Used Car Shopping – and Shun – List

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If you go new car shopping, your main worry is price. You don’t have to worry about the particular car. The red one sitting next to the silver one that’s parked next to the yellow one on the dealer’s lot . . . they’re all the same. It doesn’t really matter which one you pick – other than colors and options.used lead

And, of course, the price.

With a used car, it’s exactly the opposite.

A given used car is an individual – distinct from the thousands of others of the same make/model that rolled off the line that year. It was driven differently – and maintained differently. It may have been babied – or it could have been abused. No two examples of  a given make/model/year used car will ever be the same as far as their mechanical and cosmetic condition, the miles on the clock, the stains on the seats or the intervals at which necessary service (such as oil and filter changes) was performed.

Condition – rather than price – is what matters most when used car shopping.

Unfortunately, condition involves variables and subtleties that make haggling over new car prices seem like a cakewalk. Most people know about dealer invoice vs. manufacturer’s suggested retail price – and how to research dealer incentives and all the rest of it. It’s not rocket science; the info is available and it’s all pretty straightforward – being just numbers.used 2

But how do you determine whether the used vehicle you’re looking at was ill-treated by its previous owner? Whether high-quality service parts were used – or the cheapest no-name crap on discount at Wal-Mart? Dealers (and even private sellers) can cover up stuff better than Lady Gaga’s make-up people. And once you’ve signed the contract and handed over your dollars, any problems are now your problems – because in most states, there is no warranty implied unless it is specifically stated. Sales are generally considered “as is” – unless there’s something in writing asserting or promising otherwise. Telling the small claims court that the seller told you there were no problems with the car will usually cut no ice. And, to be fair to the seller, he may not have known about the problem that cropped up after the sale. It’s a used car. Wear and tear. Bad luck. Stuff can – and does – go wrong. That’s why the standard in court for pursuing a successful claim against a seller is usually pretty high. In most cases, you’d have to substantiate willful, knowing misrepresentation. Absent that, it’s your car now – warts and all.

Scared yet? That’s a good state of mind to be in when shopping used cars. I like to compare it with my personal policy when riding a motorcycle: Assume every driver is deliberately trying to kill you. A little precautionary paranoia in dicey situations can save you a lot of trouble. All right. So, how about some practical used car buying advice?

* Try to stick with popular models –used ok

This may seem counterintuitive, because popular often means pricey. However, popular also tends to mean good. If lots of people are buying a given make/model/year vehicle – and prices are strong – it strongly suggests that make/model/year vehicle is a good vehicle. Personal case-in-point: I own two of the last-generation (1998-2004) Nissan Frontier pick-up truck, the generation before this model got up-sized to mid-sized  from compact-sized. I paid the same money in 2011 for my 2004 that I paid back in ’04 for my ’98. The value of these trucks has held strong – because they’re known to be sturdy little trucks that are very hard to hurt, even if you try to. Mid-late 1990s-era Toyota Corollas – and all Mazda Miatas – are two more examples of known-good cars that were made in the millions.

It’s still important to vet the particular example you find – but being able to fixate on a certain make/model/year helps a lot. And if it’s popular, it’s likely you’ll have lots of examples to choose from – another advantage of going for a well-liked car. And parts – especially trim parts – will likely be available for longer.

And for less.

* Avoid used luxury cars –used mark

The reason being, luxury cars tend to be equipped with expensive to repair/replace features and equipment. I’ll give you another personal example. I once owned a late 1980’s vintage Lincoln Mark VII LSC. This car had an air-adjustable, self-leveling suspension that altered the car’s ride height up or down automatically. Neat feature – when new and under warranty. But really expensive when not.  The air shocks at each of the car’s four corners were prone to leaking as they aged – and each one cost (this was in the early ’90s) $1,200 to replace. If you didn’t replace them, the car’s body would collapse onto the tires like a California low-rider. It may be tempting to think about treating yourself to a used luxury car that only costs a third of its price when new. But there’s a reason why used luxury cars are often put up for sale at too-good-to-be-true prices.

The same extra caution – and due diligence – should be exercised when shopping a used performance car. For obvious reasons, they are more likely to have been run hard – and put up wet. Be even more cautious about turbo (and supercharged) performance cars.

