Avoiding luxury lemons Featured

6:56am EDT May 30, 2003
Several years ago, photographer Terry Clark was about to leave Indiana for a new job in another state and decided he wanted to travel in comfort and style.

A friend who was a BMW salesman sold him a used BMW 530i with 50,000 miles on its odometer, assuring him that the car was virtually perfect -- never in for service, the salesman told him.

Clark drove the car to his new home and took it to a garage for service. To his horror, he discovered the car had never been serviced. Indeed, the oil had never been changed. His mechanic surmised that the previous owner had topped off the oil when it was low rather than having it changed at the recommended intervals.

"From that moment on, whatever could go wrong did go wrong," says Clark. "I kept that car for two years, most of which was spent in the service garage."

The car cost Clark lots of money and valuable time. Neglect and abuse can shorten the life of any car. The American Automobile Association estimates that as many as a third of all vehicles are past due for routine maintenance.

The temptation to buy a used luxury car is strong, given the high price of a new one. Virtually all new vehicles depreciate significantly as soon as the owner takes the keys, as much as 30 percent the first year, so a used luxury car can be a bargain at thousands less than the original sticker price.

Late model cars tend to be more reliable and durable than models of a couple decades ago and they require less frequent maintenance. Recent models can go as far as 100,000 miles before their first scheduled tune-up, for instance.

That's the good news. The bad news is that they generally are more expensive to fix when something does go wrong.

So purchasing a used luxury vehicle can be a costly mistake if you don't make sure you're getting a sound set of wheels and exercise some precautions to avoid getting a lemon.

The most common mistake buyers make? Not taking a vehicle for a road test, says Bill Sorochman, service manager for Monroeville Chrysler Jeep.

Surprisingly, says Sorochman, he sees people do it almost every day.

"I'd never buy a car before road-testing it," Sorochman says.

A road test can reveal symptoms that could indicate trouble down the road. In luxury cars, which are designed to ride quietly and smoothly, rattles or thumps could mean trouble in the suspension, steering or brakes. The car should track in a straight line when braking without pulling to one side, and you won't know that if you don't drive the car.

While there's a lot of information available regarding the safety and reliability of vehicles, Sorochman takes a dim view of some of the data from sources like Web sites.

"There's as much disinformation as there is information," Sorochman says.

He suggests finding an independent source, like a mechanic, who can offer opinions about various cars and their reliability. Here are some other factors to keep in mind when shopping for a used luxury car.

* Do a visual inspection. Look for uneven wear of the tire tread, an indication that there may be steering or suspension problems. Give the car a thorough walk-around, looking for signs of body damage and rust. Check the condition of the glass and trim and examine the interior for wear and damage. Look in the ashtrays. Smoke can damage sensitive electronic components.

* Make sure everything works. Sorochman suggests you check all of the car's systems. Luxury cars have lots of fancy conveniences, like heated seats that automatically adjust to the individual driver and high-end sound systems. While these amenities are often the very reason that buyers select luxury cars, repairing faulty components in these systems can be expensive.

* Demand a warranty. "I would think that a warranty should be part of the deal," Sorochman says.

But remember, a warranty is only as good as the party that's offering it. Some manufacturers will certify a used car of its own brand and transfer or extend the warranty for a second owner. Cadillac, for instance, will extend the original four-year, 48,000-mile factory bumper-to-bumper warranty to 60,000 miles or five years to the second owner of a certified car.

* Take the car to an independent mechanic before you buy. If you have a regular mechanic, all the better, but in any case, get the opinion of an expert who has no allegiance to any particular brand, Sorochman says.

And expect to pay at least $100 to make sure that the mechanic does a thorough job. It should take about two hours to examine the car's major mechanical systems, says Sorochman. How to reach: Monroeville Chrysler Jeep, www.monroevillechryslerjeep.com