By on January 9, 2014

Phony

In the world of auto journalism, there are a laundry list of used car buyer’s guides that end up molderizing on shelves and stagnating on servers.

These self anointed guides will offer the typical consumer nothing of value except puffed up prose designed solely, and soullessly, to make you feel better about your own car buying biases.

Let me take that back. Did I say nothing of value? My mistake. I meant negative value. As in you’re probably going to get royally screwed if you ever take their advice. Here’s why…

1. The journalists who cover the used car side of the business for these publications typically don’t actually drive the cars they review. A lot of the used car buying guides out there are written by what would kindly be called, “sausage makers.” Journalists who take portions of new car reviews that are already on the web, and repackage them into re-hashed stale prose for the oblivious reader.

2. The other more experienced writers just don’t have any extensive frame of reference when it comes to used cars. They may have kept one to three personal drivers over the last several years, often times classic and custom builds, and that’s about it.  As a result they are stuck in the anecdotal world of, “Well Jack? I know this used car was good for the family member/neighbor/ local taxi company… so I’m sure it will be a good car for you.”

3. Then there are the lucky hundreds in our industry who are forever stuck in that heavenly shangri-la of combed over press fleet cars. They get the pleasure of driving a brand new car, with a full tank of gas, that is usually detailed and tended to by a “Media Fleet Management Company.” These folks will write the types of glossy prose that attract the eyeballs of new car buyers. Some are truly great with the craft and have a well-earned reputation with their audience. Others not so much.

As for the used car buyer? They are tended to by the sausage makers. Folks who will repackage new car reviews for the proverbial buck that comes with mild historic revisionism.

The sausage makers of our business will be dealing with the 2014 models in the years to come once the new car reviews get repackaged, and remarketed, to the used car audience. When it comes to their reviews, you will find the usual chunks of phrasing and rephrasing of information that is already out there. They will have everything the new car review had, and for good reason.

This lack of useful information is not uncommon at all for many industries (and companies) with hundreds to thousands of products available to the everyday consumer. My first job out of school was partially composed of writing glorified descriptions of Korean food for a food import company. I knew absolutely squat about foods like agar-agar or conch. What saved me back in 1995 was the very same thing that saves most used car reviewers of the modern day, an internet search engine.

We all have to start somewhere. Robin Williams has a fond saying when it comes to this type of behavior which he partially borrowed from P.T. Barnum, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, and jerk the rest off!” Automotive publications that attempt to cover the used car market, with a few notable exceptions, are to varying degrees, media driven jerk-off operations.

The reviews are designed to make you fall in love with a given product. Or at least cater to the bias confirmations within all of us. It’s a sound decision on paper given that the used car market tends to be anywhere between two to three times bigger than the new car market. It’s good business, which is why 98+% of most used car reviews range from the mildly positive to the exuberant.

So who can you trust when it comes to used cars?

You can typically only find a small part of the overall truth from two types of sources. Subscription based publications such as Consumer Reports and TrueDelta that actually sample and poll a large captive audience. These are good sources once the number of samples is reflective of a broad audience. You can also go more towards the anecdotal, with owner review sites such as carsurvey.org and enthusiast sites that focus on a specific brand or model. The enthusiast sites have small audiences and a hopelessly inflated view of their daily driver, while Consumer Reports has limited data due to many of their respondents trading in their vehicles at a given point and time, instead of keeping them for the long haul.

It’s not an easy answer, and often times you have to piece things together. A lot of the cars that have been endorsed in times past as reliable and recommended during their early years (think older V6 Camrys and Accords, and a slew of VW products) were often times sitting on a firm foundation of data that only eroded with the irreversible wear of cheap materials and defective designs. That transmission which implodes around the 90k to 120k may seem like the proverbial rock of Girbraltar until that second or third car owner is given an unpleasant surprise way down the line of ownership.

Then what happens to their car? Two things. It gets repaired or traded-in. Contrary to popular belief, automakers won’t typically offer a recall, design improvement, or warranty extension unless it serves their long-term financial interests. That $2000 transmission you are about to pay for may offer the automaker more net profit than your entire vehicle did when new.

As for the second or third car owner goes who got their ride on the cheap? They are mere specklings of marketing dust in a cosmos where the real stars buy new (or certified pre-owned) and get the vehicle serviced at the dealership.

This brings me to what I see as the big question for enthusiasts and the everyday consumer. When it comes to researching a used car, where do you go? Who can you trust? Do the Consumer Reports, Carsurveys, and TrueDeltas of this world offer the content you need to make a sound decision? Or is it the enthusiast sites that highlight some of the more extreme issues and opportunities that come with buying a specific used car?

Should automotive publications that primarily serve the new car market be used as a frame of reference as well? Or do commerce based sites like Autotrader and Cars.com offer more accurate information? Speaking of commerce, does resale price reflect the true worth of a used car or are there some hidden gems that simply don’t get picked up on the popularity radar?

As a longtime car dealer and Sabermetrics enthusiast, I am developing my own unique evaluation tools when it comes to measuring the overall satisfaction with used cars. What should be yours?

 

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105 Comments on “Hammer Time: Blessed Art Thou Sausage Makers...”


  • avatar
    TheAnswerIsPolara

    Learned a new word, “Sabermetrics”. Not sure where you’d pull different information than that provided by companies like TrueDelta.

    I got burned with a new car based on “historical bias”. We’ve had 30 years of Toyota experiences said our next van should be a Toyota. In 2010, we bought a 2011 Sienna. No issues mechanically so far at 58K. However, interior plastics are so brittle that we spent $1,000 on a new door panel and driver’s seat apron. We supposed to be getting some money back from the manufacturer. But, I’ve got 50 year old cars with their original door panels.

    This looks to be your example of that “firm foundation” you describe above. Friends tell me that Toyota learned from the Americans and the Americans learned from Japan. Maybe the next van will be domestic…

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I tend to ask people how they like their car when I am pumping gas. Usually if it is a guy they will tell you everything about their car/truck. I tend to buy based on the number of people who have put mega miles on their version of the car/truck in question.

  • avatar
    qest

    I pick what I like, take it to my trusted mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection, and then buy new.

    He saved me most recently from a 2 year old Manufacturer Certified Pre-Owned car that was already rusting!

  • avatar

    I usually go the used car route and usually rely on several sources for car info: Consumer Reports, Edmunds, online forums and my independent mechanic. Most of the time, these cars have been 3-5 years old and have around 50K miles, but I have bought cars that were 8-10 years old with just under 100K miles.

    My overall satisfaction of these cars is based on low price, safety, and low repair costs. I especially like cars with few dents but a good service history that I can buy from a private owner and get checked out by my mechanic.

    A good example of what I look for is like the old Infiniti I30. New, the car was overlooked in favor of Lexus and BMW, but it was bulletproof and ideal for my commute downtown. The one I bought had hail damage and I bought it from the original owner, which probably saved me about $3000 off retail. I drove that car for four years with no repair costs other than regular maintenance and know for a fact that I couldn’t have done any better if I’d listened to the sausage makers.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    When making a general decision on model, I go with Consumer Reports. Their data isn’t perfect, but they have the largest database (much better than TrueDelta’s) so it’s as good of a place to start as any.

    I know that enthusiast forums are probably the worst place to go. If you browse the general posts, Everything Is Always Broken. If you make a post asking “How’s such-and-such car” you’ll almost always get a “It’s Great!” The call them enthusiast forums for a reason…

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I don’t know, I’ve found the forums to be pretty good at the “here’s the things to watch for” category. Sure, they think the car in question is awesome regardless, but if you’re willing to spend some time digging you can get a pretty good idea of the car’s strengths and weaknesses.

