YONKERS, N.Y. — With every passing year, buying a used car becomes less of a gamble according to a new analysis by Consumer Reports. Even the least reliable car-makers are gaining ground on the perennial reliability leaders, Toyota and Honda; Volvo has made the most dramatic improvement over the last decade, but almost all automakers have improved their products in recent years.
The full report, available in Consumer Reports Annual Auto issue and at ConsumerReports.org, features the best used cars, identifies reliable cars and their availability of electronic stability control (ESC) for every budget, and shares seven tips for avoiding a lemon. The article also identifies troublesome used-car models to avoid.
Consumer Reports compared the percentage of problem-free, three-year-old models from its 2002 and 2011 Annual Auto surveys for 13 automakers based on their product output for which owners did not report any serious problems with their cars during the 12 months covered by each survey.
The analysis of 2011 survey data revealed an overall improvement in used-car reliability from almost all automakers with Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler showing the most notable gains (a minimum of 10 percentage points) compared to Consumer Reports’ 2002 results. BMW landed at the bottom of the 2011 list with only about 70 percent of its used cars being trouble-free, which is better than the 2002 survey average of 68 percent.
Consumer Reports chose three-year-old vehicles most of which are coming off warranty and when owners begin to assume the cost of ongoing repairs. By age three, most models also have the steepest part of depreciation behind them, so used-car buyers will find it a good age on which to focus.
In its analysis of used cars, Consumer Reports also tracked extremes from 2007 models – five models that started out with few problems and stayed reliable as they turned five years old and five models that started out with a few more problems and got much worse over time. The 2007 Toyota Prius averaged six problems per 100 cars in its first year and 26 at age five; the Mini Cooper S hatchback averaged nine per 100 cars in the first year and 113 by age five.
Seven Ways to Avoid a Lemon
When buying a used car, choose a model from the most reliable brands and one that will age gracefully over time. However, any vehicle can become a clunker if it has been neglected or has sustained damage from an accident or flood damage. Consumer Reports advises the following to help used-car buyers from landing a lemon.
- Check for signs of collision repair. Some include mismatched body panels or doors, hoods, or trunks that don’t close properly. Bring a magnet to test for the presence of body filler; if it doesn’t stick well to a steel panel, there may be filler under the paint and can indicate a repair.
- Beware of flood damage. A moldy or mildew smell, discolored carpeting or intermittent electrical problems may be signs.
- Check the fluids. Wet spots in the engine compartment or under the vehicle can indicate leaking oils or fluids. Check the oil and transmission fluids for proper texture and color.
- Read the smoke signals. Blue smoke from the tailpipe indicates that the engine may be burning oil. Billowing white smoke indicates water in the combustion chamber, usually because of a blown head gasket, damaged cylinder head or even a cracked block – all expensive repairs.
- Step on the gas. Knocks and pings while accelerating can reflect an overheating engine. If the engine revs excessively before the car accelerates, it may indicate a misadjusted or worn-out clutch or damaged automatic transmission.
- Check the vehicle’s history. A vehicle history report from CarFax (www.carfax.com) or Experian Automotive (www.autocheck.com) can alert a buyer to possible odometer fraud; reveal past fire, flood, and accident damage. Unfortunately, these services don’t catch everything, so it’s no guarantee that a car is problem-free.
- Get it inspected. Have any car thoroughly inspected by a qualified mechanic. Check for any recalls related to the car and verify whether the work was done.
For more information on used cars, check out Consumer Reports Annual Auto issue available on newsstands March 6th or wherever magazines are sold and at ConsumerReports.org.
Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications. Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.
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