There are so many “Best in Show” categories for cars these days as to make the competitions seem like nothing but hype.
For example, J.D. Power, Edmunds, Car & Driver, and Consumer Reports all have multiple categories for their branded award citations. You can find the “best cars on the market,” “best small,” “best luxury,” “best mid-sized luxury,” “best SUV,” “best compact,” “best subcompact,” “roomiest,” “best fuel economy,” “best hybrid,” “most fun to drive,” “most fun on a budget.” It just never ends. Some commentators have compared the industry frenzy to a child’s soccer team, where everyone goes home with a gold-painted plastic trophy at season’s end. Call it the Oscars of the automotive world.
The April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports just hit the newsstands. It is the Annual Auto Issue, dedicated to reviewing the full range of models available in the U.S. Although more objective and credible than most others, Consumer Reports still lists so many categories, it appears to have something for everyone. It might be more important to examine the sidebars at the end that identify the “Models to Avoid.”
Unlike other reports that focus on the current year makes and models, this issue has a useful section on used car purchasing. The team at Consumer Reports has crunched the numbers and analyzed its own data on reliability and performance from the last decade. Because price is a primary filter for used car buyers, Consumer Reports has organized its results in increments of $5,000 and by year. A separate chart sorts the information by size and model type.
One particularly helpful visual compares problems with different components as vehicles age. This gives the reader valuable information about what parts are more vulnerable at 3, 6 and 12 years. The chart has some surprising results. Many people think the transmission is the riskiest proposition in an old car; but in fact the fuel system is the most commonly reported problem in cars 8 years or older.
One of the reasons the price of used cars has increased in recent years is due to the manufacturers' CPO or "Certified Pre-Owned" programs, which are promoted at the dealerships. These used cars are sold at a premium, presumably because they have been thoroughly checked out. That is not always true. The buyer needs to carefully examine the long list of things covered by a particular CPO program and should compare that list to the Consumer Reports chart entitled "What goes wrong as cars age." Obviously you want to see fuel system, engine and suspension - not just mirrors and audio system - on the list of covered items, to decide whether it is worth paying more for a CPO car.
Used car buying is never an easy process. But, with its emphasis on reliability, not just styling, and its urging to purchase what's right for you, this Consumer Reports guide is a helpful tool for consumers trying to sort through the used car market.