      • 0 avatar
        JMII

        This. Ignore the posts from people who just bought that car, they are in the “honeymoon phase”. Dig deeper and you’ll find certain problems that come up over and over. If you are OK with those issues (like poor MPG) or can fix them (rear struts give out too soon) then you can find some real gems.

        One of the nice things about the forums is knowledge of the tiny details. These people know the size of the screws that hold the license plate on. As they say: knowledge is power.

      • 0 avatar
        fvfvsix

        So true. I actually use “forum” presence and community size as one of my criteria for vehicle selection. If people have formed a community around the care and feeding of a certain car, it becomes worlds easier for me to use the knowledge concentrated in said community.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      Enthusiast forums are useful in learning about specific problems to look for on a specific model when you’re looking at decade old well worn cars. I pay attention to the negative posts. Sometimes enthusiast forums also have good information on were to get replacement parts.

    • 0 avatar
      mkirk

      If you read only the forums you will get talked out of any car you want to buy. They are useful but issues will be magnified there. Not bad necessarily, but just know issues are magnified there.

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    As a mechanic, I’m probably not typical, but this is how I go about looking at used cars.

    1.Fall in love with it. Being perfectly honest here, cars that look cool inside and out are my top criteria. Can I modify it to be even better?

    2.Does it have a transmission that sucks? Automatics with a lifespan of 90k miles or less are a definite no deal. If you’re unfamiliar with how much these damn things cost when they go out on cars these days, I suggest you do research. I can usually find a whole, good used replacement engine should the need arise for less than $1000. Not so with even a rebuild on an auto trans. Many of them are not serviceable when they break, requiring complete replacement. Some have chronic problems due to poor design, and cheap components. Right away, this eliminates many Ford, Honda, and Chrysler products for me.

    3.Try to fall out of love with it. Google is amazing. Search for “(subject car) sucks”, or “(subject car) problem”. Right away, you’ll see patterns develop. Case in point, my Taurus X: Solid drivetrain, nice car. I found out they leak from the PTU seal and trans cooler, and the seat heaters go out. Lo and behold, all of these things have failed. I wasn’t mad, I was prepared. They are all cheap and easy fixes.

    4.Things that frighten non-mechanics are a bonus. I bought my Taurus X with 150k miles. This didn’t scare me. The interior wasn’t worn. It drove like a brand new car. Just because somebody drove this car back and forth from Chicago to Florida, instead of a harsh 70k miles spent commuting in heavy traffic, I got a huge discount on it. Oh, the radio is broken? Sweet. I’ll put in a better one. Does it drive smooth? If so, anything else that’s broken is money off. Does it have a badge from a dead brand? Don’t really care.

    5.Is the interior/exterior trashed? For a non-beater status used car, I want these areas to be tip-top. I can do body and paint myself, but it’s labor intensive. Interior components that are broken or worn can be tough to find, and expensive. Used interior parts are usually wrecked too. There is nothing that will give you buyer’s remorse faster than sitting in a stinky, ripped seat, staring at a curling dashboard while you have some other fixable problem with the car. And god-forbid if the interior is blue.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      I really like Point #3. Google is your friend. Use common sense when reading what is written. “This car is a POS and Epic Failure and the factory should be burned to the ground” reviews are just as bad as “bestest car EVARRR”. Good enthusiasts sites will identify problems and tell you how to fix them. I’ve seen step by step instructions, some even with pictures on enthusiasts sties. Now that ought to appeal to thrifty and those who like to get their mechanic on.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m wondering if it still holds for newer cars. The main problem is that it’s impossible to figure out the rate of failure from the forums. For example, 42RLE auto in Wrangle was known to overheat enough that Chrysler even issued a “recall” (adds software warning light if temps go above 220 or so). But in real life failure rate was very low on that transmission. What I’m really after is a failure that occurs on most, like head gasket failure on Chrysler 2.0L engines. The modern equivalent would be the “ticking Pentastar”, but can you tell if this is a widespread problem or not?

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Good common sense points.

    • 0 avatar
      AMC_CJ

      As a mechanic also, I’m about the same. Whatever I buy MUST look fairly easy to work on down the road. Hence, why I bought that new V6 Mustang. Plenty of engine bay room , engine looked fairly simple, they put the automatic behind the 5.0 and it seems to hold up fine under that added power. Solid rear axle, huge +++. Of course, that was a new car; the used ones were about as much, or had the past crappy engine.

      Or I go the opposite, and buy something really old. From like the late 70’s, taken care of, unmolested, but well worn. Everything is cheap and easy to fix, and you can build them up as you like.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Did you have to replace the whole PTU or just the seal and fluid?

      • 0 avatar
        Crabspirits

        The seal as far as I know. It was changed out by the dealer around 50k miles on mine, and is leaking again. Perhaps the gear case is not properly vented and pressurizes after awhile. I haven’t really looked into it.

        Trans cooler repair for me involves using an aftermarket unit costing less than $100, and leaving the dead one in place (it’s part of the condenser).

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      Haha, aint nothing wrong with a blue interior!!
      Love my little S blazer

      But yes very valid points!
      H2’s have the 4l65e, while 150k miles isn’t too much of a stretch its still pretty small for us to be running 37’s+ offroad, fortunately it’s easily and readily replaced by the 4l80e which is damn near indestructible.

      And yes, searching for the problems makes ownership a much better experience.
      As with most GM trucks using similar 6.0 engine radiators, the rad is known to break and mix antifreeze with trans fluid, big no no, especially when someone sees a hummer as an Instant markup on costs.
      Put in my external cooler and not only do I solve that problem but I also help prolong the life of my tranny.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    If one is concerned about maintenance hiccups and at what mileage they occur, read the car forums that are specific to one brand.

    Definitely, worth investigating – if you are to be the third owner of a vehicle.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I used to go to Consumer Guide Automotive, but it’s not up any more. They had comprehensive reviews written from an objective viewpoint, erring on the side of critical rather than fluff. Their reviews included road tests, photos, and descriptions of year to year changes, to assist you in figuring out which -year- and specific -trim- of a used car you might want. And at the end of every review, they’d tell you a couple of other cars with similar specs you might want. They were one of the only places to actually review cars as USED, after they had done a new review in the past.

    http://consumerguide.com/

    Now, I say “used to” because the site was “under repair” for several months, as it went through a revitalization. I just checked, and it’s back up now, in new format. But they’ve taken off all the used car reviews (essentially the only worthwhile information for me) and now only have 2013/2014 models. Utterly disappointing, and I can only hope those used reviews will appear somewhere else – they had information on models back into the early 90s on the site. What a terrible development.

    They do have this note on the new version of the site:

    “Many of you have asked about our used-car content. We are currently looking at ways to bring that content to you in the most useful possible fashion, and expect to have news regarding used-car reviews in the near future.”

    So they’ll probably screw it up. The focus wasn’t new cars before, and it shouldn’t be now! I’m mad.

    • 0 avatar
      chicagoland

      The company that owns Consumer Guide is dying off. Publications International is based here in Chicago area, and laid off my sister, after many cuts. It is privately owned and rumor is owner will cut and run.

      They print Collectible Automobile, but it has no ad revenue. I don’t see it lasting, since internet is killing them. Their articles get scanned and sent all over, for example.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        Well if anything, I hope the reviews end up in someone’s hands who has some more money and resources to put them back online. Hopefully your sister finds other employment as well.

    • 0 avatar
      WaftableTorque

      Consumer Guide was one of my favorite car guides. They used to have a decent used car section divided into car generations. They would readjust the absolute values of their 10 point scale, so an S500 or LS400 from the 90’s which scored a 10 in noise was adjusted to 8, now that there are cars even better today.

