By Jacqueline Mitchell, Forbes.com
Think about a used car and you might think junky, dirty and old. But another market is catching the attention of savvy buyers who want updated rides without paying new-car prices.
These certified used or certified “pre-owned” (CPO) vehicles have been inspected and refurbished by the manufacturer and are backed by extended warranties. The certified used car market isn’t one that automakers can afford to ignore. According to a recent J.D. Power and Associates study, sales of certified used cars have increased 46% since 2000. Auto experts estimate that 1.6 million certified used cars are sold annually, a number equivalent to 10% of new vehicle sales. This rapid growth started when the segment emerged in the 1990s. Luxury automakers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus, looking for ways to unload vehicles coming off lease programs, introduced the certified pre-owned programs as a way to attract the discerning buyer who wanted a luxury car but didn’t want to shell out the big bucks. Other luxury and non-luxury automakers who found themselves in similar situations began offering their versions of these programs. Smart car buyers like them, too. Now, with this best-and-worst list of certified used cars from Forbes.com, smart buyers can be even smarter about this growing market segment.
Kelley Blue Book experts say new vehicle prices average $35,000 and depreciate at a rate of about 20% a year. With this in mind, the cost involved with the inspection, refurbishment and warranty of a certified pre-owned vehicle may add up to a better purchase package than buying a brand new car. “CPO cars are selected from the best of the best,” says Micah Muzio, video road-test editor of Kelley Blue Book. “Automakers can sell them for a premium, usually about $3,000 more than a used (non-certified) car. But the customer gets peace of mind, because the vehicle has been inspected and it’s backed by an extended warranty.”
But don’t rush out and purchase or lease just any vehicle wearing a CPO badge. The programs vary by automaker — and the quality of the vehicles is just as diverse. We looked at a combination of measures to find the best and worst certified used cars on the market, including Consumer Reports’ used-car verdict scores, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for crash test ratings and manufacturer-backed warranty programs.Topping our list of the Best CPO vehicles are the Honda Accord, Toyota 4Runner, Acura TL, Subaru Impreza and Lexus GS.
Making our list of the Worst CPO vehicles are the Saturn Relay, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Pontiac G6, Volkswagen New Beetle and Mercedes-Benz E Class.Vehicles that weren’t at the top of class as new car purchases won’t emerge at the top as stellar CPOs, Muzio says. The Relay, New Beetle and E Class, for example, are aging, older models; the Pontiac G6, while fairly new, isn’t a big seller in the segment for family cars. And the Jeep Grand Cherokee has struggled in the highly competitive SUV market.
To get a comprehensive list, we did not use multiple vehicles from one brand, but took the best of the bunch. So if one company had two vehicles that could make the list, we chose the top-ranked car from that brand, based on our measures, to include on the list. We did not include vehicles that had been significantly redesigned for 2008, and we excluded vehicles that did not have complete reporting data for safety or Consumer Reports’ used-car verdicts.
Those used-car verdicts are based on reliability history in 17 areas, ranging from the engine, transmission, and brakes to power equipment and the electrical system. Consumer Reports provides the data, where available, dating back to 1998. We used data for a three-year period spanning 2005 through 2007, as data for a five-year period was not always complete. The highest possible score a vehicle could earn over that time period is 15, or five points for each of the three years. We considered only vehicles with a total of 13 points or greater for the “best” list; a cutoff of seven points or less was used to determine the “worst.”
The only vehicle making our list with a score of 15 is the Honda Accord. The vehicles with the lowest score are the Saturn Relay and Jeep Grand Cherokee, both tying with a score of three.Keep in mind a score of 15 doesn’t mean that the vehicle is problem-free; it just means that it has relatively fewer problems compared with other models. And a score of three doesn’t mean a vehicle is unreliable; it merely has a higher rate of problems than the average model.
Safety was another key factor. Using information from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, we were able to find historical crash test ratings. All the vehicles that made the “best” list have safety ratings of “good” for both frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests for the three model years considered.
The vehicles on the “worst” list all earned “good” ratings in frontal-offset testing, but earned scores of less than “good” for side impacts. The lowest score was “poor” — for the Volkswagen New Beetle. The Saturn Relay, depending on the year, had scores of “average,” “marginal” or “poor.”
We looked at the extended standard warranty and the number of points inspected, which range from 75 to 165. For the best, we used a cutoff of 150 points or higher; for the worst, 130 points and below. The length of time of an extended standard warranty and additional benefits were taken into consideration, but were not as heavily weighted as the number of inspection points, crash-test ratings and reliability history. All extended standard warranties kick in when the original manufacturer warranties expire; if the original has already expired, the new warranty goes into effect at the time the CPO vehicle is purchased. This information is available at the manufacturers’ websites and the Kelley Blue Book site.
The CPO Acura TL includes 24-hour roadside assistance, 24-hour emergency towing services, emergency fuel delivery and emergency lock-out service as part of its 12-month/12,000-mile extended warranty.
The CPO Lexus GS comes with a loaner car, 24-hour roadside assistance and trip interruption service (If your vehicle breaks down while you are away from home, this will cover reimbursement for meals, lodging and rental for a certain period of time, while your car is under repair) under its three-year/100,000-mile standard warranty. Some vehicles making our “worst” list also offered some added benefits under standard warranty plans. The CPO Pontiac G6 standard warranty includes 24-hour roadside assistance, a three-day, 150-mile satisfaction guarantee and a vehicle history report that details any past accidents, damage or “lemon” history.
With the information you need guiding you to the right CPO vehicle, you just might be able to slide behind the wheel of your dream car sooner than you think.