Well, well, well, you finally saved up some money or came home with some deployment cash, and it feels like the time for a new set of wheels. Where do you start? Which cars and brands offer the best incentives for people in the military? It might not seem like there’s any difference between what works for civilians and what works for military types, but there’s more going on than meets the eye.
For starters, most auto manufacturers — your Dodges, Jeeps, GMs, and even Lexus — offer incentives to attract military buyers because that government paycheck of yours is a sure thing. And, let’s be honest, doing a solid for people in uniform is a good PR move. That said, some of these incentives are better than others.
Your life also involves certain realities that most Americans don’t deal with, some of which may affect your buying decision: moving to a place of someone else’s choosing every 24 to 36 months, or the real possibility that you’ll be locking your car in storage for six months to a year every so often. It would sure be nice if you didn’t have to worry about it starting up again when you get home.
Let’s make sense of it all and find you a car you can be genuinely pumped about, shall we?
What makes a ‘good’ car, anyway?
If you ask someone to recommend a good car for you and the first thing out of their mouth isn’t a question, take a step back. Good cars aren’t defined by year, make, and model, they’re defined by how well they fill your needs and, most importantly, how well you make sure they stay properly maintained.
What that means is that you need to follow its scheduled maintenance, not pretend you’re Hannibal crossing the Rubicon on your way to Denny’s. Treat your car like you’d treat your momma, with love and kindness and your ride will stay with you for the long haul.
Modern cars are generally reliable in comparison to what was on dealer lots a few years ago. While you don’t need to worry too much about things spontaneously failing, you still need to stay on top of recommended maintenance to avoid problems down the road. High-strung European cars can come with hefty maintenance costs, but Japanese and Korean cars require relatively little upkeep and have no problem sitting in storage for months on end while you’re off doing Uncle Sam’s dirty work.
Now, allow me to follow my own advice and ask you a thing or two.
Why are you car shopping anyway? Do you need more space, improved reliability, or maybe a little more excitement on the way from point A to point B? You need to be brutally honest with yourself on why you want, or need, another car because it’s a very big financial decision.
What can that shiny new car do for you?
It’s important to match your real-life needs with the capabilities of any car you buy. What do you need to get out of this vehicle? What do your daily operations look like? If you want to bank some of that do-it-yourself move money, you’re going to need some cargo space and a trailer hitch wouldn’t kill you. That hot little coupe on the used lot outside the main gate would be great in southern California, but how much fun would it be if you got stationed in North Dakota next year? Be real with yourself about what you need or want.
If you’re considering a crossover or SUV, as many buyers are nowadays, think hard about how much space and size you really need. Don’t buy a seven-seat SUV for the one time a year your family comes to see you. The same goes with pickup trucks — those are so capable now that you could easily “overbuy” in terms of options and features, leaving your budget stretched for something you don’t need.
Figure out your budget first
This is arguably the most important part of car buying. It all starts with your household budget and what you’re willing to commit to. If you’re buying new, figure out how much your trade-in is worth, how much money you can put down, get a credit check, and then determine how much of a monthly payment you can squeeze into your budget. The worst possible outcome is one where you end up with a car you can’t afford long-term. There are several financing calculators online to help you figure out how much to spend. If a dealer can’t offer financing terms you like, you can often get a favorable rate at a local or military credit union.
Try and avoid the lure of longer-term car loans in exchange for a cheaper monthly payment, as well. Do you really know what your budget will look like in five years? Committing to a long-term loan increases your odds of ending up underwater, meaning you owe more than the car is worth. When that happens, you can find yourself in a situation where you actually have to pay to get rid of it rather than selling it.
How badly does the manufacturer want your business?
Like I said, most auto manufacturers offer some kind of military incentives. Some are almost too good to pass up. A few look better than they really are, such as how BMW offers up to $4,000 off. What a bargain! But wait, that’s only on the 8-series, which starts at $110,000. Maybe not…
GM is willing to go the extra mile
General Motors offers one of the best deals in the pricing below the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) to current and former service members with no requirement for financing. That means that anyone who is currently serving or served within the past three years can even pay cash for a new Chevy, Buick, GMC, or Cadillac and still take advantage of the offer. Spouses are eligible, too.
Lexus will shell out some serious cash
Lexus also stands out with a generous $1,000 discount for service members and their household family members within two years of service. This deal only applies to financed purchases, so all of you paying cash for a brand-new Lexus are out of luck. Darn.
