Now there's a brand I can talk about from experience. In fact, I've purchased 2 Audis in the last 2 years. And they were both Certified Pre-Owned. One came from the dealer and the other was from a private-party sale of a CPO A4. Regarding the A3, I've driven it, but I'll defer the driving reviews to the car magazines (or Walt). Although we're talking about comparing two Audis, the CPO versus new question can be applied to a wide range of makes. James M., since your question was brief, I'll base this on an assumption that you want to spend about the same for the A3 and the A4 CPO, which puts you in a 2004 to 2002 with less than 30,000 miles.
After the jump, there's a summary for those of you not familiar with the Certified Pre-Owned car programs. (A4 wagon shown above)
(Audi A3 at right)
WHAT IS CPO?
CPO cars start out just like any other used car. Dealers get them in trade-ins, dealer trades, auctions, etc. But they must meet a criteria set by each manufacturer that offer CPO programs. These cars tend to: have less than 40,000 miles on the odometer, be younger than 4-years-old, not have sustained major structural damage and have clean titles. Then, they must pass a manufacturer mandated mechanical and body inspection. If the car passes those tests, they add on an extra warranty period, with some companies covering up to 100,000 and 10 years from when the car was first sold. On average, I've found Audi CPO cars to cost about 5-10% more than the non-certified counterpart with its 7-year, 100,000 mile warranty. I've also seen them for far less on a Honda, for example.
What you're really paying for is an insurance policy. In fact, you can find third-party warranties for any brand of cars that are not sold by dealers. The Audi CPO even comes with a deductible of $50 that must be paid per visit to the doctor's office, I mean, service station. The sellers of these policies are betting that the average car will require far less than what it cost in premiums. If the insurer has done a good job, these CPO cars are picked to minimize the number of claims to the insurer, so theoretically, they should provide better reliability.
THE NEW CAR SMELL
You're certainly not the only one who is intoxicated by the smell of a new car (A3 interior shown) and the shiny new features. I've bought several new cars and there's nothing like that new car feeling. I had considered buying used, but I was concerned about the reliability. And being a total geek, I wanted the latest and greatest technology in my car. These are legitimate concerns and that's why car companies are pushing CPO programs to at least address the reliability concerns. Selling CPO cars also provide large margins for dealers and that's why you find lots of certified car ads in local papers. And the better the used car sales, the better the resale value on new cars. It's a great program for the car sellers.
LIVING WITH A CPO CAR
Depreciation and (although to a lesser degree than a new car) peace of mind. A used car will cost you less in terms of depreciation and you know that there's a long warranty. In this case, since the A3 is new, the depreciation numbers are just a guess. (A4 shown at right) Regarding the warranty, you'll have to read the fine print to know what's really covered. In the case of the Audi, trim pieces, wear and tear, and scheduled maintenance are not covered. For example, a cracked faux-wood grain trim piece on the driver's door is not covered under the warranty. A major maintenance item, such as a timing belt replacement is not covered. A crack in the b-pillar interior cover? Sorry. These are real repairs I had to deal with.
The best part about the CPO in my view is that it covers most mechanical parts (pun intended), including the electrical components. Those are costly to fix, and I hope I never have to deal with it. And just between you and me, Audis have a history of electrical glitches. I recently had a faulty oxygen sensor replaced, and I have had about 10 minor interior accessory issues repaired. Only 2 ended up not being covered. One issue took three visits to finally fix, but since it was reported the first time around, it was included in the first $50 I paid at the first visit.
Most buyers understand why wear and tear and maintenance are not covered, but I've seen more than a few people blow their gaskets over the trim pieces. Some dealers have replaced faulty cup holders under CPO warranty, while others have refused. I've also found myself "saving up" repairs and taking a whole bunch into service at the same time to minimize paying the per-visit deductible. I've used the CPO warranty service 2 times, one for each car, in the total of 30,000 miles since I bought them. So far, I'm about even.
Also, a CPO car does not add much resale value when you trade it in to a dealer. If you want to get more money for your car, sell it private party. But that's probably another post.
If you really want the newest car technology, that smell and bumper-to-bumper coverage, the A3 (right) is a fun-to-drive car with practical cargo space - like a larger, more aggressive Mini Cooper. If you want more passenger room, less depreciation (roughly $3,000 less over 5 years) and a softer, more comfortable ride, the used A4 is your car. It provides a more pleasing interior with a design that should stand up better to the test of time, if not a bit bland for some people. It does, however, lack the legroom in the rear. If AWD is important to you, check to see when the A3s will start arriving with Quattro, as they are all front-driven right now. This one's a tough call, and since I don't know enough about your needs, James, I'll have to leave it at that. Please feel free to follow up, and everyone, feel free to give us your take. But I hope I have given you a good idea as to living with a CPO car.
THE LONG VIEW
I've been more than happy with the Audis, despite their minor problems. (A4 interior shown) But that's why I coughed up the money for a CPO. Even if I hadn't broken even on the premium paid for the warranty, I feel better knowing I am covered for the unknown. Having bought used, the bottom line is that my fiancée and I drive 2 Audis (a 2002 and a 1999) under warranty for less than the price of a new, fully-loaded A4. And I am likely to buy CPO again.
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