Ordinarily, buying a used car means buying an unknown quantity. Not so when buying certified used vehicles (CUVs), which come with thoroughly refurbished components and factory-backed warranties. When dealers advertise their factory certified vehicles running "like new," they really mean it.
What "Certified" Means
Factory certification was pioneered over a decade ago by Mercedes-Benz, and today, nearly every auto company offers a certified pre-owned car program. While each manufacturer has different standards, every "certified pre-owned" or "certified used" car will have undergone a thorough inspection, reconditioning, and repair process; and the like-new vehicle will be backed by a factory warranty for a certain number of years or miles.
Not every used car can make it into a certification program. Most CUVs will be less than six years old and a maximum mileage under 85,000 miles. Norm Olson, sales operations manager for Toyota Certified Used Vehicles, says they meticulously select cars for certification. "We’re very conscious of what cars we choose for the program," Olson explains, running a Vehicle History Report on each one to verify no serious prior problems like flood damage.
Once a car is a candidate for certification, each dealership’s expert technicians will put it through an intensive 100+-point inspection, checking every single component for damage or wear. Any problem components will be fixed by refurbishing, repair, or replacement.
Olson asserts, "Every single thing has standards it has to meet, and everything is brought up to quality. If there’s a scratch on the fender, they’ll paint it. The dealers don’t spare any expense on these: it will look like new, and run like new."
Dealerships have to consistently meet strict manufacturer standards (Toyota and Lexus even have independent third-party inspectors check out dealers’ repair work) in order to participate in the certification program.
Finally, a CPO car will come with a factory-backed warranty, usually covering comprehensive repairs for a few months and powertrain repairs for a longer period. Unlike an individual dealership’s warranty, this manufacturer warranty will be honored at any authorized dealership.
Most major automotive Internet sites are now offering a distinct shopping category for certified vehicles, so you can check the details of certification before going to the dealer. Shop around. "Not all certified programs are the same," advises Paul Pejza, Manager, GM Certified Used Vehicles.
Sites such as Intellichoice.com and Cars.com compare all manufacturers’ certification programs. You’ll find that some certified cars must have fewer than 48,000 miles while others can be as well-used as 90,000 miles. Warranties also vary in length and type of coverage.
To pass inspection, every car must meet industry standards as well as any additional standards set out specifically in the manufacturer’s certification handbook. Buyers should ask to see the certification and inspection paperwork to confirm the details of the rigorous inspection and repair process. Some dealers will also provide a copy of the Vehicle History Report
A number of programs, such as Toyota and GM, offer 24-hour roadside assistance with their certified vehicles. Others offer complimentary oil changes, trip-planning services, or other bonuses. You’ll even often find new-car-level financing deals for certified vehicles.
Peace of Mind
Certification’s greatest benefit is providing peace of mind to buyers that they won’t get stuck with a lemon. Pejza at GM says, "Manufacturer certification provides consumers with a sense of confidence that they can’t get when buying a traditional used vehicle from a private party or an independent dealer." He notes that GM’s strict inspection and reconditioning standards ensure buyers have "no worries…it looks as good as it runs."
J.D. Power and Associates’ 2005 Used Vehicle Sales and Certification Study found that 69% of used-vehicle owners cited warranty coverage as the most valued feature of certification. Warranties vary, usually including 3-month, 3,000-mile limited comprehensive coverage. Toyota offers a 7-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty from the date of the car’s original sale, and GM Certified Used Vehicles customers can customize coverage to their specific needs.
What’s the catch? Consumers pay a premium between 2 and 8 percent above the uncertified used-car price, according to CNW Market Research. However, the extra cost may be well worth it if it means fewer repairs and fewer worries.
When Norm Olson’s daughter recently graduated college and moved cross-country from California to Massachusetts, he knew he wanted her driving something dependable, "so I got her in a certified used vehicle. It’s a risk-free thing. You have the factory behind you."
CUV Financing Options
Many manufacturers are offering attractive new-car financing rates for certified used vehicles. However, be aware that these special rates will only be available from authorized CUV dealerships.
- Check out the Cars.com "Certified Pre-Owned Incentives" page to compare special loan offers from more than 30 manufacturers.
- Toyota Financial Services allows you to search online for special CUV financing rates in your local area.
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