Everyone else is willing to meet you part-way
The most common incentive amounts to a $500 discount with varying terms and eligibility. This kind of benefit is offered by Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Genesis, Kia, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, and Volkswagen. Keep an eye out for other discounts, too. Some manufacturers offer incentives on things like satellite radio, roadside assistance, and rewards programs.
Can you rely on your dealer network?
Since you never know where Uncle Sam is going to send you next, it’s a good idea to choose a car with a robust support system. You’d hate to wake up to a check engine light only to find out that your new duty station is a two-day drive from the nearest Lotus dealership, wouldn’t you? Thankfully, most modern cars—outside of exotics like McLarens, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis—have dealerships within a short driving distance of wherever you end up.
Your car only performs as well as you treat it
Dealership network aside, what would it be like to live with the car you have your eye on in a different part of the world?
Sometimes moving your car is easy, even internationally. Much of Europe has a healthy Ford presence, for example, but certain USDM-type vehicles, like a Dodge Challenger Hellcat, might put you in a real bind (if you can afford the, ahem, petrol to begin with). Before you promise your dream car that you’ll never leave its side, consider the likelihood of a permanent change of station (PCS) outside the United States and think about what that would mean for your driving habits.
Leave and earnings statement
No matter what you decide on, it all comes down to greenbacks. How are you going to pay for that thing, and what kind of concessions will you have to make in other areas of your life to pull it off? Here are a few things you need to consider, aside from all those listed above.
That new-car smell isn’t cheap
New cars certainly have their appeal. In addition to military incentives, you can take comfort in a manufacturer warranty and service plan for the first few years of ownership. The flip side of these benefits is a significant price hike. Expect to pay thousands, or tens of thousands, more for a new car than a lightly used example.
And remember, you’ll be the one taking that depreciation hit the second you drive off the lot. So having the latest model and tech may be appealing, but “new” only lasts one model year, so don’t be too swayed by the latest thing.
One way to make a new-car investment more financially palatable is to keep your car long enough that cost-averaging can take effect. If you change cars every two years, expect to lose $10,000 to $20,000 every time just due to depreciation. If you keep a new car for a decade, your yearly costs become minimal.
Buying vs. leasing
If you’re shopping new, you have the option to lease a car rather than buying it. Both strategies have advantages and disadvantages.
When you buy a car, you own the depreciation and any problems that come up. On the flip side, you’re free to modify it and can sell it later to recoup some of your investment. The newer a car is, the steeper the depreciation curve. One way to get the most for your money is to keep a car for as long as it’s reliable.
When you lease a car, you lock in your costs for a certain number of years. Your monthly payment will likely be higher than if you bought the car, but you’ll have peace of mind knowing that maintenance is covered and the residual value (what the car is worth at the end of the lease) won’t change. When the lease period ends, you can return it to the dealer or buy it for a predetermined amount. The downside of leasing is the fact that you never own the car. As with renting an apartment, you don’t have a tangible asset to show for years of payments when it’s all said and done. Keep in mind that lease terms also include mileage allotments, and you’ll be charged for every mile over the agreed-upon maximum.
Battle-hardened isn’t (necessarily) bad
If new cars give you sticker shock, there’s no reason you can’t find a great deal on a reliable daily driver that’s pre-loved. Just be aware of a few caveats.
Buying used always involves some degree of risk. Cars are machines, and machines wear out and break. Plan on performing a pre-purchase inspection by a trusted mechanic and get every ounce of prior maintenance documentation you can.
In order to make a smart used purchase, you’ll need to do a lot more homework. Spend plenty of time researching various makes and models, then brace yourself for a series of test drives. You’ll have to be much more meticulous and cunning than you would on a new car lot, but there are certainly deals to be had.
Invest in a solid guardian angel
Car insurance is a must. While you’re required to have it, you don’t have to pay out the nose. In addition to comparing rates from different insurance companies, you’ll need to get quotes for the specific cars you’re interested in.
Insuring a pickup, SUV, or sedan is usually pretty straightforward. On the other hand, rates for a 20-something male driving a sports car might make your eyes pop clean out of your skull. Don’t put off pricing insurance policies only to find you own a car you can’t insure.