* Educate yourself about high-dollar routine service –used timing

For instance, timing belt changes. Many recent-era cars equipped with overhead cam (OHC) engines require this job – and it’s a big, expensive job – at regular intervals, just like oil and filter changes. Only $800-plus for the timing belt vs. $30 or so for the oil and filter. It is not at all uncommon for the original owner of such a vehicle –  well-aware of the impending bill – to trade the car in (or sell it) just before the mileage/time interval comes due for the big-ticket repair. Leaving you to deal with it.

Related: Be very wary about “lifetime” items such as spark plugs and engine coolant. It’s absolutely true an engine so equipped can run well for 100k-plus with its original, factory-installed spark plugs – and even its original coolant. But “lifetime” doesn’t mean forever. If you buy a high-miles used vehicle, try to determine whether “lifetime” items have ever been replaced. Because if they haven’t been at some point, it’s likely going to be up to you to take care of it.

On your nickle.used last

* Be absolutely certain everything works before money changes hands, or be prepared to pay to get it repaired yourself – 

Check that all turn signals, brake lights and so on operate properly. That every dashboard warning light comes on when the ignition key is inserted – and turns off once the engine’s running. Do all the gauges operate properly – and read normally? Pay particular attention to oil pressure, temperature and voltage gauges. Weird readings, too high readings – or too low readings – are reasons to say sayonara.

If it’s winter, do not forget to turn on the AC. Be sure it blows cold. Operate every control – windshield wipers, defroster, cruise – and make sure you know they’re working. Or not. If not, find out why – and before you proceed any farther down the road to buying the thing.

If the car is being sold by a private party (not a dealer *) do not buy it before it has passed both emissions and state safety inspection – in areas where either is required to register a car for the first time, or renew registration. If the yellow “check engine” light comes on – and stays on – it’s a red flag. At the very least, it means trouble codes stored in the computer’s memory must be cleared and the system re-set. And the light will just come back on again – and you’ll fail smog check – if the underlying problem isn’t found and corrected.

* In most areas where state emissions/safety checks are required by law, it is also a legal requirement that any used car sold by a dealer pass emissions/safety  inspection before it may be re-sold. Private sellers, however, are not required by law to get the car through emissions/safety prior to sale.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. On the Nissan Frontier, what would you favor v-6 or v-4, manual or automatic? I would lean towards the V-6 manual, but wondered if it makes it difference for reliability for the years you mentioned 1998-2004.

    • I’d go with the four – much easier to work on and needs less maintenance. The six really fills up the engine compartment – and I;d have to have to work on the thing. Definitely avoid supercharged versions

      The only catch is if you need 4×4, it’s only available with the V-6 after ’98.

      I prefer manuals myself – cheaper, usually – and better performance with the four.

  2. I’ve Given Up on My “99 Honda Civic after 2 timing belts and a rebuilt Head (2nd belt replacement after rebuilt head installed) in 3 months/900 miles.(Only 107k miles on car, Bad Mechanic,my bad for using them, very long story)

    Replaced the Civic with….a 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle! Paid less for it than the amount of money that I’ve poured into the Honda over the last 3 months. Yes, it needs work, but at least I CAN work on it Myself.

  3. Wow, this is a great place to learn about used cars! I’m not a car guy, but I’m trying to guide my daughter who will probably be buying a used car, as her first car. I found Consumer Reports to be useful for buying new and used cars.

    What about CarFax reports? Useful? Reliable?

    • Hi Mike,

      Carfax can’t hurt – and may help some – but do not rely on it as definitive (because it’s known they’re not). Nothing beats an actual inspection of the vehicle by a person who knows his business. I tell this to anyone who asks me advice. Spending $75-100 or so to have a competent mechanic thoroughly go over the vehicle prior to sale – as a condition of sale – is money extremely well-spent.

