Some random thoughts from someone who has bought and sold a couple dozen of my own cars, and also sold cars at a dealer for a short while:
I, too, would recommend against against a VW. They are nice cars, but can be expensive to maintain.
In order of reliability, I rate them: Toyota, Honda, then a bit of a jump down to Nissan, Hyundai, Mazda, Suburu, then a another jump to Ford, Kia, and VW which are still pretty good. GM is second-worse only to Dodge.
Don't assume that buying from a dealer is safer than from an individual. Dealers, IMO, have more tricks available to them to disguise an abused car than most consumers do.
If you dig deeply enough at the dealer about a particular car, you may find out it was a former rent car. I think buying a former rental drastically increases the chances it was abused.
I used to rank Nissan in the same reliability category as Honda and Toyota, but don't anymore. Hondas and Toyotas are truly remarkably well-built vehicles. I currently own a Nissan and really like it, however.
One thing I like about the idea of buying a used Honda is that they are not used as rent cars, AFAIK.
The WORST dealers are the small independent dealers unaffiliated with a new car dealership. They only get their cars at auction, which isn't necessarily bad, but again, increases the odds you might get a lemon. They are also more likely to do the major stuff like buying a wreck and piecing it back together and selling it.
Used cars are always a gambling game, so it's all about reducing your risk. I found I liked dealing face to face with a private car seller that I got a good feeling from.
There are really cheap lease deals and such now. Is there any way you could buy new?
My vote for you would be a Civic, Corolla, or or other small Honda or Toyota. I've had the lowly Toyota Yaris as a rent car and it's actually not bad.
Take it slow, good luck, and don't make an emotional decision. Like, "Oh, this Fiat is so cute!"