess. However, not all German cars are made equal. Much like American ones, they have high and low points in their history. Keep scrolling for 10 used cars from Germany that are worth every penny, and 10 that should be avoided at all costs.
The E36 era BMW M3 emerged during a time when computers were starting to take full control of automobiles. It still has enough of that analogue feel to attract the true driving enthusiast, but also features an ECU to aid in efficiency and power delivery while making problem diagnosis an easier task. The later E36 M3's S52 engine is slightly larger and heavier, with a smoother power band, where the S50 is its happier-revving, lower displacement predecessor.
In reality, both options are marvelous, thanks to impeccable weight distribution and a suspension setup that makes this generation M3 one of the best handling cars ever made. With the right maintenance, these can be reliable and fun cars for hundreds of thousands of miles.
These days, many BMW models are offered with xDrive, BMW's all wheel drive system that has evolved through many iterations over the years since being first introduced in the E30 era 325ix. Where the rest of the E30 lineup sent power to the rear wheels, BMW tried to keep up with Audi's Quattro, and delivered the 325ix with a rear-biased viscous center differential and limited slip rear differential.
Available in the USA only from 1988 to 1991, all wheel drive went then out the window for BMW during the E36 years, only returning for the E46 3 Series in the early 2000s. E46 all wheel drive truly relied on braking to maintain traction, so for the real deal, find an E30 325ix. A clean example might run up to $8-9,000, though a well used one might be as low as $4,000.
Of course, the E46 3 Series can't be entirely written off, as they make for great daily drives while sending power only to the rear wheels. The most useful version might be the E46 Touring, a sporty station wagon with a relatively luxurious interior and plenty of room for gear in the back (plus roof racks, just in case).
When optioned with a manual transmission, 16-inch wheel, and the lighter, more efficient 2.5-liter engine, the E46 Touring boasts nimble handling that nonetheless is smooth around town thanks to supple shocks and springs. Make sure to check on maintenance records when shopping for an E46 of any kind, especially with regards to the cooling system, but one that's not too needy should be easy to find for $4-6,000.
Not every car buff is aware that while Audi calls every version of their all wheel drive systems "Quattro" regardless of the model, in fact they also employ Swedish-based Haldex in their smaller cars with transversely mounted engines. Case in point is the Audi TT, which debuted in 1999 after a long period of development.
The little car's styling is certainly unique, but when optioned with the higher-end 225 horsepower, 1.8-liter turbo four, the car can put plenty of power to the ground. Speed and handling can be greatly improved with light modifications like a Stage 1 ECU tune and a thicker rear sway bar, which help compensate for the TT's nose heavy design and the Haldex units front axle bias. Still, thanks to many parts shared with VW's GTI and New Beetle, TTs are a great bet and excellent examples can be easily found for under $5,000.
Before the S and E55 AMG offerings, Mercedes had a lesser known high performance sleeper in the form of the W124 era 500E. The huge, luxurious sedan was actually hand built in conjunction with Porsche, though thanks to their less aggressive styling, they can easily be mistaken for just a regular Mercedes to the untrained eye.
Performance figures for the 500E were ridiculous for the time. The special V8 under the hood cranked out more than 320 horsepower and over 350 lb-ft of torque, enough to launch the 3,700 pound beast from 0-60 in 5.5 to 6 seconds and a top cruising speed of 160 miles per hour for Autobahn fun. Pristine W124 500Es command a pretty penny, though higher mileage examples can be trusted thanks to Mercedes' excellent reliability at the time. Expect to pay upwards from $8,000.
For fans of Mercedes who are looking for that excellent reliability and who aren't as concerned with a lot of power, the W123 series of diesel-powered cars presents quite an attractive package. With classic lines, plenty of room inside, and powertrain options that might outlast any other car ever made, the coupes, sedans, wagons, and even the long wheel base limousines are all solid cars made in an era when build quality and lifetime ownership were the German brand's priority.
Power figures out of diesel engines of that time were low and the cars were certainly heavy, but highway cruising and in town driving are stately and smooth thanks to self-leveling rear suspension. Entry prices tend to be anywhere from $3-5,000. Maintenance costs are low, and fuel economy is surprisingly high.
A close cousin of the Mk1 Audi TT is Volkswagen's R32 Golf, an upgraded form of the Mk4 GTI sold in huge numbers from 1997 to 2004. The R32 actually shares a drivetrain with the six-cylinder TT, with 250 horses under the hood and Haldex all wheel drive known as 4motion when employed by Volkswagens.
The R32 came with either a six speed manual or the world's first production dual clutch gearbox, as well as an exhaust system that allowed for higher flow and louder noises above 3,500 RPM. Bolstered sport seats, larger wheels, and bigger brakes round out the R32 package which – along with lower production numbers and current owners' unwillingness to sell – have resulted in remarkably high resale prices.
