It's no surprise that more used cars are sold every year in America than new cars. One reason is obvious -- they're less expensive, which has become an even bigger factor as new-car prices, not to mention fuel costs, keep rising. And, by opting for a used car, you avoid the biggest expense associated with buying a new vehicle -- depreciation.
"If you buy a new car, depreciation represents 48 percent of the cost of owning that car over the first five years," says Jeff Bartlett, Deputy Editor Online, Autos, for Consumer Reports, which recently released its annual ratings of the best and worst new and used cars in the marketplace. "And insurance rates are lower for used cars as well."
"So buying an older model can save you a significant amount of money," stresses Bartlett. "And with the current economic situation, we can expect that more and more people will be looking for a used car and they'll probably get more for their money than when they buy new."
That's why Consumer Reports rates used cars as well as new cars: "All the things that buyers think of when they're buying a new car -- economics, convenience, reliability -- are the things they should consider when buying a used car," says Bartlett. "And those are the things we look at, as well."
Consumer Reports' latest assessment of used cars, published in its April Autos Issue, identifies the best and worst used vehicles for the last 10 model years, 1998 through 2007. The magazine compiled lists of "Good Choices" and "Used Cars to Avoid." The lists are based on all the models that ranked with above or below-average overall reliability in Consumer Reports' 2007 Annual Car Reliability Survey, which drew responses on about 1.3 million vehicles.
One trend that the CR survey revealed was that, as the reliability of new cars has improved, those cars have remained more reliable when they "mature" and become used cars, making used cars even more appealing. The survey revealed that there are hundreds of used car models that provide above-average reliability -- and that many of them are also safe, fuel-efficient and affordable, notes Bartlett.
The Consumers Reports "Good Choices" list is broken down by price range and features a variety of used vehicles that can be had for less than $4,000 to over $30,000. For the budget-minded, CR found 30 quality used cars that can be purchased for under $4,000, including the 1998 Acura CL and the 1999 Buick LeSabre.
Consumer Reports also assembled a "Best of the Best" used vehicles list. The vehicles on this list have performed well in CR's road tests and have boasted better-than-average reliability for several years, according to survey respondents.
Conversely, vehicles that were reported having worse-than-average reliability, over a period of several years, earned a spot on the "Worst of the Worst" list.
You probably noticed that some car brands showed up on both lists. That's why it's important to do your homework on the specific models you're considering, instead of just making your choice based on the reputation of the brand.
"We tend to speak in generalities," says Bartlett. "We think that some brands tend to be good, and some tend to be bad -- but every brand has a spectrum of good-to-poor models. So check out the reliability ratings of the specific models, because there is sometimes a difference between perception and reality."
Bartlett cited examples from two different brands:
"We have the Buick Lacrosse as a good bet, but we have the Buick Rendezvous and Terraza as bad bets. And with Nissan, some good bets are the Altima, Maxima and Murano, but we have the Armada and Titan listed as bad bets."
Although Consumer Reports "looks at and evaluates cars without favoring nation of origin, one trend we see is that the Japanese brands tend to dominate the good choices lists, while the bad choices lists are represented by an international potpourri," he says, meaning everything from Japanese to Korean to European to American brands.
Bartlett notes that, due to rising fuel prices, some of Consumers Reports' perennial recommendations now have added appeal due to their fuel economy. "We really didn't see too many surprises in this year's rankings, because most of these cars are pretty familiar to us, and have made the list on both sides pretty routinely -- which goes back to the truth that cars that perform well when they're new will likely perform well when they're used.
"And some of those that have stood out, and have often made our good choices lists, models like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Prius and Toyota Rav4, just happen to be among the most fuel-efficient cars in their class. So now, with elevated fuel prices, those models are probably even better bets."
The study also included a list of reliable cars that have performed well in Consumers Reports' independent crash tests. That safety issue is an important factor, notes Bartlett. "When buying used cars, people tend to think mostly about price, but they should also be aware of how safe the vehicle is. So we encourage buyers to look at the results of our crash tests, and our dynamic test ratings, which measure such factors as braking response and accident avoidance, as well whether or not the vehicle has safety features like ABS and Electronic Stability Control."
The magazine's online edition has expanded its list of good choices in the luxury car category, "and we see a number of Infiniti, Lexus and Lincolns on that list," notes Bartlett. "But we also see some of those on the bad choices lists as well, because luxury cars always pose added risk due to their complexities. A lot of the luxury cars out there like to be first when it comes to technological innovations, but sometimes it takes a couple of years to work the bugs out of some of those high-tech features."
Obviously, many of the rules of new-car buying also apply to purchasing used cars. For example, the old saw about "not buying a model the first year it's on the market" is good advice, says Bartlett.
"Sometimes it takes the carmaker a year or two to sort problems out on a new model, and that's true across any brand. As the model matures across a few generations, the quality and reliability tend to improve. So it's probably best, when shopping for used cars, to avoid a particular vehicle if it was the first year that the model rolled out."