  4. I’ve driven Chrysler products for years. I won’t even rent a Ford product… the driver’s seat is so uncomfortable that I’m in pain before I get home (12 miles). A Chevy wagon almost dropped the drive shaft before I realized it was about to do that… the gas tank supports were gone so I had straps on it to hold it up. My 86 Chrysler 5th Ave still runs with almost 200,000 miles on it. Other earlier ones made it to over 150,000 miles. I also have a 2006 Dodge Caravan bought used, and a 2009 PT Cruiser I got at Cash for Clunkers “used car price” it’s the first new car I’d ever owned (age 71) by turning in another 5th Ave that had been in a wreck when a lady ran a stop sign. I will have the Cruiser
    forever, since it isn’t made any more. The Caravan will be replaced eventually, likely with
    a another one, or a Chrysler Town & Country.

    ALWAYS check COnsumer Reports before buying a Used car!!!!

    • I used to be hostile to Chrysler vehicles prior to buying my towing truck. When I purchased the Dodge truck used, it was a smooth rider but beings everyone I knew that bought the Chrysler cars were screaming lemon I was still hesitant. Well it is a performer. I’ve only had to replace the power steering pump but very little work or money invested and I get good use out of it. Fortunately my Dad intervened or I wouldve passed it by, he said the drive train on the Dodge pickups were the best out there. He was prophetic though when he said the only problem Chrysler had was crappy interior. Well the dashboard all cracked like a Jigsaw, poor elastomers dry out of their upholestry plastic within a year. Crack…..Tear…

      Other than that I’m very impressed with my Dodge Truck, would recommend especially since I was able to pick up with less than 50K miles for $4000.00. Yeah it was before Uncle Sam decided on the crash for clunkers program. Bastard Sam.

  5. This past Saturday I traded in my 2006 GTO for an ’09 BMW M3 Sedan. talk about being paranoid before a purchase!! I researched the car the best I could. Test drove it and went over every aspect with a. Fine-toothed detail brush ;-). I tried to get as much info about the car’s former owner and why they traded it in.

    Then, when I went back, I took it to a BMW dealership for a prepurchase inspection. It passed with flying colors….just some interior trim issues that are currently being fixed under warranty. The car had all the proper maintenance performed, and never had any major warranty issues.

    I know it was a risky purchase, but it will not be my daily driver….I wanted that glorious S65 engine, and want to hold on to her forever :). I will also be purchasing an extended service contract….just in case.

    So far, the M3’s actually seem to be one of the more reliable of the Bimmers, at least from what I’ve read.

    Anyway, I highly recommend a prepurchase inspection, ESP if considering a “higher end” OR performance car. It isn’t fool-proof, but it sure beats relying on gut-instinct and dealer smooth-talk.

  6. glovebox check. yeah. did that, but did not register. big deal, thermostat in there. who cares? hmmm. 45 min. later down the road on a cold day temp gauge moves dangerously high. got it home. quick check … blown head gasket. fortunately able to make it whole under the old oak tree.

    oh yeah, Honda Civic, by the way. Would still buy another.

    Maxim: caveat emptor! real caveat.

  7. You say Miatas are a good used bet, NOT TRUE. Miatas are GAY, Miata Owners are GAY, passengers in a Miata are GAY, anyone who considers a Miata is GAY. GAY GAY GAY!!! GOT IT?

    OK, now that I’ve driven away potential Miata buyers I can continue my collection and race car maintenance at a reasonable price.


    (youtube search Ray ITA92 if you want to see some in-car video)

      • I agree, as the owner of 5 Miatae (2 are parts cars) I’m constantly being heckled at work about it…by guys that drive boring sedans and minivans…some with those annoying stick figure families on the back…sheesh.

        My son and I are ready to start our 3rd season of SCCA road racing. Not sure how close you are to VIR, first event March 8-10

        • Dear Mark,

          I’ve never owned a Miata, and since I live in central Taipei, where it costs as much to rent a parking space as it does a studio apartment, I’m not likely to any time soon.

          But if I were in the market for car right now, a Miata would be high on my short list.

          I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Guys who are terrified about being perceived as queer merely because they drive a Miata, are paradoxically confirming that they are victims of homosexual panic, unsure about their own masculinity.

          Conversely, guys who are not afraid of being seen driving a Miata, are confirming that they are so secure in their own sexual orientation, they don’t need to wring their hands over other peoples’ perceptions of their manhood.

