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All Jeff Hannan wanted was a reliable, affordable car.
That's what he thought he was buying back in July 1997: a "cream puff," in the lingo of the used-car world. The Philadelphia police officer paid $19,242 to Gary Barbera Chryslerland, and drove home the satisfied owner of a '95 Mazda Millenia.
He wasn't satisfied for long.
Within two weeks, he needed a new transmission. Later there were problems with the brakes and cooling system, and a broken motor mount.
Many of the repairs were covered by warranty, but not all. To Hannan, the biggest costs came in hassle and lost time - just what he had hoped to avoid when he picked the Mazda after reading up on the most trustworthy used cars.
Hannan was frustrated, but he wasn't angry - not till he realized he had been misled. Thanks to a tip from a mechanic at the Mazda dealership where he went for repairs, Hannan learned that the car wasn't the single-owner cream puff he had been told it was.
The Millenia had been in a front-end accident before it was turned in, early, from a lease. When he bought it, the car was already on its third engine and transmission.
Not only that, but employees at Barbera knew about the car's checkered history, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn Temin concluded after a 1999 trial in a lawsuit that Hannan filed against the dealership.
Temin, who awarded Hannan double damages of $38,484, called Chryslerland's actions "outrageous, intentionally and maliciously misleading, and in total disregard of the requirements of law."
The Northeast Philadelphia dealership appealed to Superior Court but lost there, too, in July, and then lost a bid for reargument. With Hannan already asking an extra $9,000 for delayed damages, the dealer agreed last month to pay Hannan an undisclosed sum, plus attorney's fees, and to drop further appeals.
I asked Craig Sopin, the lawyer for Gary Barbera Chryslerland, to discuss the case, and he referred questions to Gino Barbera, sales manager and Gary's brother. Gino Barbera did not go into details, but he said: "We stood behind that car, because we sold that car, 1,000 percent. We offered Mr. Hannan a full refund, and even a profit on what he paid."
Hannan and his lawyer, Craig Thor Kimmel, dispute that. They said Hannan was never offered either of the things he requested: a refund or a replacement Mazda.
Is there a way Hannan could have avoided this nightmare?
It's hard to argue with how he began, looking for used cars recommended as reliable by reputable sources such as Consumer Reports or Edmunds.com.
But picking a statistically reliable model is only the first step. In a process in which there are no sure things, how do you tell that a specific car is a good bet?
The most important advice may be the classic "buyer beware." If possible, buy from someone you know or a dealer whose reputation you trust. If you aren't completely confident that you know the car's history, examine it closely for signs of mechanical problems or crash repairs. Once you've made your choice, have your own mechanic look at it.
A promising solution - but one that still has sizeable flaws - is a service widely advertised by Carfax Inc. Provide a vehicle identification number to Carfax (www.carfax.com; 1-888-422-7329), and the company can pinpoint red flags, such as whether the car was ever declared a lemon, given a salvage title or a flood title, or had its odometer rolled back.
The problem is that salvage titles go only to cars totaled in crashes, even though lesser accidents can cause long-term troubles that may be hidden by cosmetic repairs.
So far, Carfax has been able to obtain data on such accidents from only 18 states and it hasn't reached agreements with officials in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. A Carfax report on Hannan's Millenia comes back clean as a whistle - or a cream puff - with no reference to the accident or any other problem.
"It's a matter of having [state officials] see the value of sharing that information with consumers in their states," Carfax vice president Scott Fredericks says.
No question it would have been valuable to Jeff Hannan.
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