      Everything took a nosedive around 2005 when they got absorbed into the howstuffworks.com. You couldn’t find anything, drop down menus were messy, and car brands would be strewn with reviews over 3-4 model years. They had some great editorials, but good luck finding them.

      It’s a shame that awful websites of today once used to be great and on the leading edge, like thecarconnection.com, consumersearch.com, and the Auto Insider section of Detroit News.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    My own theory is that for dissatisfied owners, whether an automobile, a large screen TV or a smartphone, will talk the loudest.

    It will take time, but this eventually will erode on any manufacturer’s reputation.

    Remember Sony TVs? There was a time, which lasted close to three decades, when they were untouchable in their quality and reliability. People would happily pay a premium over their competition.
    Their reputation was such, that it extended to a wide array of electronic products: walkmans, cameras, stereos, phones.

    I confess that I was a full Sony fanboy, I preached the gospel everywhere I went. (whipping myself in the back)

    Then came flat screen TVs. I happily purchased a Sony, until my brother in law came up with his Samsung, and in a side to side comparison demonstrated to me that it had a much better image. And at close to 20% less money.

    Do I consider Sony as an almost automatic choice for a future electronic purchase? Of course not. And I don’t think anyone would.

    In automobile terms….the reputation is well deserved. Having said that, one never knows whether the product one is purchasing is already behind the curve, like my Sony LCD TV.

    • 0 avatar
      TEXN3

      Man, I was the exact same way about Sony. I still have a great Trinitron in the garage, an ES cd changer, little portable Walkman radio… Both built in the early 90s. The other stuff was replaced by Samsung over the years. Always had Apple growing up but I don’t know if I’d get another iMac (mostly due to desktops being nearly obsolete). And still on a late 90s Yamaha stereo receiver!

      Admittedly with cars, I bought 1 based on new reviews and it was crap. So I’m just a Honda car and Ford truck lemming. Maybe I should consider a Hyundai next.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      “Then came flat screen TVs. I happily purchased a Sony, until my brother in law came up with his Samsung, and in a side to side comparison demonstrated to me that it had a much better image. ”

      The problem with that – between any two manufacturers, or even the same one; this is not specific to Sony or Samsung, and I don’t have a dog in that fight – is that modern TVs have a *setup menu*.

      If his Samsung had more home-appropriate defaults than the Sony, or – if the comparison was in store – they didn’t both have bets store-appropriate settings on, it doesn’t tell you much. Or if he or the installer had really set up the Samsung but the Sony was in out-of-box defaults …

      The only good comparison, for home use, on TVs is both TVs in a home-lit environment, with the settings set for home use.

      In the stores, they’re all set to maximum brightness and often maximum color intensity, because that’s what *sells* a TV. But it doesn’t tell you what a TV will be like in your living room, which isn’t, I hope, brightly lit with fluorescents and competing with the sets on both sides to Get Your Attention.

      Any brand-name TV at or around a given price point should be “about as good” as any other in terms of mere picture quality for normal HDMI signals, *if* set up properly.

    • 0 avatar
      wolfinator

      You bring up a very interesting anecdote; however, I think you might have the wrong lesson. It’s not that Sony stuff is still as good as it used to be, and people complain more. It’s that Sony stuff used to be great, and now it’s crap.

      Sony used to be an amazingly innovative and cutting-edge hardware company. Then it bought out some American companies, the American management rose up through the ranks, and they MBA-ized Sony. What’s the first step MBAs do? They kill off engineering, R&D and anything that gives the company a future. Then they squeeze manufacturing until the quality just dies.

      This happened at Sony, and their best engineers left for greener pastures. For their TV folks, that was often Samsung and LG. THAT’s why Samsung TV’s are better than Sony’s – they share engineering DNA with Sony’s old hits. And Sony’s stuff is now crap because the MBA’s sent the good employees to better pastures.

      http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-09-26/sonys-engineer-exodus-may-delay-a-revival-of-the-electronics-division

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Personal anecdote time: I’ve had two Samsung LCD TVs suffer power supply failures on me. One currently sits dead in my living room while I contemplate if it is worth getting it repaired.

      It has made me quite gun shy about ever buying anything from them again. Especially after already giving them a second chance.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      Ah, the cult of the Trinitron. In a former life, I repaired TVs for a living. I *hated* the Trinitrons. They had this incredibly complex power supply that used a feedback loop from the flyback transformer to kick-start the thing. The advantage was that it could run on anything from 90 to 140 VAC which made it very popular in countries with lousy power. But if it developed problems, well, it took hours to troubleshoot. Also, they couldn’t use a standard bipolar transistor for the horizontal output stage. These cost a couple of bucks and were easy to source and substitute. No, in some models Sony used a silicon-crontrolled gate device that cost a sizable fraction of the entire set replacement cost and only came from Sony. Another Sony problem was their wafer tuners made from phenolic printed circuits. These would get dirty and wear prematurely. You would go to change the channel and you would have to jiggle the knob to get the tuner to stabilize. No amount of tuner cleaner would help after a while.

      Zeniths (up until about 1971) were *much* better quality than Sony. They had fabulous repair manuals, were easy to service, had exceptional parts availability and could be brought back to top shape without breaking the bank. They were the antithesis of planned obsolescence.

  • avatar
    davefromcalgary

    What a timely article Steve.

    As I have posted a bit already, I am currently shopping for a later model out of warranty vehicle. I am either looking at a 2008 Accord Coupe EX-L Nav V6 6MT, or an 05-09 Legacy GT/SPEC B.

    TTAC is an amazing tool! I posted on your winter article yesterday and some LGT owners opined that while the AWD is unstoppable, the cars are cranky to crank in cold weather (which is a concern for me for obvious reasons) and that the climate control is ok, but less than ok in summer (which is a concern, as my home town has hot humid summers). This was all new info to me and I am grateful for it. To fully utilize TTAC, I am considering submitting a Piston Slap to Sajeev so that the commentariate can help me fully dissect my options/have a great debate/argument/flame war.

    Some other tools I have used: http://www.autos.ca often posts “Used car reviews.” Brendan McAleer contributes to this site. Anyways, I don’t think these guys are sausage makers, as their used model reviews tend to peruse forums and essentially aggregate what owners of the model in question like and don’t like, as well as listing common trouble issues and recalls. It has been pretty useful so far, pointing me towards the rear brake issue in the Accord, for example.

    MSN Autos has a section of user submitted reviews. This is also useful because its unfiltered. I haven’t yet researched the LGT yet, but the user reviews for the 08 Accord have pointed out to me: rear brake wear issue, poor quality leather driver seat issues, sometimes poor paint quality, and surprisingly good fuel economy in he V6/6MT combo. I think this is useful because if the 6 year old cars I am looking at haven’t had paint issues yet, they are likely to hold up longer, same with the drivers seat. rear brakes I think I can tackle with after market pads.

    This has been my process so far, I would love to hear from more LGT or Accord Coupe owners, or from Steven, or from Sajeev as to whether this would make an interesting Piston Slap, and also hear about other potential sources of research.

    Cheers!

    • 0 avatar
      olddavid

      Brother David – Your potential purchase will be recycling fodder by the time SaNjeev deigns to posit your questions to us proles on TTAC. May I suggest the make-specific sites? I have found helpful people on a wide variety of makes, since I am the used car buyer for the entire extended family. You haven’t had pressure until your brother-in-law decides he wants a used VW Passat to take home to Yellowknife. From Portland. I have decided that no more used German cars for the Olddavid clan. Their engineers ask and answer questions no sane person would ponder. And I love my old 450SL, but thank heaven I don’t need it as a DD.