          Funny how that works, isn’t it?

          • The “right” answer for men is color, style, brand names, product perception are all mostly irrelevant and mostly to be ignored.

            You need a combustion engine on a chassis to get you from A to B. The fluff and balderdash of Eddie Bauer Sport Package can be considered only if the Karl Benz nuts, bolts, and combustion chambers check out first.

            There may always be the idiot who buys an authentic NFL jersey or a Mega SUV to signal that he himself is a virile athlete/a powerful machine himself. There may always be females happy to pretend that clothes he wears or the car he drives make the man.

            The essential thing is only that a man be perceived and be in fact more masculine than his mate. He need not compete with every coiffed chimpanzee thief or hero praetorian goon. Just rule his own roost in at the highest level, and strive toward his own vision of his family’s future, whatever it may be.

            The wife or kids can make any number of small decisions, as long as you make a more important decision bigger than any of theirs.

            If advertisers or retailers make any decisions at all in your household. You may find yourself on the fast track down a road to miserable and intolerable serfdom. If that’s the case, turn back immediately, and start thinking for yourself.

          • Dear Tor,

            “There may always be the idiot who buys an authentic NFL jersey or a Mega SUV to signal that he himself is a virile athlete/a powerful machine himself.”

            Ain’t that the truth?


            Or however Eric spells it.

      • Eric, you missed the joke… he wants to keep demand for miatas lower than supply for his own benefit 🙂

        As to miatas in general…. they drive nice… but um I get tired of looking over the windshield, needing to do contortions to work the clutch, and practically needing the jaws of life to get out the car. In other words the car is made for people way shorter than I.

        • If you’re much over 6’2″ you have to modify the seat to accommodate. I’m not that tall(just under 6′) but, for my helmet to clear the top and meet the “under the roll bar” rule, I have the seat bolted to the floor.

          Miatas are economical and easy to work on and yes, I don’t people to find that out and drive up the used market prices.


    • Funny you should mention the Miata. Since the Harley is paid off and I’m debt free I’ve started saving for one.

      But then again I used to drive a ’69 Fiat 850 Spyder.

      Add in a horse blanket, cooler with a couple of bottles of Boone

      LOL…Since I just became debt free with the Harley payoff I’ve started saving for a Miata.

      Then again I used to own a ’69 Fiat 850 Spyder.

      Add in a warm day, top down, a cooler with a couple of bottles of Boone’s Farm and a horse blanket tucked behind the seats.

      It was a rare weekend I couldn’t find a long-legged lady to accompany me on a run up Squirrel’s Spur to the Blue Ridge Parkway to “watch the sunset”.

      • Miatas are my kind of ride – inexpensive, as close to hassle-free as it gets (this is also why I am big into ’70s and ’80s Japanese bikes; they are almost impossible to kill, look great, lots of fun – etc.)

        The only contender I see out there right now is the new BRZ/FR-S. We’ll see how they hold up over the next 5-6 years… if, that is, we’re not all out in the woods hiding from Dear Leader!

  8. If buying from a private party, here’s some real basic advice. Check the glove box. I once found state paper work id’ing that particular car as a totaled and not to be resold. You would think the owner would have cleared that from the glove box.

  9. I would disagree with the notion that popular cars are often the best used car deal. I would look at condition first. I would much rather have an early 2000’s Cavalier or Focus in excellent condition than some ratted out Civic, CRV or a Crapola. A boat load of low information car buyers think that Toyotas and Hondas are the best deals even though most Toyotas and Hondas of that vintage have well over 200,000 miles and really belong in a scrap yard. People that sell these vehicles think that they are worth $5000 no matter how bad the interior, engine and transmission are. A lot of these 10 year old heaps aren’t worth the money to register them, much less fix. Careful out there!

    I wouldn’t take a used Honda or Toyota for free! (Well, maybe I would…)

    • Hi Swamp!

      For me, it’s condition uber alles. So, of course, a ratted out anything is probably not a good idea! But all else being equal or roughly so, I’d argue it’s probably a safer bet to go with say that ’90s-era Corolla vs. the same-era Cavalier or Neon. I’m not shilling for Toyota. (Especially not new Toyotas.) Just making a general point, using a known-good car as an example.

