A car dealer’s scientific guide to the 10 worst used vehicles
Quality is something we all want when it comes to cars, especially older used ones. But how do we get it?
I have been studying this question in one form or another for nearly 14 years now. I began my automotive career as a car dealer, buying and selling hundreds of vehicles a year. As time went on, I became an auto auctioneer, a remarketing manager and a part-owner of a wholesale auto auction.
I saw thousands of cars come and go through the auction block during the course of each year, and as my worked changed, so did my understanding of quality. The overwhelming majority of the time, cars and trucks considered reliable in their early days would draw the strongest bids. But it wasn't always true; I observed some models experience costly transmission failure just as the odometer rolled past the 100,000-mile mark, while others would exhibit everything from blown head gaskets, to chronic rust issues to inoperative battery packs for hybrid vehicles.
Well-respected publications such as Consumer Reports and J.D. Power & Associates do an outstanding job finding defect trends among new and slightly used vehicles. However, once that specific vehicle is sold by the survey participant, there's no access to the history of the vehicle. As the average car owner over the last decade has typically kept their vehicle for approximately five to six years, a lot of data has disappeared.
Because there is no tracking service covering the problems in these vehicles, the 10-year-old vehicle that everyone assumed had great reliability will at times have terrible issues. Who knew? No one really. Consumer Reports' database goes back 10 years, but the average car and truck is now 11.4 years old.
So I decided to test my guesses about used vehicles by using data from auto auctions and the problems dealers themselves disclose. As a frequent buyer and seller, I started my study with what I consider the key quality question for most car owners: “At what point does my car become so undesirable that I am willing to accept a wholesale used price for my vehicle?”
Trade-ins are a great measurement of that emotional question. Most consumers who trade their vehicle will get a price hundreds to thousands of dollars less than retail. Car dealers not only know the wholesale market, they know the retail market as well, and are often able to get cars repaired for a lot less than most car owners.