    • 0 avatar
      TEXN3

      As I stated previously, I’ve owned cousins to both the vehicles you’re considering. I’d go Honda in a heartbeat. The brakes were redesigned in 2011 and are compatible. Paint is really an issue on a lot of newer cars, due to environmental regulations. At 20k miles and 18 months, can’t report anything yet on our 12 Accord but I definitely don’t think it is built like our old 98 3.2TL that the Accord replaced.

      While not a turbo (and those had bearing failures), our 2007 Outback 5MT had do many issues but luckily many were covered under warranty. Just stupid Nicklaus and dime stuff! We really sold it because we went to 1 vehicle but I think I would have sold it by now.

      I do know that is just one person’s view or experience.

      • 0 avatar
        davefromcalgary

        Believe me TEXN3, I read what you wrote and have been considering it strongly.

        Based on what you wrote, as well as other comments on yesterday’s Hammer Time regarding hard cold starts and shoddy HVAC system performance, the Subaru is slowly dropping from contention. Also, given that to get a 6 speed the SPEC B is the only option, and SPEC B are very rare, the Accord really is the front runner.

        Does anyone know if there is a reasonable way to get a mechanical LSD for the Accord V6 6MT? I know that the 6MT in the Civic SI was so equipped (but likely can’t handle the power of the V6), and have also heard that the 6MT from the TL would bolt up, but I have no way to confirm this. I believe a 3500lbs car with snows and an LSD would be pretty good in deep snow. Obviously not AWD good, but better than one wheel drive.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          You really don’t want a LSD in the front in snowy or icy conditions. It can often make the car want to continue going straight while you are trying to get it to turn. There is a reason that on AWD and 4WD vehicles that no one offers an limited slip or locker from the factory. Limited slip and/or locking center and rear diffs are very commonly available or standard but they just won’t put them in the front because the vehicle won’t steer in very slippery conditions. LSD in a FWD is best for performance cars that aren’t intended for winter use.

          • 0 avatar
            TEXN3

            Agreed, you don’t really want LSD in a front wheel drive car on slick conditions as both wheels follow slightly different arcs. Good snow/ice tires will suffice and quite honestly the stability control isn’t too intrusive either. I sometimes wish I had gotten a CPO TL to get the manual but quite frankly, my wife was tired (or inconvenienced) to be shifting.

          • 0 avatar
            davefromcalgary

            Gah, that’s so disappointing!

            I HATE 1WD!! But there just isn’t anything in RWD or AWD in a midsize manual trans V6 car, from a mainstream manufacturer (IE not Audi, BMW, Infiniti, or Lexus), that’s not a pony car, at around $18,000. The Legacy is as close as I have gotten.

            Am I missing any options?

    • 0 avatar
      Grahambo

      @davefromcalgary, I’ve had a 2005 LGT Limited Wagon as my DD since 2007. I haven’t read all the negatives from yesterday’s post that you referenced, but I have seen the Subaru decriers out in full force before. Frankly, the car will not be as reliable as a Honda or Toyota (what is? not even all Hondas or Toyotas are), but, for me at laest, it’s been much more fun, versatile and capable than just about any car out there I could imagine, certainly for the price. It also has been extremely dependable, although it has had a few minor issues here and there over the years. I think maybe I’ve been luckier than most. In any event, I’ve carried the majority of equipment for a 5 piece band (amps, guitars, drums, PA) in it to gigs, easily climbed huge hills in the ice and snow (on all seasons) that had 4 wheel drives slipping all around, AND taken it for many spirited curvy road excursions, where it acquits itself very well in comparison to other performance vehicles. A true swiss army knife. With upgraded springs, Konis and Michelin Pilots, the handling really comes alive. I have not experienced the cold start issues at all. I live in the US Midwest, where it can get rather cold albeit not like Calgary. I’ve noticed heat occassionally emanating from the HVAC in summer, but it is easily dwarfed by the A/C. It gets very hot and humid where I live and the LGT is always more than cool enough inside (perhaps it helps that its windows are tinted?) Plus it is invisible to cops. Of course, the Spec B is, as you note, your only choice for a 6 speed and it does not come in a wagon.

      Depite the LGT’s winter prowess, I’ve actually been driving my old 94 FWD Subaru SVX with Dunlop Winter Sports through the blizzard conditions recently instead. The LGT would do much better, but it still has the summer tires on it so it sits (I gambled that this winter would be mild; looks like I lost).
      One thing, however, that driving the SVX so much recently has impressed on me is how much more refined it is than the LGT. Even though it’s a 20 year old FWD base model that has been through the wars, it kind of shames the LGT in terms of overall smoothness and refinement (except from when accelerating from a stop. FWIW I can’t stand any FWDs in that regard. Every morning, I hear the front tires screech of just about every FWD car as it negotiates the slight incline of my office’s parking garage entry, wet or dry. Just awful). Bottom line — if you’re a sticker for refinement, I wouldn’t go for the LGT. A Honda Accord and many modern cars would have it beat there. I personally don’t mind the lack of refinement and am willing to sacrifice it in the name of fun and capability (much like I’m willing to sacrifice absolute reliability on those same altars), but many people will understandably disagree.

      I originally suggested an E90 BMW, especially the xi’s if you’re looking for AWD. They have fallen into the sub-$20K range for the earliest ones, and 6 speeds are relatively available. They have some issues, but those issues are well known and they are hard to beat from the standpoint of refinement and fun. But then I saw your restriction to mainstream manufacturers. So, yeah, your choices are unfortunately limited. I guess that’s what brings me back to the LGT. In theory, there could be better daily drivers and it certainly is far from perfect, but, in the real world, there’s very little that comes anywhere close to providing the blend of attributes that it offers, IMHO.

      • 0 avatar
        davefromcalgary

        That is a great, thorough reply, thanks!

        I prefer a sedan/coupe. My practical side wants a wagon, but I prefer having a separate, lockable compartment like a trunk. So, sedan only SPEC B isn’t an issue.

        A bit of a lack of refinement isn’t a big issue, and the main reason I want to stay Honda is, I have spent the majority of my car life constantly maintaining cars, mainly older cheaper GM cars. My hope is a Honda or Subaru will give me a bit of a reprieve here, for a while. The issues the Germans tend to have seems like more of that same constant, small crap piling on. So, rough but reliable is ok, smooth and refined but nitpicky, not so much.

        I hear G sedans are pretty reliable but Infiniti design leaves me so cold.

        • 0 avatar
          Grahambo

          G sedans are very respectable and reliable from what I know, but the ones I have driven (all Xs; i hear the rwds are much better but that they are a handful even with snow tires in winter conditions) left me somewhat cold. Fast and tight suspension, but sterile and artificial feeling, IMHO. Most of all, very large feeling when you hit tight curvy roads. Much larger feeling than an LGT or E90 3. Despite their greatly increased reliability rep and cheaper price, there’s a reason why they never knocked off the 3 series in the entry level luxury wars and it wasn’t all just badge snobbery or design (which, as to the latter, i agree with you wholeheartedly).

        • 0 avatar
          guevera

          but I prefer having a separate, lockable compartment like a trunk.

          Just remember, no matter what Jay-Z says, a locked trunk doesn’t keep the cops from searching you.

          • 0 avatar
            davefromcalgary

            My Alero had been broken into and they took everything, from the cabin and the trunk. My DSLR was in the trunk that day. I removed the interior trunk release, and the pass through seats only release from the trunk, and when it later was broken into again, the stuff in the trunk was safe, since they would have had to bust in through the trunk lid, and I am guessing that was too much work.

            Surprisingly, my car has only been broken into in the more affluent parts of Calgary. The mainstream area where I live, never had any issues.

