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10 Used Cars to Avoid

Buying used can save you money, but buying badly is never a good idea.

By John Pearley Huffman

In tough times, there's a huge temptation to compromise on one's purchases, and buying a used car is one place to save a few bucks. Sure, we'd all like to drive a new BMW as our regular commuter, but, boy, that '97 Malibu sure is tempting for $700. After all, it's just for getting back and forth to work, and the woman selling it has to be 106—how much damage could she have done?

There's nothing wrong with bargain hunting as long as you're hunting the right game. When it comes to used cars, there are things that are always best to avoid.

Any Car without a Service History

In this age of computerized record keeping, a car without a comprehensive service history is simply a car that hasn't been serviced. It doesn't matter if the guy selling it swears he always changed the oil himself; you have to assume that what's currently in the crankcase has been coagulating in there since the early Pleistocene.

Of course, exceptions might be made for classics, but the truth is that, since the introduction of computerized ignitions and engine-control modules, an ever-increasing number of repairs have been creeping beyond the realm of home-mechanic care. Look for a long service history in any used car, with most of the servicing done by the same mechanic or dealership over time. There are simply too many good used cars out there with such a background to settle for anything less.

Caution: If a car doesn't have a service history, look for signs that it spontaneously assembled itself after a strong wind blew through a junkyard.

Any Car with a Salvage Title

Insurance companies aren't in the business of losing money. So it's a good bet that if a car has been written off as a total loss, it's because it really was a total loss. If it had been worth fixing, the insurance company would have fixed it.

It's simple: If a car is so badly damaged that it can't be fixed to an insurance company's slight standards, to what standards could it have been fixed? Jethro and Cletus might tell you that "all the damage just buffed out," but what they did was sew the front half of a rear-ended BMW 335i to the back half of a nose-crunched Ford Ranger pickup and then get busy with the Bondo. Salvage titles mean trouble.

Caution: Salvage titles are not just issued for crashed cars. A car can be totaled for any of a hundred reasons. For example, if it is covered in barnacles and the seller promises to throw in two free seafood dinners with the purchase, there's a chance it's never been driven into a tree.

Anything with Mismatched Tires

With regular tire rotation and proper inflation, the tires on most cars will wear out at similar rates. There are exceptions to this—the Acura NSX, for example, which was a notorious tire muncher and could consume a set of rear Yokohamas pulling out of the garage—but for the most part, if a car needs a tire, it should need more than one. So generally speaking (and allowing for the exception of cars originally equipped with staggered sizes front and rear), all four tires should match each other in size, make, and model.

But go shopping for a used ride, and it seems some cars are equipped with tires that aren't all even the same shape. It's one thing to believe in pyramid power, and it's something else to drive on a tire shaped like a pyramid—especially when it's matched with a rhombus, a hendecagon, and a trapezium.

And watch out for the bargain-brand tires that come from China and have names ripped right off the Panda Express menu board. Some have the same tread-wear rating as a chiffon and the grip of a greased beach ball. At least they taste good when served with plum sauce over rice.

Caution: Cheap tires mean the owner was willing to take shortcuts.

Any Car with Brushstrokes in the Paint

House paint is for houses, and car paint is for cars. The moment a car owner forgets that, he's likely given up on maintaining the rest of the car, too.

There are a few "art cars" floating around out there that name-brand artists have decorated with flourishes at a manufacturer's behest. The 3.0 CSL that BMW had Alexander Calder decorate back in the early '70s comes to mind here, and it's obviously a desirable nugget of history, no matter the brushstrokes. But it's something altogether different from a car that has had indoor/outdoor latex applied with a thick brush over a mound of Bondo. If a car has been painted with stuff from the Home Depot, it's possible there are other building materials aboard. Bondo, after all, can be used to sculpt an entire fender.

Caution: Magnets stick to steel. If a magnet won't stick to the body of your average used sedan, some "alternative" body-repair tactics have been used.

Anything with Acorns Stashed in the Glove Box

Park any car long enough, and nature will start having its way with it. First, the tires will deflate; then, inevitably, one of the windows will crack, and surely then some woodland creatures will find that it makes wonderful prefabricated housing. Eventually, there's more nature than car left.