The R32 proved so popular during its limited run that it spawned a new generation of hot hatches in the global automotive market. Today, sporty two and four door hatches are surging in popularity again, epitomized by cars like the Ford Focus RS and VW's own Golf R, the clear successor to their earlier R32. The Golf is now in its 7th generation, and its highest end model again shares many components with Audi offerings (this time the 2.0T and upgraded Haldex system from Audi's A3 and S3 models).
Electronic stability aids can also be totally switched off for more spirited driving in the R, though sadly the manual transmission option has gone by the wayside. Used Golf Rs are just hitting the market, and cost anywhere up from $18,000 for an example still under factory warranty.
When searching for sports cars with a budget as high as needed for a Golf R, many other slightly older but higher-end German cars come into the mix. Perhaps the best bang for the buck available today in terms of pure performance and truly spirited handling is the Porsche Cayman S. The mid-engined coupe debuted in 2006 as the hard-top version of Porsche's second generation Boxster.
With a curb weight under 3,000 pounds, up to 240 horsepower in the 2007 model year, a six speed manual, and a low center of gravity, the Cayman S is one of the best canyon carvers ever made for enthusiasts on a budget. Plenty of Boxsters and Caymans found their way to North America, making it easy to find well-maintained examples for as low as $20,000.
The Boxster and Cayman are a continuation of Porsche's lower-spec offerings, a tradition which goes back through the 944 of the 1980s, the 914 of the 70s, and all the way to the 912 of the late 60s. These more economical P-cars often share components with Volkswagens to help keep costs low, and the 912 is no different with its VW-sourced four cylinder engine.
For years, that engine represented heresy to Porsche collectors, but today the 912 is gaining popularity thanks both to the increasing values of the classic 911 as well as to the fact that the smaller engine in a 912 weighs less and hangs not quite as far off the rear axle. Home mechanics with moderate skills should be able to keep the simple car running, and perfectly acceptable examples can still be found for under $30,000, while projects might even cost less than $20,000.
Porsche's 914 caused shock and confusion among fans of the brand when it debuted in 1969. Though the 912 had paved the way earlier with its VW engine and entry level options, the 914 was a total redesign and even featured Porsche's first mid-mounted engine. The body style today looks fairly tame, but back then it seemed too radical and futuristic to many purists.
Sadly, the 914 was not only a lower spec car by Porsche, but was built and engineered at a lower quality as well. Today, clean examples can be fun, lightweight, and relatively cheap, but the questionable suspension layout, rust prone body, and underpowered engine combine in a package that used car shoppers should avoid. After a low initial cost, probably around $4-6,000, problems can snowball out of control quickly.
Porsche devotees found themselves in for an even more radical shock when the brand unveiled its 928 model line in 1978. The 928 turned what seemed like the company's ethos entirely on its head; instead of a rear-mounted, air-cooled, lightweight "pure" sports car, the 928 seemed like a luxury tourer featuring a front-mounted, water-cooled V8, and most even came with automatic transaxles.
The 928 eventually proved itself to be a competent car, but it never reached the ability to replace the long-tenured 911 as Porsche intended. Today, finding an example without many needs is difficult, and though in comparison with other Porsches a 928 may not seem expensive, there are better and more fun examples to be found. Case in point would be a later model turbocharged, four-cylinder 944 or simply a different body style altogether.
Nowhere is the power of turbocharging more evident than in Audi's supreme sports sedan, the RS6, and nowhere does the sad reality of an automatic transmission dampen excitement more, either. At the time of its release in 2002, the RS6's stats were unheard of: a biturbo 4.2-liter V8 that cranked out 444 horsepower along with 428 lb-ft of torque available at only 1,950 RPM. Pushing Quattro to its limits, the 4,000 pound RS6 could sprint to 60 miles per hour in under 4.6 seconds.
Sadly, all that power was more than Audi's manual transmissions could handle, so the RS6 came with a five speed automatic. Ownership costs are stratospheric thanks to a number of unique parts including the enormous but necessary braking system and electronic damping suspension. Some tuners nowadays do swap in a manual transmission, but for the average buyer, the RS6 should be avoided.
A number of Audi models were affected by the enormous diesel scandal, but even before the first hints of "Dieselgate" broke into public knowledge, Audi had problems of its own surrounding its 2.0T gasoline engines. Turns out, the engines were burning oil at an obscene rate of up to 1 quart per 1,000 miles of driving, and concerned owners were being told that such figures were to be expected.