            If the cops wanted to search my car they would find nothing I would be worried about.

        • 0 avatar
          05lgt

          I love my LGT, but as they age around 120k LOTS of stuff starts to go at once. In the used market if you’re avoiding constant crap go with the Honda. If you want/need fun wet, dry or frozen and are willing to make repairs the LGT has that.

          • 0 avatar
            rustyra24

            I would advise against a Subaru. They are fun to drive but have some interesting issues. Right now I am fighting misfires on multiple cylinders. According to the forums this is very common in turbo cars. They also like to eat turbos and the rings like to go in cylinder 4. The wheel bearings in the rear also like to fail and make lots of noise.

            Burnt valves also seem to be a common issue because of the injector, wiring, coil and oil control valve problems. I don’t know how many subaru’s I see for sale with new motors.

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    We just went through this when shopping for my wife’s CPO Santa Fe. After figuring out budget, needs and wants, we used a combination of sources to help narrow our choices – Consumer Reports, IIHS and NHTSA, reviews from established magazines and websites, enthusiast forums and word-of-mouth. Depending on the source and depth of information, I gave some sources more weight over others.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    I S**K at buying used cars. As ‘Crabspirits’ just wrote above here, the first step often involves falling in love with the car, and I’m not very good at hiding my feelings towards cars, I’m getting better at it though. I know that when I was younger I bought some cars that I’d gladly pay more than the seller asked for when going to look at it, almost drooling, and forgot to check for really obvious things. Luckily I’m a cheapskate, so I’ve never payed too much anyway.
    Strangely I’m quite good at helping other people buy cars that don’t interest me, so the few really good cars I’ve bought were out of need, not out of love, so I’ve ended up with a few Hondas. I don’t really love them, I just love not working on them XD
    To ever be good at buying cars, start early by buying the cheapest car you can find, repeat a couple of times, learn to read sellers, and their cars, then start buying more expensive cars. Personal experience is that most used cars that are out of warranty are potentially too expensive compared to condition (too many unknowns), while real beaters are always a ‘great’ deal as long as they actually run, because you have no expectations, and there is no real loss involved if it blows up on you…

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    I do it a bit backwards. I have a floating list of vehicles I might be interested in buying at some point in time, having done the research on what sort of issues they might have. If I find something on the list for sale and I’m in the mood to buy, I go out and look it over. If I have a good feel about the vehicle and the seller, I’ll usually buy it.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Buy the car you want, not the one that’s a deal. Unless it’s both :) The car you want will usually get washed more often, maintenance done more frequently, and just usually get better overall care. The POS you wish would die so it can be gone? Like uncomfortable shoes man, don’t put up with either.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Residual values are one measure. A vehicle that depreciates rapidly is probably less beloved among its owners than one that doesn’t.

    That’s not a perfect indicator by any means, but people vote with their cash, on both the buy side and the sell side.

    • 0 avatar
      Crabspirits

      Not necessarily.
      Sports and luxury cars that cater to people who gotta have the latest and greatest thing, have some of the steepest depreciation curves.

      Some of my “drift kid” friends are already driving third-gen LS430’s.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        That’s actually a good example of how it does apply. The new buyers don’t want to keep them for long; there isn’t enough love to inspire a long-term relationship or to cope with its downsides, such as high repair costs.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          No many of the people who trade in their luxury/sports car or only lease it for two years do so because it would be embarrassing for them not to have the latest and greatest version of something and they really don’t care how much it costs to feed that need. Most of those people who have those issues wouldn’t consider a used car so they do depreciate quicker than less image enhancing vehicles do.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            So the glory goes the first owner, not to the second owner. Might be a good reason to avoid being the second owner.

    • 0 avatar
      WhiskerDaVinci

      Two of my cars have me as the second owner, and have depreciated badly. An ’08 Volvo S80 V8 AWD and an ’08 V70 3.2. Both were perfectly cared for by the previous owners. They never missed a service, and never needed warrantee work. They were traded in on new Volvo’s because they’d been paid off, both were purchased and not leased. I have all of the service histories on them from the first owners, so I can verify that they were well cared for.

      Luxury cars depreciate catastrophically in some instances, but don’t truly reflect how good the car is. I’ve had both of those cars for a few years, and they have never had a single problem. They don’t deserve the depreciation they suffer. It’s just the luxury market. Prestige comes from owning it new, not holding onto it for a decade.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Lower residuals aren’t an indication that nobody wants the cars. Some people will want them.

        The point remains that cars that lose value at a faster pace do so because there is a lack of demand relative to the supply. That means that demand isn’t that great (buyers aren’t as likely to want them) and/or the supplies are plentiful (owners aren’t as inclined to keep them.)

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    How timely. I was just yesterday searching for a cheap (sub $8000) car to sacrifice to my elderly step-father to rescue his current vehicle from total annihilation in his hands.
    First I always have an idea of acceptable and unacceptable cars in my mind. I then took his needs and expanded the net to include cars, trucks, minivans/suvs that I would never consider for myself. (I immediately threw all these out without realizing it and wound up just looking for cars I like.)
    I then visited a classified site to see what’s out there.
    After finding some potentials I happened upon a 2004 Mazda6 V6 wagon. I got excited, decided I was going to go look at it immediately after work and planned how to arrange my finances.
    I waited about an hour, talking it over with co-workers (who are not interested in cars but think I’m insane because I am constantly car shopping) and listened to their questions and concerns with the whole idea.
    The worry began. So I did a search on Google for “Mazda 6 common problems” and looked through the results – forums, Consumer Reports, Edmunds.
    Following that, I determined I was not going to go look at the car and as of right now, ultimately decided there are too many designed obsolescence parts in cars for me to feel comfortable foisting anything in that price range upon my step-dad.

    All the while I was wishing there was one place you could go that would list all the common problems people are encountering / asking about.

    And just for the record, the vehicle I am trying to save is a 2009 Tacoma Prerunner with 13k miles on it.

    • 0 avatar
      Crabspirits

      http://www.carcomplaints.com/

      • 0 avatar
        Land Ark

        That’s actually pretty nice.
        What I’d like, however, is for some sort of web crawler (or actual person) to scour forums and other sites and post stats for what people are asking instead of relying on the people to come to their site and post.
        For example, I know there are dozens of complaints about the Mazda 6’s V6 engine blowing. And there are a few on that site, but not enough to make one think it is systemic problem like it seems on a cursory search elsewhere. And combining it with other sites/forums could also prove that the results I think are systemic are actually not.
        That’d be a lot of work for someone, and I am sure not volunteering to do it (unless someone agrees to pay me).

        • 0 avatar
          burgersandbeer

          It’s nearly impossible to determine what problems are systemic based on what you read in forums. Forums are where people gather to complain and ask for solutions. Some of those problems are legitimately common and you have a near 100% chance of encountering them, others are blown out of proportion.

          Edmunds does have reliability info for used cars where they identify specific problem areas and offer an estimated cost of repair. Did you look at this for the Mazda 6, or the consumer reviews? If anything, I think Edmunds’s reliability info gives cars the benefit of the doubt; if they identify a problem it is likely a common one.

    • 0 avatar
      burgersandbeer

      “And just for the record, the vehicle I am trying to save is a 2009 Tacoma Prerunner with 13k miles on it.”

      Save it from what? I can’t think many cars better suited to handle abuse than a Tacoma.

      I don’t understand the idea of buying beaters to keep miles off a favored car. I can understand winter cars (depending on what the garage queen is), and I get that sometimes people have a sentimental attachment to a car. In this case, it sounds like your step-Dad has no sentimental attachment to the Tacoma or any other car. If he doesn’t, why should you? Use it up and replace it when payments become cheaper than repairs+inconvenience.