Some companies, like Geico, offer discounts of up to 15 percent for service members. USAA is built around catering to the military and provides extra benefits like free vehicle storage when you go overseas.
Pro tips on choosing a car
As a lifelong car addict, I feel fairly qualified to dish out advice based on my own research and misadventures. Sniffing out good deals and negotiating the best price is like a game of chess to me, and I’m more than happy to use this potentially unhealthy obsession to your benefit. Just know that, if we talk long enough, I will encourage you to buy a Subaru Brat. I’m not proud of it but it’s going to happen.
- Set priorities. Think in terms of capabilities and features, not makes and models. Look past the badge on the grill. Does your 10-pound newborn really require a seven-seat SUV, or is that just what the marketing people want you to think?
- Think beyond the now. What works in D.C. might not seem so great on the wide-open stretches outside Twentynine Palms. There’s nothing wrong with chasing different experiences at different points in your life, but if you want to make a long-term purchase and be done with it, plan ahead.
- Timing is everything. Dealerships have sales goals just like any other business. Buying at the end of the month, quarter, or year gives you more leverage as a buyer. Dealerships also have a massive incentive to clear out inventory to make room for the next model year. If your purchase has the power to open up space on the lot for the hot new thing instead of last year’s inventory, they’ll be far more likely to cut you a deal.
- Negotiate one thing at a time. Those military incentives are great, but you don’t need to ask for them right away. By waiting until the dealer presents their best price to bring up any discount, you protect yourself against having that savings baked into their price.
- Remember who you’re talking to. Dealerships stay in business by getting as much of your money as possible. There are fair deals to be had through savvy negotiation, but don’t expect that to happen with the first person you talk to. If your salesperson has to get permission to offer you a certain price, that’s a good sign. If the manager gets on the phone with the owner and you hear screaming about them losing money on a car, consider that positive ID on a good deal.
- Know when to haggle and when to pay up. If you’re sitting across from a sales manager and negotiating a deal on a brand new car, let it rip. Used cars have much tighter margins, and spending more can get you a better vehicle. Sometimes it’s worth paying more for a clean car.
- Be prepared to walk. Always assume that you’ll leave the dealership without a car. It’s the salesperson’s responsibility to convince you otherwise. If you don’t like the terms you see on paper, it’s completely appropriate to get up, thank the salesperson for their time, and see yourself out. Who knows, you might get a call with a better offer as soon as you’re off the lot.
- Buy for you, and no one else. Your friends and coworkers aren’t paying your car note, so they don’t get a say in what you buy. Never make a purchase to impress the people around you because when you keep up with the Joneses, you lose.
- Have fun. Cars cost way too much to drive something you don’t care about. Regardless of what your budget is, there’s something out there that will put a smile on your face and make you look back when you park it.
School circle on me
Everyone has their own wants and needs when it comes to cars, but there are a few I can personally recommend with confidence to just about anybody. They may not be absolutely right for you, but you can use them to start your research and maybe see if a test drive is warranted. Chase information and driving experiences until you find the one. Until then, here are my personal picks.
Military life has a way of throwing curveballs, and it helps to be adaptable. The Toyota 4Runner is one adventure mobile that always seems to hang out in the back of my mind. They’re tough, with plenty of ground clearance and body-on-frame construction. The body offers plenty of space for moving you across the country without feeling like a bus.
True four-wheel drive can handle almost anything you dish out and has earned the 4Runner cult-like status in the offroading community. All that is backed up by a three-year or 36,000-mile basic warranty and a five-year or 60,000-mile powertrain warranty.
One downside is the price. The 4Runner earned its legendary status partly because it was affordable. This year, the starting MSRP is $36,590. Trick it out with the TRD Pro package and you’re looking at coughing up no less than $50,000 — for a 4Runner. Most SUVs make a mockery of the utility part of their name, but not the 4Runner. I’d trust it to take me anywhere.
Wildcard: Toyota Sequoia
The Sequoia offers more space and a blast-proof V8. This is the unloved step-sibling to the 4Runner and Land Cruiser, so prices haven’t suffered from the same level of inflation. Reach back in model year as far as you’re comfortable with to hit your budget. The current Sequoia model is quite a bit older than most competing SUVs, so don’t expect the latest tech and gadgets, but it is proven and reliable.
Hyundai Veloster, Veloster Turbo, and Veloster N
If you have not owned a hot hatch, you are missing one of life’s greatest joys. You owe it to yourself to at least test drive one, and I recommend whichever flavor of Hyundai Veloster suits your budget.
