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Stan’s rules for selecting a used car.

Saturday, 13 November, 2010

As a long-term car bore, I have certain knowledge which leads me to conclusions unlike reasonable people. As I type, I am also thumbing through classified ads for automobiles for sale in and around Austin, Texas. These rules should be considered for daily-driver vehicles under fifteen years old. Classic and “pre-classic” cars have very different rules based largely on the documented problems of the specific vehicles and their drivetrains.

  • Nothing in a vibrant color. Red, orange, certain shades of blue or green. Someone who selected such a color is likely to have driven the car hard.
  • No performance packages. These cars have been driven hard before broken in properly.
  • No Subarus, Mitsubishis or Chrysler products. Categorically. VW products are acceptable only if they are diesels and all the switches inside are tight and work as designed.
  • Mexican VWs are only slightly preferred over European ones.
  • Hondas and Toyotas are overpriced for their features and fuel economy. You can get an equally good car from other automakers, but you have to find out what they are.
  • GM sixes are good. Especially the Buick 3800, which is available in other brands.
  • Get the bigger engine if you can, or get the engine from the bigger car in the smaller car.
  • Cars in the US have too much engine as it is, you don’t have to use all of it and hope the previous owner didn’t either.
  • First-time buyer cars are best avoided of you do not know that specific car’s heritage. Carfax and Autocheck aren’t enough. Fit (Jazz), Accent, Echo, Yaris, etc.
  • Cars typically purchased by older drivers can represent outstanding value. Buick and Lexus come to mind.
  • No Cadillac Northstar engines.
  • Pontiac and Mercury vehicles are an especially good value since a good portion of the market thinks they might not be able to get parts.
  • The Pontiac Vibe was built on the same line as the Toyota Corolla in California. The car was designed entirely by Toyota’s people using Pontiac’s design language. The very last Pontiac built was one of these. If you think you want a Corolla, search for a Vibe.
  • Cars with engines under 2500 must have three pedals.
  • Factory certification good, any other certification bullshit.
  • “One owner” doesn’t mean what you think it does. It could be one owner after the corporate fleet was done with it. That person may not have been conscientious, at least to their car.
  • Strictly speaking, my truck is a one-owner car. Look at it. Just look at it.
  • I didn’t think I cared about interiors. Then I sat in a Nissan Altima.
  • The last generation of Chevrolet Cavalier does not suck as much as you think it does. It’s a first-time-buyer car. Of these, ex-fleet cars are preferred.
  • No MX-5/Miatas. They are hooned as a matter of practice.
  • For that matter, nothing with implications of sport except Mustangs. These are purchased by women in their 30s-40s and generally driven gently. Maintenance may be spotty.
  • Be especially careful about buying from a non-franchised dealer. That is, someone who does not deal in new cars.  If you see the words “We finance” turn around quickly.
  • Carmax gives more for your trade because the cars are 30% more expensive than they should be and in-house financing is punitive.
  • If you are looking at a car through a refurbisher or neighborhood mechanic: get something like a warranty unless the specific vehicle is very cheap and you can withstand common-to-that-model repairs.
  • If you want a truck, make it American. This isn’t pride or anything, it may be the only thing we still know how to do.
  • Guys whine about the Rabbits and Golfs they didn’t actually drive in high school. If the phenomenon was genuine sales of the Kia Rio5 would be even higher.

Honestly, I’m only getting warmed up. No wonder I can’t find a car.

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