  • avatar
    WaftableTorque

    My personal criteria isn’t directly measurable but works for me: narcissistic supply per 15 years. In other words, how smart I would feel for buying this particular car rather than its rivals between now and the next 15-20 years. Perfect for someone who has NPD like me.

    I tend to keep my cars, so it’s important to have a car that will give me a steady stream of narcissistic supply above a certain arbitrary level for the longest period yet. So aesthetics, brand name, long term reliability, and comfort matter. When NS falls below a certain level, it’s time to shop for a replacement.

    If I look back over the last 15 years, the cars that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to still own (and thus high in NS/15 yrs) tend to be the full size Lexus, Jaguar, and Infiniti models. I feel European marques have great short term NS, but would begin doubting my choice once the warranty period ended. Ditto a gas guzzler.

    EDIT: BTW, now that I think of it, NS/7 years is how I think the majority of consumers shop, and NS/3 years for luxury leasers.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      :( Infiniti doesn’t even do a full size now! Grr.

      But I agree on the full size versions of things. The styling is likely to be more conservative, and age better. Smaller models (thinking the ES/S-Type) have a styling gimmick which doesn’t work over time, whether it be vintage or some “cutting edge” attempt.

    • 0 avatar
      burgersandbeer

      What qualifies as a gas guzzler if a full size Lexus or Jaguar is OK?

      RX8? Large trucks and SUVs like Sequoia or Armada?

      • 0 avatar
        WaftableTorque

        Now that I have kids, I regret choosing my LS430 over the similarly priced LX470. AWD, seating for 7, cargo capacity, and some symbolic semblance to not being conspicuously wasteful are important criteria for my next vehicle, so the Tesla Model X is high up as my next car. I’d still keep the LS though. Mmmmm, waftability…

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    As usual, nice article, Steve. When buying a used car, there are two basic questions: (1) what’s the car like when everything is working fine and (2) what is likely to fail, when does it fail and how difficult/expensive is it to fix.

    Any number of “professional” car reviews can answer the first question.

    Answering the second question is more difficult. I think you start with Consumer Reports and True Delta. CR’s downside is the imprecision of its categories; True Delta’s downside is the relatively small sample size it is working with. Then, a bunch of well-crafted Google searches will turn up more information that it useful.

    Then, if you have chosen a particular make/model/year that you like and is within your price range, find the car. Check it out yourself, thoroughly, and then have it checked by an independent mechanic who’s knowledgeable in that brand. It doesn’t take an expert to see the ills of de-contenting. For example, in 2008, my wife and I were shopping for a new SUV. Having had good experience with Toyota Previas in the early 90s, we looked that the just-refreshed Highlander. Even in the top-line models, it seemed de-contented. The seats were nothing like the seats in our old Previa. The Pilot, even though about to be refreshed, did not have that de-contented feel to it. As it rolls past 90,000 miles, the Honda has required nothing but required maintenance, which we righteously follow. We are aware of the possible issues with the automatic transmission, but it shows no signs of trouble and we almost never travel with the vehicle loaded to capacity, much less do we tow anything with it.

    Of course, if you want (fall in love with) a car that fails the latter criteria, you could get lucky and avoid a repair queen. Tails of owners with long, trouble-free experiences with VW products illustrate this. And, you could get unlucky, also and get a repair queen that was not predicted to be a repair queen.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Personally, I’ll use my own experience and the opinions of my wide base of friends and acquaintances in the automotive industry to feel our what’s good and what isn’t. Because of that experience and knowledge base, a lot of people come to me for advice.

    For those who don’t have the experience or personally know someone who does, the internet has the information you need. The enthusiast sites are good if you ignore the rhetoric and just search for common problems. Enthusiast owners frequently turn to each other for advice and how-to’s on fixing issues on their vehicles, so if there’s a trend for a common problem on a model, you bet it’ll be discussed at length on the forums.

    TrueDelta and CR might be OK in giving you statistical reliability, but the actual owners will give you the skinny on exactly what goes wrong with the car and what the bottom line to keep in going will be.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Haven’t checked them lately, but I found the owner reviews at Edmonds and Yahoo Autos helpful in the past. When you start seeing a lot of “I love this car but I’m sick of taking it to the dealer to get fixed”–hello early 21st century Volkswagen!–it’s time to move on.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    One point you made that should be very important is the fact that manufacturers typically do not care about second or third or fourth owners unless forced to do so. Sometimes they don’t even care about first owners. I happen to be checking out earlier Volvo XC90s, and I already knew the Yamaha V8 was crap of the boat-anchor variety, but I was surprised to find out how inevitable it is that owners of the 2.9-liter T6 will experience at least one transmission failure within 120K miles from the GM-sourced 4T65-E…which was not nearly as bad in other applications and simply had no business being used in the XC90. However, Volvo has failed to acknowledge the problem at all. It’s a widely-documented and well-known issue, so that T6-equipped XC90s actually have lower resale values than those using the base 2.5-liter low-pressure turbo engine. There was a very nice XC90 in my area at a great price and in great condition. The owner listed it as being the five-cylinder and I was all set to call and investigate further, before I happened to look at the pictures and see the “T6 AWD” badge on the tailgate, and then ran the VIN to discover that it did in fact have the T6. I wouldn’t touch one of those with a thirty-foot pole…and apparently neither will Volvo, because the company can’t be bothered to do anything about it…

    • 0 avatar
      Zykotec

      This does sound a bit weird, as I think it would be in the best interest of car manufacturers to keep the resale value of their cars up, since a lot(if not most) of their buyers do care about that. On the other hand, with Volvos, I guess their reputation for safety and great seats may outweigh the reliability issues. I must admit after havign an accident quite recently, an XC90 was one car I did consider until I heard and read about their transmission issues, like you said, it’s a well known issue, to the point that some used car dealers wont accept them as trade-ins.

    • 0 avatar
      WhiskerDaVinci

      Luckily new XC90s just have the 3.2, not the turbo version. So they have done something about it, I guess. Wait a few years and you might just get lucky haha. I have seen many a T6 XC90 in the service area of our local Volvo dealership, and I honestly always wondered why. I’ve never been into the XC90, but now I’m really not into it haha.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        That’s true. The 2007 and newer XC90 features the 3.2-liter V6 as the base model, replacing the 2.5-liter LPT I5. However, that was not the problematic engine. I believe the T6 had its transmission replaced at that point with something else, which was the issue. However, that does nothing to help earlier T6 owners whose cars are worth less than the cost of a necessary new transmission install.

    • 0 avatar
      guevera

      Toyota has a reputation for being the exception. They did a recall on my 1990 yota 4×4 a couple of years ago.

      • 0 avatar
        mkirk

        When I purchased a 93 Land Cruiser a couple years ago I found a recall notice from 1996 in the glove box for O2 sensor replacement. this was in 2011 and with 250,000 miles. I called Toyota just for laughs and they actually did the work.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Buying privately used and out of warranty is always a crapshoot. My stategy is to evaulate the condition of the drive train and condition of the body as best as I can. Then price in at least one major repair which is deducted from the private retail sale price from Edwards, etc.
    This price is usually less than wholesale, and some interesting reactions from the seller.

  • avatar
    stevejac

    While it’s useful to look at, don’t take everything Consumer Reports says as gospel. In 1974 my wife and I were in the market for a 2nd car. We were fairly poor students but looking to buy new. According to CR, the best small car that year was a Fiat 128. We bought one based on CR’s reccomendation. Within a year we’d cancelled our subscription to that august publication.