The Veloster is quirky and cool, the Veloster Turbo ratchets up the performance, and the Veloster N kicks in the door to announce that Hyundai is open for business and they’re not screwing around. Prices for the base Veloster start at $18,900, but I advise stepping up to at least the Turbo R-Spec starting at $23,450. If you have $32,250 to spend on the top-tier Veloster N, you will not be disappointed. All trim levels come with a killer five-year or 60,000-mile basic warranty and a ten-year or 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Wildcard: Volkswagen GTI
Are you surprised to see the GTI as the runner-up and not the other way around? Well, Hyundai has seriously stepped up their game lately and prices haven’t quite caught up yet. New vs. new, I give the Koreans an edge. If you’re shopping used, there are decades of GTIs ripe for the picking at rock-bottom prices—if you aren’t afraid of a German check engine light.
There’s not a parking lot on base without a truck in it, so you knew there would be one on this list. As much as I love full-size trucks (which is a lot), it’s really hard for me to not recommend the smaller Chevrolet Colorado.
With four doors and a small bed, you’ll be able to haul most of the things you need to carry and have passenger room for friends and family. Don’t sweat an urban duty station, because this isn’t big enough to cause parallel parking and fuel pump anxiety like a full-size pickup might. And it’s still a legitimate offroad contender with lots of room for customization. Oh, and did I mention you can get it with a diesel engine with an exhaust brake? In addition to one of the best military incentive plans, Chevy covers the Colorado with a three-year or 36,000-mile basic warranty and a five-year or 60,000-mile powertrain warranty.
The downside to any new truck is the existence of old trucks. As long as you can snatch up an old V8 half-ton for a few thousand bucks, you’ll have second thoughts about forking over $25,200 for even the most basic two-wheel-drive Colorado there is (and I wouldn’t bother with two-wheel drive, honestly). So, what do you get for your money? New-car peace of mind for all but the most mechanically-inclined, and the ability to pass a gas station without glancing at your fuel gauge.
Wildcard: Ford Ranger
Military incentives give GM an edge over Ford, but used Rangers can be a great bargain. Make the jump to full-sized trucks if you must, but these smaller options are much more economical and can still haul your dirt bike (with the tailgate down) and tow a small moving trailer to your next duty station.
Subaru has been riding a wave of success created by their outdoorsy image for decades. At the root of that is the company’s famously capable all-wheel drive. When the Outback outgrew its original size to become what’s basically a full-size SUV, the Crosstrek picked up the torch and is doing Subaru proud with a starting MSRP of $22,245.
I like the fact that you can pretty much forge a path through dirt or snow without ever having the “should I kick it in four-wheel?” moment that usually precedes a crash. My advice? Grab a set of BFG All Terrains and follow the overlanding crowd wherever you damn well please. Subaru covers 2021 vehicles with a three-year or 36,000-mile basic warranty and a five-year or 60,000-mile powertrain warranty.
This car’s Achilles’ heel is its CVT (continuously variable transmission or constantly valueless trash, depending on who you ask). There’s nothing wrong with it mechanically, it’s just not something enthusiasts are excited about and it makes the engine sound like it’s having the life wrung out of it every time you accelerate. Horsepower isn’t inspiring, either, but that’s not the point of the Crosstrek, so I won’t hold it against this plucky little Subaru.
Wildcard: Any other Subaru
Subarus are like Legos because everything is basically interchangeable. They roll out a new engine about every quarter-century so you’re basically choosing between body styles when you shop the used market. Going with an older Outback can actually land you a bigger engine, similar exterior size, and a traditional automatic transmission instead of the aforementioned CVT.
The Honda Accord is so pervasive on American roads that it’s almost become a meme of a car for people who don’t care about cars. That’s too bad because it’s genuinely better than people give it credit for.
Build quality and reliability are excellent. Pricing is competitive but not as compelling as it used to be. The most basic Accord, the LX, starts at an MSRP of $24,970 and comes with a 1.5-liter engine and another one of those dang CVTs. Just a little further up the food chain, you can get an Accord Sport with a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and a ten-speed transmission with paddle shift for $32,110. All 2021 Accords are covered by a three-year or 36,000-mile basic warranty and a five-year or 60,000-mile powertrain warranty.