A telltale sign of nature's encroachment is a stash of foodstuffs found in the glove box or other cubbies. A couple hundred acorns may not dissuade you from undertaking the restoration of a classic, but do you really want to risk the wrath of a family of rabid ground squirrels just to get a good deal on a '95 Intrepid? Remember, if an animal stashed it there, that animal is coming back for it.

Caution: No matter how hard it might try, a possum is not a good substitute for a starter motor.

Any Car That Wants to Drive Back to the Hertz Lot

Not everyone who rents a car abuses it, just people with even the smallest streak of rebelliousness, those under the age of 60, or people whose meeting this morning went really, really badly. Parking-brake slides and burnouts, neutral slams, the occasional purposeful curbing just to maliciously screw up the alignment—in many cases, rentals aren't cars at all. They're whipping boys.

Caution: Stains, unraveling upholstery, bland character, and a strong pull toward airport exits are all signs of a past life of rental flogging.

Any Car from a Lot Covered in Oil

One of the clearest indications that something isn't right with a car is a spreading puddle under it. The simple way for a used-car vendor to get around these telltale pools is to ensure that the lot itself is so covered in oil that you can't tell it's coming from any particular car. Or, failing that, to have a gravel lot that can be raked regularly to spread the goo around.

Leakage can mean anything from a cracked block to a slightly loose drain plug, but it never means anything good. Cars, it seems, can't make use of fluids that aren't contained within them.

It's always best to wait at least one night before signing a purchase contract for any used car. It's even better if you know where the car is parked that night—and you put a clean piece of cardboard under it.

Caution: Any lot clearly marked as an EPA Superfund cleanup site is to be avoided. Bonus points if the sales staff is wearing hazmat suits.

Manufacturer Press Fleet Refugees

The role of a press vehicle is to demonstrate maximum performance for numerous outlets and journalists and to educate them on the limits of the car's abilities. That can leave a vehicle a bit, well, tired.

Tires can be changed, bearings repacked, and bushings replaced—those are no problem. But there's no knowing what the effect of a few hundred laps on various skidpads can mean if that sloshed all the oil away from the cylinder walls. And a couple thousand burnouts aren't going to have a positive effect on the life span of a clutch or differential. It's simple fact that test cars—like rentals—are born into a life of abuse. To a slightly lesser extent, the same applies to dealer demo cars, and be wary of cars sold as "executive demos," as that is often spin-speak for "press car."

By the way, if you'd like a nice used 2007 Audi S8, be on the lookout for C/D's former long-termer. After $29,969 in repairs from a collision with a minivan, it's as good as new! Sort of.

Caution: Any indication that an editorial assistant is still living in the trunk is an indication you should walk away.

Boy Racers

It doesn't take much to turn a daily driver into a race car—just some number stickers and a roll cage, really, and we've seen those applied to everything from Miatas to Ferraris to Toyota Tundras. But once a car becomes a race car, it's tough to retame it for the street.

Rock-stiff shocks, bushings harder than petrified eucalyptuses, and spine-snapping springs are among the more benign modifications made when preparing a vehicle for competition. Beyond that are the sound-deadening material that's ripped out, the power accessories that are dumped to drop weight, and engines recammed to concentrate the power band within 100 rpm of redline. Race cars aren't supposed to be tame or comfortable; they're supposed to win.

That doesn't mean you can't gently modify your Civic Si for weekend gymkhana duty without destroying its utility. But don't fool yourself into believing it's easy to recivilize an animal that's gone feral.

Caution: Haphazardly sawed-off roll cages might give you tetanus.

Any Camaro Wearing Death Metal Stickers

There's a lot of good to be said about old Camaros: They were available with small-block V-8s, massaged right they handle well, and they're dirt-cheap. But it's also true that these cars attract the sort of buyer who saves his greatest loyalty for death metal legends like Slayer, Necrophagia, and Morbid Angel. Vehicle care isn't a top priority when you have three kids by four different women and a serious meth addiction.

Caution: Beyond the band-loyalty stickers, look out for crumpled parole reports, old visitor's passes from prominent penal institutions, and abandoned toothless children in the hatchback area. And if it smells like meth, it's meth.