Steer clear of lemons

How to separate the plums from the lemons

One of my biggest beefs as a consumer advocate is getting complaints from people who buy first and ask questions later. I recently received angry letters from several people who unwittingly purchased used vehicles with notoriously poor track records. Within six months, all were facing huge repair bills. None had consulted any car-buying guides or done any other research prior to their purchase.

One woman told me she bought her minivan because she thought the seller was “a good Christian.” Another simply reasoned, “Lots of people own this vehicle.” A third, who bought a 1987 vehicle with 177,000 kilometres, figured she was safe because she was buying from a dealership.

As all three owners belatedly discovered, it’s better to rely on facts than faith when trying to separate automotive plums from lemons. And that’s true whether you’re shopping for a slightly bruised used car or something fresh off the lot.

Over the past 25 years, author Phil Edmonston has sold more than 800,000 copies of the Lemon-Aid series of car-buying guides. But even Edmonston, who has a clear interest in plugging his own books, says would-be buyers should consult more than one source. “You should never take one publication on its own,” he warns. “Try to mix and match and look for trends.” Other sources include the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) guide Autopinion: Carbuyer’s Annual, Consumer Reports Used Car Buying Guide, Consumer Reports New Car Buying Guide and Web site ( Members of the Chatelaine Car Confidence Club can call the club’s hot line (1/800/625-3319). The CAA has a similar service-contact your local branch.

When it comes to new or used cars, published reports are your first guide to the pick of the crop. But not all reports are equally reliable. David Champion is director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, North America’s oldest nonprofit consumer watchdog. Champion notes that since Consumer Reports actually buys the new vehicles it tests, and the magazine does not accept advertising from automakers, its reports are impartial. Some auto magazines are heavily bank-rolled by automaker ads and reviewers get “loaner” vehicles that are specially prepared for journalists.

Consumer Reports bases its annual new car evaluations on tests of 40 to 44 cars driven about 10,000 to 15,000 kilometres over six months, and pushed to the limit on a test track. The used car evaluations-including lists of best and worst vehicles-are compiled from owner surveys. Last year, Consumer Reports received surveys from 575,000 subscribers.

“We look at safety and problems that will make the car undrivable,” says Champion. “Things that keep a car from running are weighed more heavily than squeaks, rattles or an air-conditioning problem.”

With used cars, buying by the book isn’t enough. No matter how well a model stacks up in reliability surveys, individual roadworthiness depends in part on how well a particular vehicle has been maintained. Always ask to see service records and do a search of the ownership history. Look for routine maintenance and repairs to problems listed in the guides. If the vehicle is such a plum, why is it up for sale? Ask a dealership to run the vehicle identification number to check the repair history and any recalls.

Once you narrow your choice, get a good technician to perform a thorough check of the vehicle. It may cost you up to $100, but it could save you thousands in the long run.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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