A few model years ended up being recalled after a class action lawsuit, but the real shame is that not all affected engines are off the road. The A4 in its 2.0T station wagon form is quite an attractive tourer, with plenty of cargo and passenger space plus Quattro all wheel drive, but with very little certainty about the quality of the engine, buyers should be wary of picking up something that might otherwise seem awesome.
Volkswagen's high-end luxury sedan, the Phaeton, wasn't the subject of any coverups, scandals, or crimes, but shoppers should give the big car a wide birth regardless. The entire purpose of the Phaeton is fairly suspect. Why would VW offer an expensive competitor to its own siblings, Audi's A6 and A8 lines?
Audi is the luxury arm of VW, but the Phaeton actually offered a higher output engine, the gigantic W12, than the largest offered in an A8 at the time. Maybe if they were sold in different markets the development of the Phaeton would make sense, but the cars were in direct competition. With a minimal price difference, buyers had little reason to choose the Phaeton when new, and given the ever-increasing price of gasoline, there's even less reason to do the same today.
Big engines aren't always the problem when it comes to the used car market. Sometimes smaller displacement engines can lead to plenty of head-scratching. The E36 era BMW 318i is just such a car, offering Americans a four cylinder engine that had proved popular in Europe, but that just couldn't compete with the other available six cylinder options.
Fuel efficiency was improved in the 318i, though not nearly enough to offset the loss of power and even more so, the loss of the wonderful wail of BMW's classic inline sixes. The 318i also came with a lower spec interior, and especially with secondhand prices not significantly less than a better optioned, more powerful 325 or 330, today's used car buyers have little reason to opt for the 318.
Mercedes released the newest generation in their long line of C-Class cars in 2014. The exterior was redesigned into a longer, smoother style, while the body was constructed mostly of aluminum for reduced weight and added rigidity, and is available in coupe, sedan, station wagon, and convertible form. Used examples of the new C-Class are starting to hit the secondhand market, but should be avoided by any true car buff.
Other than the AMG versions, the C-Class sits in a strange middle zone, unable to decide whether it wants to be a smaller, sportier sedan or a longer, luxurious tourer. Buying a used car is a process that should start with figuring out uses and needs, and to make a wise purchase, that process needs to result in a decision that rules out the new C-Class from the start.
The ever-increasing size of modern cars is particularly evident when comparing the new W205 C-Class to the W203 coupe model that preceded it by a little more than a decade. Back in 2001, Mercedes introduced the C-Class coupe to the American market as an entry level option for buyers looking to own a Mercedes but who couldn't afford an all-out luxury option.
The little hatchback had a number of engine options available, as well as optional leather seats. Once again, the decision by Mercedes was a strange one; the W203 C-Class coupe seemed to undermine the brand image and newer coupe versions maintain the same level of luxury as their sedan and wagon counterparts. Buyers today should hesitate also, given that used prices hover around the same level as for more highly optioned examples.
Many Americans may not realize that the little cars known as Smart cars are actually owned by Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes' ownership of the company came in conjunction with a partnership with Swatch, and the resulting tiny cars have been on the road ever since.
Today's Smart ForTwo is an economical option for around-town motoring, with two optional 3-cylinder engines. The ForTwo shares many of its mechanical underpinnings with the Renault Twingo to help keep manufacturing costs low, which is its main weakness. Rather than acquiring Mercedes' reliability, Mercedes has sacrificed reliability to keep the tiny ForTwo more accessible, given that consumers are unlikely to want to pay top dollar for something that is barely even a car. Used buyers should keep in mind that most of the time in the automotive market, you get what you pay for.
Including a Cadillac on this list might seem completely ridiculous, but the Cadillac Catera is no ordinary American luxury sedan. In fact, the Catera is a rebadged version of the German manufactured Opel Omega, built in Russelsheim, Germany. At the time of the Catera's production, Opel itself was owned by General Motors, which is why the car was shipped to America with Cadillac logos affixed to help confuse potential buyers.
But the Catera manages to occupy the spot as the worst of both worlds, with cloth seats standard in classic European style, but a very American sounding four-speed automatic transmission the only option. The Catera was meant to bring new life to Cadillac, but despite a facelift in 2000, sales ended the next year.
Sources: bringatrailer.com, wikipedia.org, and porsche.com.
Michael Van Runkle grew up surrounded by Los Angeles car culture, going to small enthusiast meets and enormous industry shows. He learned to drive stick shift in a 1948 Chevy pickup with no first gear and currently dailies his 1998 Mitsubishi Montero while daydreaming about one day finishing up that Porsche 914 project. He’s written in various media since graduating from UC Berkeley in 2010 and started at HotCars in February 2018.
10 Used German Cars Worth Every Dollar (And 10 You Should Avoid) – HotCars
Close this window