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10 used car clunkers to avoid

October 18, 2012

With the average new car selling for around $30,000, and even a moderately equipped compact model going for close to $20,000 these days, cash-strapped motorists have little choice but to purchase a used vehicle. Unfortunately, a relatively short supply of pre-owned models – precipitated by the 2007-2009 economic recession, when fewer new vehicles were purchased or leased – continues to keep used-car values at or near record-high levels according to the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) Used Car Guide.

What’s more, even though today’s cars tend to last far longer than did models from 20 or more years ago, like fine wines some tend to age better than comparable models of the same vintage. With used-car values already out of whack, shoppers need to be extra cautious to avoid compounding an already unfavorable financial situation by selecting a more-problematic model that will require costly out-of-warranty repair work.

To that end we’ve compiled the accompanying rogues gallery of 10 used cars to avoid, based on data we’ve compiled from multiple sources including reliability surveys, safety ratings, resale values and our own experiences road-testing the vehicles over the years.

Our selections are largely based on both initial-quality/performance and long-term reliability reports for model-year 2008 and 2009 vehicles conducted by Consumer Reports and J.D. Power & Associates. All of the models in our list were rated as being below average in overall reliability by both organizations. Consumer Reports bases its durability findings on data supplied by owners of 1.3 million vehicles, while J.D. Power’s findings were compiled from information supplied by 43,700 original owners of 2008 model-year vehicles and 31,000 original owners of 2009 model-year vehicles after three years of ownership. Both sources polled participants regarding mechanical and other problems experienced during the prior 12 months.

While we’ve included used cars to avoid in most market segments, we came down especially hard this year on under-performing luxury vehicles. Not only have used luxury-car prices skyrocketed by about 22 percent from 2009-2011 according to the NADA Used Car Guide, but the cost of replacement parts and labor tend to be considerably higher than with similar models from mainstream brands (after all, there’s a reason that BMW and Mercedes-Benz dealers can treat their customers to posh service-department waiting rooms and the latest models as loaner cars).

Those looking to the pre-owned market for a less-expensive way to obtain upscale brand cachet often find themselves paying dearly for the privilege in terms of steeper repair bills. This is one segment in which we strongly recommend buying a late model “certified” used car from a dealer that’s both been reconditioned and comes with a comprehensive warranty.

Other models in our list tend to be cars and trucks that not only missed the mark in terms of accommodations and performance as new cars but have only fared worse over time in terms of their dubious durability.

Of course, even a vehicle that boasts top long-term reliability can prove to be a “lemon” if its been abused, has hidden damage or was improperly maintained. That’s why it’s always prudent to have a trusted mechanic carefully inspect any used car or truck under your consideration to get an impartial evaluation of its operating condition. And always run a model’s vehicle identification number (VIN) through a title-search service like CarFax to make sure it hasn’t been previously flood-damaged or salvaged and subsequently rebuilt.

The good news for those considering a pre-owned vehicle is that analysts see used car prices taking an end-of summer dip, dropping an average 3.8% in August and between 3% and 3.5% in September, according to the NADA Used Car Guide. “Over the next few months, we expect to see an acceleration in the decline of used-vehicle prices that usually begins as the summer season winds down,” says Jonathan Banks, senior analyst with the NADA. Expect prices to drop further over time as the inventory of used vehicles continues to grow concurrently as more models come off lease and added trade-ins from new-car sales fill dealers’ lots. “This means that for the first time in years, downside price risk is on the horizon in 2013 and even more so farther out into 2014,” Banks says.

BMW X5

As with all the models in our list of used cars to avoid, BMW’s sporty large crossover SUV is cited by both Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and associates for having worse than average reliability from the model years we’re tracking, 2008 and 2009. Keeping up with even regular maintenance on an X5 can be costly enough, but footing the cost of out-of-warranty repair bills can be prohibitive. Consumer Reports notes specific problems with the fuel system, body hardware and power equipment. J.D. Power gives it low marks across the board for powertrain, body/interior and feature/accessory dependability; it also got low scores for initial quality regards to its powertrain, feature/accessory and overall design quality.

Cadillac STS

Discontinued after the 2010 model year, the midsize rear-drive STS was never as sporty as the smaller CTS, nor as plush as the larger DTS. It was offered with a choice of V6 and V8 engines and in an ultra-sporty STS-V version that remains overpriced even in the resale market and can be particularly costly to repair. J.D. Power gives it low scores for overall dependability, (though the 2008 version fared a tick better in that regard than did the 2009 model), along with poor initial quality grades. Among major components, Consumer Reports cites issues with its electrical and braking systems. It only received an “acceptable” score in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) side-impact tests and 4 stars out of five in driver and passenger frontal collision protection from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with four stars for side-impacts on the driver’s side.

Chevrolet Aveo

Replaced in Chevy’s lineup by the far superior Sonic for 2012, the subcompact Aveo was a nondescript car with little in the way of redeeming qualities other than a low sticker price and decent fuel economy. Its diminutive 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine limps along with just 103 horsepower, and a cramped interior is further insulted with inferior-grade plastics. Consumer Reports takes issue with the car’s fuel system, brakes (2009 model), body integrity, body hardware and audio system. Owners surveyed by J.D. Power gave it low scores across the board for dependability and mechanical initial quality categories. In IIHS crash tests it received acceptable ratings for frontal impact protection and only marginable scored in side-impact and roof-crush protection. NHTSA gave it only four stars for side impact protection on the driver’s side and three stars on the passenger’s side.

Chevrolet Colorado / GMC Canyon

Buyers have largely abandoned the small pickup truck market in recent years in favor of full-size models that afford added utility and durability for not much more money. The near-twin Colorado and Canyon remain among the laggards in this forgotten segment. As new models they’re near the bottom of the pack in terms of performance and initial quality rankings, with sub-par crash test scores and dependability ratings in several categories that make second-hand ownership even less of a bargain. You’ll find the 2008 and 2009 models available in three cab configurations with a choice of underpowered four- and five-cylinder engines and with three suspension levels. Beware of owners who may have exceeded the trucks’ payload and maximum towing ratings at the expense of accelerated engine and transmission wear.

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