      • Hey man –

        I guess the point I was trying to make is that most used Toyotas and Hondas on the market are ratted out pieces of crap, but there are low information people out there who would rather have a ratted out Toyota or Honda than a decent Chevy or Ford because these are supposedly “great cars.” If mileage and condition were equal, the Toyota/Honda would likely be the better deal, but you will pay a premium price.

        I had a 2001 Saturn L-series that had about 200,000 miles before I abandoned it. It was still running and in very good mechanical shape. I haven’t seen the car in almost 2 years, but know it is still running. The car had no leaks or any other real problems to speak of. I maintained it meticulously.

    • The problem is that the Focus and other cars of this type don’t have the long term reliability of the Honda and Toyota counterparts. This is simple fact given by the long term reliability studies.

      Given equal condition generally speaking the Toyota or Honda is usually going to have more life in it than the Ford or Chevy equivalent. This is especially true in 90’s era vehicles.

      There is a reason the Corolla is still considered one of the most reliable cars on the market.

      • Admittedly, this is just anecdotal evidence, but: In my area (SW Virginia) I see 1990s-era Corollas almost every day. These cars are now 15-20 years old and still look good and are clearly being used as daily drivers.

        Contrariwise, I almost never see Plymouth/Dodge Neons from that era on the road. Cavaliers, sometimes – but they almost always look like terrible – broken down pieces d’ shite.

      • Those long term reliability studies usually do not account for the fact that Honda and Toyota convinced their buyers to take the car in and have the maintenance done. For a used car, previous owner care is everything.

        • Probably some truth to that –

          However, we had one of those mid-’90s Corollas and other than changing the engine oil/filter and other very basic service, the car never asked for anything. It had 150k-plus on it and was still running like a new car the day my wife rolled it after swerving to avoid a dog who appeared in the middle of the road… and after I got it back right-side up, it still ran fine. Not even out of alignment. If only the roof hadn’t been crushed, it would probably still be with us today.

          Meanwhile, our neighbor’s Cavalier had two head gasket failures in five years….

          • Some cars were just crap from day one. Cavalier I think qualifies given that the blocks would crack and leak coolant on the original ’82 models. That said some people have cavaliers that run like cockroaches.

        • I’m with you Eric. We just sold a 1995 Geo Prism (Corolla) with 195k that never asked for hardly any repairs. We did the timing belt on it(120k), the water pump (140k), put new contacts in the starter (myself) and about 25k ago put new axles on it since the CV boots were split.

          It ran like new but it did use a bit of oil because of the series of engine. I’m almost positive it was valve guides since it would occasionally sent out a puff of white smoke on startup.

          I can’t say the same for the Ford Focus I owned which I ended up dumping because of a myriad of issues at just under 80k.

    • In 2002 I bought a 2001 Honda Civic Ex with 12K on it. Now it has 330K, runs great, and still gets 38-40 MPG. We later bought a 2004 Civic Hybrid with 65K for my son and a 2008 Civic Ex with 14K for my wife. They all have been extraordinarily reliable. They all are 5-speed manuals. We do just the regular maintenance. We are very happy Civic owners. Checking Consumer Reports certainly corroborates our experience with our Civics. We’re three for three!

  10. Some stuff you dont know till its too late

    to change the headlight bulb in the new Chevy Malibu, you have to remove both front wheels,and remove the front bumper, just to get to the bulb.

  11. Great advice. I have never owned a “new” car. I have owned half a dozen used cars at a time. However, for daily drivers I do pretty much all of the above. One small bit of advice is to also buy what is popular where YOU live. For instance in CA I could buy VW’s all day long and drive them for cheap. They were a dime a dozen. In Northern Mi. Good luck. In Alaska it’s different as well. Lots of Subaru and Toyota. Etc etc etc. I only buy used work cars that I know the junk yards in the area will have. But again I do all my own work, so this isn’t always the best advice for people who don’t even change their own oil.

  12. And avoid all Range Rovers with more than 72,000 miles.

    I knew a guy who would buy used high mileage Porsches on the cheap. He basically knew what he was in for, and threw at least $1000 into them every year. Still cheaper than a car loan for a new Porsche, and because most of them were cosmetic disasters he didn’t really worry about where he parked.

