Navigating the used-car market
A couple of months ago, I had a chance to put my money where my mouth is. My youngest daughter, who has just given birth to a bouncing baby girl (yes, that officially makes me a grandpa), needed something sensible, with back door/seat access and a decent-sized trunk. Her cool but impractical BMW two-door coupe had to go, and it fell to me to get an appropriate family hauler. Budget: $5,000 max.
Here are some of the cars we checked out.
2000 BMW 320i I drove one of these new—BMW’s E46 model—back in the day and loved it because of its taut handling/braking and that slick little in-line six. However, the years have not been kind to this model, and its transmission in particular has turned out to be highly unreliable. These cars are also terrifyingly expensive to fix. This particular one had some 210,000 kilometres on the clock and looked good from a distance, but it was afflicted with a “check engine” light that wouldn’t shut off, needed front struts and an air conditioning recharge, and smelled funky because the owner had two Rottweilers. He wanted $2,800. We passed.
Honda CR-V We actually looked at two. The first, a 1997 model, had a massive front-end clunk, high mileage (280,000 kilometres), and “grindy” brakes. Plus—and this is the important bit—it was being sold by a “friend” of the owner, who was temporarily out of town. He was asking $3,200. Well, you can ask anything you want, but uh-uh. The second was a 2003, asking price $3,700, with some 180,000 kilometres and overall in decent nick. But the car was still registered in Ontario and needed to be safety-inspected here in B.C. before it could be registered and plated. As well, the owner was never available when I called; I played phone tag with this guy for several days. If there’s a textbook way not to sell a car, this was it.
1998 Volvo V70 It was going for $4,200. Another Ontario car, driven out west when its owner moved here to take a new job. High mileage but with a meticulous repair/maintenance record kept by its school-principal owner. However, it had a broken power seat adjuster and an erratic automatic transmission and just felt kind of loose and used. Loved the maintenance records and it seemed to run okay, but again, like all European cars, these can be like a runaway train when it comes to repairs. With over 300,000 kilometres under its belt, that seemed to be just around the corner. Thanks, but no thanks.
2001 Honda Civic Broke my own rule on this one and found it at a Kia dealership. Normally, I avoid these places like an Adam Sandler movie, but by now we were getting kind of desperate and I was considering just biting the bullet and getting her a new car. But parked up beside the show room was a Canadian-made Civic DX that had “just come in” as a trade-in and hadn’t even been detailed yet. It wasn’t perfect—a little scratched up and the SRS light wouldn’t shut off, but these things are both easily fixed. It had comparatively low mileage (122,000 kilometres) and a spotless interior. It was also kind of unusual in that it had air conditioning and an automatic transmission but wind-up windows. Drove it around the block; it ran like a clock and felt tight. Most importantly, she liked it. I think we have a winner. Price: $3,900 before taxes.
So what did we learn?
First, the used-car market is even more of a contact sport than it used to be, full of con artists, smoothies, carpetbaggers, excuse makers, and truth stretchers. As well, people are keeping their cars longer. Decent, lightly used vehicles in this price range seem to get instantly snapped up and recycled by curbers and flip artists. These guys are fast.
And if it isn’t quick-buck artists, it’s sellers who are trying to fob off a car well past its useful life, with myriad hidden problems and issues they’re trying desperately to hide.
Unfortunately, by this stage of the game, the usual sources of advice—Consumer Reports, Transport Canada, the NHTSA, J. D. Power, et cetera—are kind of irrelevant because any used car priced in the $5,000 neighbourhood is going to be at least 10 years old and has likely been through two or three (or more) owners.
Which means that sometimes, hitting the car lots may be the way to go. If your timing is right, you can get a half-decent trade-in at a fair price: the Civic was initially stickered at $6,888 (!), but I haggled the guy down and got it serviced and detailed to boot. As well, you can, for a price, purchase extended warranty coverage, even on a car as old as this one. It’s not cheap, but it’s available.
I also discovered that something I consider to be an appropriate choice won’t necessarily resonate with a 25-year-old woman. Rather than fight our way through high-mileage, clapped-out Civics, Corollas, Camrys, and the like, I reasoned, why not think outside the box a little and look at models like, oh, the Buick Century, a second-generation Honda Odyssey, Saturn Vue, and so on. These are affordable cars with surprisingly good reliability that are often overlooked.
Nope, she said, those are grandpa cars—I’m not ready for that yet.