There’s a reason you see so many Accords on the road. They really don’t have any flaws, and I think that’s why they have a reputation for being a bit boring. Sometimes boring is what you want, though. Trust me, surprise trips to the mechanic aren’t as romantic as you might think.
Wildcard: Chevrolet Bolt
That’s not a typo; we’re talking about the all-electric Bolt, not the hybrid Volt which was discontinued in 2019. If you want practicality and a smoking deal, these rather obscure cars are a fantastic way to get into the world of EVs with a massive dealer network and a low cost of entry. Dealers are offering more than $14,000 off MSRP and used examples are about as close to free as it’s possible to get.
Frequently asked questions about picking the right car
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
How much does a decent, reliable, car cost?
How much time do you have? The bottom line is this: you can get a reliable car for very little money, as long as you’re willing to sacrifice some creature comforts and put a priority on proper maintenance — including when buying used. You also need to decide what reliability means to you. Brand new cars are reliable because they rarely break and have a warranty, but you’re going to pay out the nose to get one.
A ‘90s Corolla can be damn near bulletproof if you can set aside your ego and a little bit of savings for preventative maintenance. Generally speaking, there’s no reason you can’t find a serviceable daily driver in the $10,000 to $20,000 price range.
What makes a car good for someone in the military?
Being mission-capable isn’t just important for you; it’s important for your car, too. For one, your SNCO and OIC aren’t going to be very sympathetic if you keep missing work because your rust box car keeps breaking down. You also need to keep in mind that people in the military are expected to move every two or three years.
You can make a little bit of money moving yourself, but not if you have a two-seat sports car with less cargo room than a rucksack. Besides, are you even going to want that car where you’re going? It’s best to plan ahead and drive something that can keep you on the road and under budget for the long haul.
When does a car purchase become irresponsible?
Irresponsible is a subjective term. If you can afford the car you own without negatively impacting other areas of your life, you’re probably doing fine. There are a lot of people driving around in $80,000 trucks with a six-year loan who cast judgment on some “irresponsible” kid who paid cash for their $5,000 Miata because it can put the top down. If you can cut back on eating out to make your payment, great. If you have to put your utilities on a credit card to get the lender off your back every month, you screwed up.
Do I really need to do all this, or can I just tell the dealer what I want and let them sort it out?
Dealerships exist to sell cars, not to be your financial advisor. If you can get approved for the loan, they will make the sale and leave you to figure out how to make the payment. The more you know in advance, the better.
Remember that there are basically four things sales staff have flexibility with: price, down payment, monthly payment, and trade-in value. If you focus too hard on one of those, you’ll miss what’s happening to the other three. My advice? Nothing overrides price. A dirt-cheap monthly payment and generous trade-in offer don’t mean shit if they result in you paying more in the long run.
I know a guy who knows a guy who can get me a 30% loan on a used Camaro, that’s a good deal, right?
There are too many red flags here to count. Interest rates are determined by your credit history, and if you see double-digits you need to find a less expensive car. Sadly, military installations are like chum in the water for shady used car sharks. Put distance between you and your base until sales staff no longer recognize you by your occupation the second you walk in the door. I might be implicating some decent dealerships with this philosophy, but I’ve seen enough young service members taken advantage of by sleazy salesmen that I don’t care.
Where can I get information on reliability and common maintenance issues?
One of the most popular sources for information on new and used car reliability is Consumer Reports. This nonprofit organization buys cars to test at its 327-acre facility in Connecticut and publishes huge amounts of data on all kinds of new and used cars. This makes Consumer Reports a great place to make an apples-to-apples comparison between two cars on your list.
Once you have a specific make and model in mind, turn to the online forums. Almost every car has an online community where owners share their experiences and support each other. Some communities are more robust than others, but this is usually a great way to get incredibly detailed information. Just remember that not everything you read on the internet carries the same weight and be prepared to do your own research (ahem, Porsche IMS bearing fear mongers).
How can I find a good (and trustworthy) mechanic?
Online reviews are a solid place to start your search for a qualified mechanic. Independent shops are almost always less expensive than dealership service departments, but you definitely need to do your homework before handing over your keys.
Local car meetups are an excellent way to find a mechanic. Ask around at your local cars and coffee. If a mechanic has earned a reputation for exceptional work or done somebody wrong, you’ll hear about it in a hurry.