    • There are a couple of 928 guys here – they can do it because they know what they’re doing.

      Same with me and my old two-stroke fetish. I would never recommend anyone buy one unless:

      A. They know going in it’s going to be work.
      B. They can do the work themselves.
      C. They’re rich enough to afford paying someone to do the work.

    • Former Porsche owner here. I would never buy another unless I was in an area of the country where there were plenty of wrecks or spare parts available. It nickle and dimed me to death.

      Buy the popular car like Eric says. Some of my favorites have been a Nissan Maxima and a Buick Park Avenue with that trusty V-6. I’d take the Nissan first but the later, from some granny, that’s been taken care of, I wouldn’t reject.

      Avoid Chrysler. Can anyone say, “Sebring or Concorde”?… Ugh!

      • I got 2 words for you…

        E Bay

        When I had to repair damage caused by a deer collision, I was able to find a door/mirror off a 911 for $300 and was able to order the new top cover with glass window upgrade for about the same price. I had a quote from an upholstery shop for nearly $2k just to do the top. Needless to say I decided to undertake the project myself. It took me the better part of an entire weekend to complete that task and there is a small wrinkle in one place where I didn’t get it just right, but I’m totally okay with it. I will say though that there is a vast world of difference in replacing that top as opposed to when I did my top on the Miata.

    • I’ve always had good luck with my Porsches from the 78 & 79 928’s to the 01 Boxster. The 01 Boxster I got at an auction for $5k because it was smoking really bad and everyone there was scared to touch the car because they all thought the engine needed to be rebuilt. After inspecting it, I knew the problem was a bad AOS unit which is only about $150 part, but a real bitch to change since you have to go up underneath through the rear passenger wheel well. It had a bunch of other minor cosmetic issues…mostly with interior, but nothing that a pair of sheepskins couldn’t cover up nicely. I’ve had it for 3 years now and I have had to do a little bit of work to it, but so far it’s only cost me another $2000 and half of that was due to a deer running into the side where I had to buy a new driver door/mirror and replace the top.

  13. Some real good advice there as usual eric.

    As a general rule of thumb I’d also recommend to stick with what you know, for instance I know Toyotas pretty well (mr2s very well) or find a trusted friend who knows what you are looking at. Many times the weaknesses of a vehicle are well-known by the inner circles of that vehicles followers. Another reason to have a diverse group of friends.

    Sometime people selling used cars don’t know or want to know what was wrong. If they are intent on moving the car adn you are knowledgeable about that particular vehicle you can typically figure out what is wrong and knock a great deal more off the price of the car than what it costs to fix it. Some real good deals can be had this way.

    • Thanks, Harry –

      And, yup!

      Like you know MR2s, I know second gen F cars, especially Firebirds. Their good points as well as their bad ones. Knowing them much reduces the potential for disaster when shopping for one. I’ve been taken along as a “wise elder” on a couple of ‘bird buying expeditions. It’s fun for me – and saves my friends some hassle, hopefully!

      • I’ve had lots of Jeeps and needed the space of a Commander (go forth and multiply and what not…). But spending lots of hours on a jeep forum and going through the Commander forum in particular, I found that they were notorious for sunroof drain tube problems down the A-pillar, which led to water behind the dash (obviously water + electronics = bad news). The tell-tale sign was to pop the plastic cover over the carpet/sill on the door opening and stick your hand under the carpet in the wheel well. I found numerous commanders with seemingly dry carpet, but wet wheel wells. In fact, after the first couple I looked at that was the first thing I checked!

        I’d say for any car/truck/SUV, use google to find an enthusiast forum and spend some time learing about the vehicle and what are the common problems (some are deal breakers; some aren’t)

  14. Something else to mention is to check the fluid levels on a used car and if the engine/transmission fluids look new, drive it at least 25-30 miles or more before purchasing to ensure that a major problem doesn’t exist with the engine or transmission.

    Personally I’ve found most good car private sale owners will have some type of records showing when they changed the oil and did regular maintenance.