    • 0 avatar

      I have to agree. I’ve also noticed too on some cars, CR has a recommended rating for a new car but rate it “worse than average” as a used car. Sometimes their recommended used cars have worse ratings, or more trouble spots than the ones they say are “worse than average”.

      Case in point was the 2012 Ford Focus which had the red circles in every category but the stereo, and was rated “worse than average” compared to the Toyota Corolla, which actually got a lower score by their metrics.

    • 0 avatar
      eManual

      I had a subscription to Consumer Reports in the late 70’s. Due to the second Arab Oil embargo, they rated the Volkswagen Rabbit as their number one new car purchase. I later drove a loaner 3 year old Rabbit and it was already falling apart and rusting. I cancelled CR after that.

  • avatar
    newprocessmaker

    I’ve had very good results asking independent mechanics who work on the make and model I’m interested in. You’d be surprised at how candid they are, and they’ll tell you exactly what kinds of problems current owners are experiencing and what the cost to repair them will be. They will reccommend durable, reliable, and economical models and will steer you away from trouble prone ones. They will also tell you which engines/transmissions/options/etc. to seek and which ones to avoid.

  • avatar
    manbridge

    Anachronistic cosmos dust guy here.

    How it feels, lasts, and if the rewards of DIY work outweigh headaches are my criteria.

  • avatar
    Carrera

    Great article Steve. I normally buy new cars or very slightly used (no more than 10K miles) but I hold on to them for at least 7 or 8 years. About two years before I am ready to purchase I focus on two, no more than three models. About six months before I am ready to buy I already know which model I will buy. The two years before purchase are spent researching Consumer Reports, True Delta ( more recently) and that particular model’s forum. Due to my two year research time, I never buy a car in its first or second year of production. If I buy it used, I would buy a used model from the second year of production ( if it passes CR, True Delta, and my own research in forums).
    For example, I know that sometimes in 2015 or 2016 I will purchase a diesel vehicle. Since, the market of diesel is very limited, my research hasn’t been too complicated. I know what CR and True Delta say about VW tdi, but I also know what the TDI forum says. The forums overwhelmingly complain about the High Pressure Fuel Pump in the Jetta, Golf and Jetta Wagon but no problems with the Passat’s HPFP. The Passat TDI seems to have problems with blown turbos. At this point it is all speculation of why those things are failing, but those guys on the forums have some darn educated guesses. Recently, I added the Chevy Cruze Tdi to my research list and so far I haven’t seen many systematic problems, but it is a little too early to tell.
    I’ve been using this method for over 15 years and so far it hasn’t failed me yet. Going back to 2001, I had an excellent brand new 2001 CRV ( last year of original body style) which I had to sell in 2009 due to a cross country move. The car had 140k when sold and it was flawless. Just regular maintenance and synthetic oil since new.
    The next car ( current daily driver for wife) was a 2006 brand new Pilot and it seems that the transmission problems have been cured because I have 95K on it now and it drives like new ( regular, by the book maintenance and synthetic oil changes at slightly higher mileage than MMI recommends). For me, I wanted a Ridgeline, but I didn’t want to buy the 2006, which was the first year of production. In 2009, after the CRV trade-in, I bought a 2007 (second year production) with only 9K mile on it. Again, my research paid off and the car has been flawless during the last 75K. I rarely read Motor Trend, Car & Driver..etc..etc and I don’t care which car or truck has won the “of the year” award, or the Golden Whatever…
    Unless, I really know the person, I don’t take too much into account what acquaintances think about a particular car because people have different expectations and definitions about what a good car is. For example, an old co-worker thought his 2004 VW Beetle was the most reliable vehicle because the transmission only failed twice during the 100K he kept the car and the coil packs only failed twice during the same period. His point of reference was his early 90s Dodge Caravan that needed a transmission every 20k miles and his Chevy Cavalier from the 90s who was even a bigger POS.
    To him, the VW WAS the most reliable car he ever had. I also use for research independent mechanics/shops that only work on a particular brand. There are European car specialists or Japanese car specialists who only fix a particular car. I take my cars for maintenance to a shop that only fixes Hondas and Acuras. Every time I go, I talk to the guys about what are the most common problems they see. Those guys are right on the money.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    A several have previously stated, each of us have our own built-in prejudice, based on our personal experiences. Myself, I gravitate to used near luxury cars with two doors and rear drive. A damn narrow slice of the market. But, I figure the entry cost makes the owner more likely to see to any flaws and keep up the service intervals, which are included in many cases. My phobia of certain European engineering practices makes the sample even smaller. However, no rule is absolute, hence I found myself with a Northstar Cadillac, that after I spent a year chasing all gremlins and renewing everything else, has been christened “Kermit” and currently gets the warm garage space reserved for my dear tolerant wife. This car would seem the antithesis of a thoughtful used car purchase. However, the known history and our relationship with the owner, combined with a year of me attempting to break it, while simultaneously rebuilding all wear items made it a reasonable car for our resident photographer. I guess my point is there is no point. Each car is its own biography, and even some Aztek and old Peugeot owners have warm memories and can regale us with many stories of their excellent vehicles. A neighbor down the alley has both an old 914 and a GM X car. Loves them both, swears they’re trouble free. I guess miracles do really happen. My dear Father used to say “you can’t pay too little for a bad car, nor too much for a good one”. He was right.

  • avatar
    marmot

    I do not want to offend “The Answer Is Polara” but I have owned a 2011 Sienna for over two years. The plastics are not “brittle”. It took a very strong, unusual impact to shatter his car’s plastic panels. Normal use will result in no damage to any of this car’s materials. I own a 2004 and 2006 Sienna as well. All of them are excellent, reliable, dependable vehicles. The uncool factor is a definite plus.

  • avatar
    7402

    I’m a big fan of field research. I just ask owners what they think of their car. I’ve even left notes on parked cars with my phone number asking them to call me. There is some confirmation bias with these folks–after all, they’ve sunk their money and identity into their ride–but they will get to the stuff they don’t like if you lead them.

    Another good bet is to call a local independent mechanic who specializes in the brand/model. They will not trash the brand, but they will tell you common repairs out of warranty and what costs to expect.

  • avatar
    George B

    Steve, with enough time I can piece together a reasonably good picture of issues with a specific car model. However, the problem I always run into is I’m buying one specific car with somewhat uncertain past. A bad owner can cause expensive damage to any car made while a good owner can keep all but the worst cars in good condition for a long time. You get to average excellent purchases and not so good purchases while the individual consumer is dealing with a very small sample size.

    • 0 avatar
      jimbob457

      The technical term would be lack of a truly random sample. But is this actually so? The cars in Steve’s sample look like a decent random sample from the universe of vehicles actually coming up for sale.

      Possibly adding model year (i.e. age) as a third axis in the analysis might help. Friction (based mostly on miles driven) and oxidation (based mostly on age) are the two main things that wear out machinery. Finding a variable to measure ownership care would also be nice.

      I have used his metric three times in the past six months.
      1. By exposing the high failure rate for 2003 Acura TL trannys, it warned me off buying an otherwise beautiful example that just didn’t shift quite right.
      2. We are playing IMS roulette with my wife’s 15 year old Porsche 996. Should we spend $1,800 in preventative maintenance to preclude a $20,000 catastrophic failure? Hers is an earlier model than the 2001 to 2006 996’s and Boxters that Porsche admits have a lifetime failure rate of ‘4 to 10%’. Failure rate for her model is less. Its IMS bearing is more robust. Steve’s metric shows overall engine failure rates for the Boxter and 911’s to be well below 5%. Combine that math with no metal bits in the oil, and roulette it is.
      3. I ended up replacing my wrecked 2003 Acura TL3.2 with a 2004 Lincoln Town Car – cherry with 80k miles. Its antique design actually fits my Texas driving needs. The infamous SaNjeev vouches for it. Steve’s metrics were a big help as well. Very low failure rates for an aged fleet – two were under 5% and the 7.2% refers to the engine – a well-tried, largely bulletproof Ford modular 4.6.

