Finding a great used vehicle
(Part of an article from Consumer Reports, October 2008)
You'll benefit most by buying a model that's reliable, in good condition, and reasonably priced. Here's what to look for:
1 What is the car worth?
A car's value depends on its age, mileage, condition, features, and local demand. You can get a car's overall retail value free of charge from online auto-pricing Web sites or from a Consumer Reports Used Car Price Report ($12), which also includes reliability ratings. Then, to help gauge how much money sellers are asking for a model in your area, check out the classified ads in local newspapers and other publications. Also check online car-buying sites such as Autotrader.com, Cars.com, or eBay Motors. A nice feature of eBay is that you can see how much cars have sold for. Usually you'll get a lower price from a private seller than from a dealership, but it might take more effort to assess the vehicle and complete the transaction.
2 Check the reliability rating
Reduce the risk of purchasing a trouble-prone vehicle by selecting models with a good reliability record. In Consumer Reports used-car reliability history charts, you'll find detailed Ratings for 17 trouble areas for up to 10 model years, so you can see the areas in which a model has had problems. The Ratings are included in our April issue and special Consumer Reports Cars publications, and are available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers.
3 Think safety
Look for a model with critical safety features, such as electronic stability control, side and curtain air bags, and antilock brakes. To see how a model has performed in government and insurance-industry safety tests, go to www.safercar.gov and www.hwysafety.org . Free videos of insurance-industry crash tests are available on ConsumerReports.org and safety Ratings are available to the Web site's subscribers.
4 Do a thorough inspection
Check inside and out. Walk around the car and look for dents, rust, and mismatched body panels. Check for paint overspray on exterior trim or on wheel wells, which is a sign of repair work. Make sure all interior components are in good condition. Frayed safety belts or belts with melted fibers might indicate a frontal crash above 15 mph. Stay away from any vehicle with lighted warning lights. A mildew smell, discolored carpeting, silt in the trunk, or electrical problems are indicators of flood damage.
Wear on tires should be even across the width of the tread and the same on both sides of the car. Heavy wear on the outside shoulder near the sidewall indicates that the vehicle has been driven hard.
All components under the hood should be relatively grease- and corrosion-free. Belts and hoses should be pliable and unworn. Look for damp areas in the engine compartment and under the vehicle, which might point to fluid leaks. Melted or burned areas might be signs of overheating or even an engine fire. Check that all fluids are at the proper levels. The transmission fluid should be checked after the car is warmed up. Motor oil should be brown and not gritty, frothy, or gelatinous.
5 Take a test drive
Drive a vehicle for at least 30 minutes on a variety of roads. Make sure the car takes off briskly, shifts smoothly in all gears, and brakes without pulling right or left. On the highway, note whether the car is tracking straight or pulling notably to one side. Once warm, there should be no tailpipe smoke. Try every button, switch, and control, and note any that don't work.
6 Ask a trusted mechanic
When you've found a vehicle you're interested in, take it to an independent, certified mechanic for a diagnostic checkup. That inspection, which usually costs about $100 to $150, is well worth the investment.
7 Do a background check
While far from foolproof, a vehicle history report from CarFax ( www.carfax.com ) or Experian Automotive ( www.autocheck.com ) might alert you to possible odometer fraud or past fire, flood, or crash damage. To get one, you'll need the vehicle identification number, or VIN. Reports cost about $25. Also check with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( www.nhtsa.dot.gov ; 800-424-9393) to see whether any safety recalls were issued for the model. If so, ask the seller or a franchised dealer for documentation that the recall service was performed.