      Finally, kudos to Crabspirits comments shown above. Imho, great advice.

  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    Very good article Steve. Picked up some good tips. I usually buy used cars but have brought a few new cars over the years. I usually pick out a car i would like to buy used and go over the used car ads (Getting mighty slim over the years) and look for location. As my father taught me years ago only deal with the nice part of town, Check out the living quarters and if everything looks OK ring the door bell. Check out the car & owner to see if the car was maintained and how long he owned it. I find a lot of cars being sold by new car dealer salesman from their own homes. So far the above served me well but i did get burned one on a Fiat station wagon. Was able to dump it on a trade for a MG Conv.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    While enthusiast websites for specific models certainly attract uncritical fans of that model, they also attract owners having problems with that model searching the Internet for information. So it’s hard or impossible to say if the content of enthusiast sites are biased toward positive or negative views of the particular models.

    • 0 avatar
      kvndoom

      You beat me to it. Weed out the fanboyism and you will tend to find a lot of info about a car from the right forum.

      Many problems which led to TSB’s or recalls started out as forum posts. Don’t doubt the power of someone searching on google for a problem, finding it on a site and registering just to say, “hey, my car does that too! WTF??”

      I can get a very good idea what to expect from a car (and often how to fix it if necessary) by browsing message boards.

      People will always have a need to validate expensive goods that they have bought (hence fanboys), but at the same time, they will bitch loudest when those expensive goods malfunction.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    I use the interwebZ and my coworkers. Some of them have been many years in the trade or have owned the product, and know the local offerings well.

    Crabspirits’ guide is a very solid one.

    I’m no mechanic, but I usually check that the car sits straight, panel gaps are consistent, obvious paint repairs, has no leaks, interior is in order. The novelty here is the test drive. I also have had to look at cars with incredibly filthy or worn interiors.

    I haven’t bought a copy or analysis yet, but I would throw the Dog and Lemon guide there too.

  • avatar
    Atum

    My new tip: don’t buy a car off of the CarFax or AutoCheck report. Here’s how I know. If you go to carfax(dot)com, and type in a license plate, it’ll tell you the vehicle and how many records it has. A story for you all.

    In September, the TCM on my dad’s Rogue failed at 66K, and he took it to a service place on 120 (you, Steve Lang, probably know this place. The one across from the Avenue). The Rogue had 17 records, and even after this major repair, no record saying this happened was added. Same for the two accidents the Nissan had in October and December. Records were only added when it was taken to Hardy’s body shop and repaired.

    Basically, this means some vehicles sold could (almost) be a lemon because of extensive repairs, but since the places don’t report the data to CarFax, or CarFax doesn’t get data, this is completely anonymous to the consumer. As long as LemonCheck, the NICB VIN Check, and the CarFax flood check guarantee no problems, it’s as fine as a car with a CarFax (sometimes).

    I’ve used Consumer Reports for years, and TrueDelta this year. Still don’t guarantee a good or bad used car. And the fleet ones, considering horror stories I read online, avoid those completely.

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      I don’t really see a TCM replacement as something to fear when buying a car, to me that means good, I won’t have to replace something that obviously needed it. But as far as showing in carfax, why would it?

      Remove two bolts unplug harness, reverse to install.

      Nothing major about that at all. Trusting carfax is without a doubt an open door to screw yourself. I can fix and replace every single item on a vehicle short rebuild a transmission ( granted I know someone who can teach me), car fax on my s10 outside wont show my engine was replaced, diffs rebuilt, new steel welded in, heater core replaced, entire interior sound proofed, etc etc — nor will anyone notice, but it’s all there-did it myself.

      And getting repaired is also another area that they often don’t show, anyone can change a few panels on the downlow, you just have to have an eagle eye and know what to look for when buying vehicles.

    • 0 avatar
      burgersandbeer

      CarFax and AutoCheck are much more helpful in showing you what to avoid, rather than what to buy. A clean carfax is not necessarily a clean car, but if I see a severe accident on one of those services, I am not going to follow up on the car.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    Using buff books is not a good idea, since they get them brand new, and don’t keep them. “Fun in twisties” is be all, end all.

    Going by C&D, I bought a used 1981 Dodge Colt [Mirage] hatch in 1985, since they raved about it. And the turbo Mirage was one of favorite ‘hot hatches’.

    But they weren’t built to last past 55k miles, and engine needed a main seal t 95k, after replacing many major parts from clutch, carb, to alternator [twice].

    So, I say if all that people say is that it’s ‘fun in twisties’ most likely have to ‘pay to play’.

  • avatar
    kuponoodles

    You young kids and your internets and AOL and web crawler…..:)

    Back in the day…. before google, before yahoo and ask jeeves,
    I pay attention to what cars are breaking down and causing said traffic issues. (yes, I know the owner might have neglecting basic maintenance, but the visuals invoke a long term memory. )

    The internetz can produce information overload. Google can make you dumber. I read the worst ratings, the 1’s and 2’s. Ignore the comments that are from obvious R-tardz. Focus on reoccurring complaints.

    1+up for all people that mentioned googling “Car X common problems”

    I factoring the cost of fixing problem Y if I owned it and this problem occurred. if cost of Y feels to much like “surprise butt-sex”, then, forget Car X.
    If your heart is forcing you to look at Car X, then add said cost Y to the purchase price, if you have that money set aside from day one, at least your mentally prepared for the reaming.
    i.e. I want a used 535xi wagon, but I don’t think I wanna pay for a control arm, worry about the fuel pump/ecu/turbo and set aside and extra 8 g’s.

    Consumerguide.com/automotive used to have a section called “Review as used” which.. is sausage-ish but not too bad. They are revamping their site so we’ll have to wait to see if they will bring it back.

  • avatar
    grrr

    One of the main issues is to actually find out which variations of a car are available for you to purchase, and find relevant information on them.

    For example, I own a Mazda 6. However, US sites like TrueDelta are hopeless for me as the Mazda 6 sold in New Zealand in 2006 does not share the same providence, and has a completely different transmission for example. Moreover, as a buyer in New Zealand, I can also buy a grey-import JDM Atenza, which will have difference specifications to the NZ-new model again.

    Sadly, my Mazda has let me down, at 120k km, the 5-speed automatic transmission has failed completely; despite a perfect service history by dealer mechanics. It turns out that the more common 4-speed auto, which was standard up until just before my car was manufactured, is a much more solid bet. At the time of purchase though, the now common 5-speed auto problems where not yet apparent as the entire fleet was too new.

    I think it’s potentially hardest to spot problem cars when they are in the 3-6 years old category. Chances are that major problems haven’t shown up accross the fleet in the wild yet. When buying a ten year old car, reading online ads for the particular model sorted by lowest price / highest mileage can be quite tell-tale.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Can’t believe nobody recommended this yet.

    If you want a true, and I mean absolutely, completely, thoroughly true used car review, follow these steps.

    a. Go to YouTube
    b. type in “Regular Car Reviews”
    c. or just copy paste the link I’ve provided for you below into your browser. This Regular Car Review happens to cover the 2007 Porsche Cayman.

    If you haven’t watched a Regular Car Review before, and you’re a car person, be prepared to waste the next two hours watching one after the other.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25gSLDx_2m0

    You’re welcome.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    Just buy early Quad-4 equipped Pontiacs and you can’t go wrong! Also stick to first year models as they seem to go downhill as the years progress.


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