    I know when I sold my 95 Geo Prizm recently the first person to look at it bought it (and at my asking price) specifically because I had all the maintenance records back to 1996 when the car was purchased along with a mileage/fill-up log.

    • Amen, Tom –

      I didn’t mention it in the story because it was directed at a general (non-gearhead) audience, but here’s something I do to ascertain the car’s maintenance history:

      Crawl underneath and (if it’s a manual car) remove the gear fill hole on the trans case. Do this also with the rear axle (and transfer case w/4x4s). If the gear lube is filthy, you can be pretty sure it has never been changed – or not changed remotely recently. In which case, it’s a strong indication the previous owner was not fastidious about service.

      And – oldie, but goodie: Look closely at the oil dipstick. The oil might be fresh now – changed out just in time to try to sell the car – but if there’s varnish all over the dipstick itself, it’s a damn strong indication oil/filter changes were few and far between – and that the engine has led a hard life.

      • Good call on the dipstick varnish and gear oil.

        Another place to check for varnish/sludge is to open the oil cap and take a look inside the valve cover through the oil filler cap with a high powered flashlight. Not possible on all cars but certainly doable on some cars out there.

        On Auto tans cars I always sniff the transmission fluid for any burnt smell. You can’t always tell the condition of AT fluid from visual inspection but fluid that is way overdue will often smell burnt indicating a lack of maintenance.

  15. Great advice there, and here’s some more. Invest in a odb2 scanner. You don’t have to buy an expensive one, but do get one that will let you know if the statuses are ready or not. Sometimes an unscrupulous seller will reset the check engine light right before showing the car and if you don’t catch this, you’ll be 50 miles away and the light will come back on and then it sucks to be you. Here’s the one I’ve got. $60 investment to potentially save you $1600 in repairs sounds like a deal to me.

    On the used luxury cars, I too learned the hard way about buying a used luxury car back in 04. Mine was a 98 BMW 750IL that had every possible option available including the bullet-proof glass option and the owner had the old lease paperwork from where it had originally been Darius Rucker’s car, so I was convinced I was getting a car I’d hang on to for the next 20 years. The original window sticker had a list price of $92,000 and here I was getting this 6 yr old car with 99,000 miles for $12k and it drove so nice and smooth and everything worked except some burnt out pixels on the radio display. A few months later when I went to go get new tires and alignment, I discovered that all the bushings were worn out and needed to be replaced. $2000 to have that done. About 6 months later the rear shocks started collapsing. $2400 to have that done. Then all the fun stuff started happening with all the electrical malfunctions with the power window shades, window regulators started failing because of the heavy glass. $600 each for window regulators. Then the dash started burning out and the controls on the steering wheel quit working. Turned out to be a bad ignition switch…$1200. And on and on…starter, suspension issues again, a/c quit working, etc… Once it started with the rough idle and the problem was leaking intake gaskets, I just went ahead and dumped the car for $4000.

    Since then I’ve brushed up on my mechanic skills and purchased necessary equipment to do all my own repairs.

    And you’re spot on about those miatas. I got my 90 with a bad top for $1600 with 165k miles…$150 for replacement top, then ran it to 190k and started getting low compression on #3, so I ordered a JDM engine/tranny kit for $600 and put it in myself. Car drives almost like new and I will never sell it.

    • Thanks, Turd –

      And, excellent advice on the OBD scanner. I have one also. I recommend spending the extra $30 or so for one that will actually tell you what the codes mean – as opposed to just telling you the code. Mine cost about $120 and was well worth the slightly higher cost vs. a basic model.

    • The BMWs from around that time seem to be money pits. I had an ’01 540i. I replaced the window regulator twice before finally saying “screw it” and no more drive-thru’s for me :). Brittle plastic after just a few years. Moon roof that won’t close without jiggling. And “lifetime” transmission fluid?

      • My experience with BMW is to stick with the 3 series. I got a 97 Z3 a couple of years back and it has been one of my best used cars ever. It’s got nearly 200k on it now and all I’ve done is fluid changes and new tires. Once you start getting into the 5 and 7 series, it’s all the extra “niceties” that start going out which are high dollar items to fix. I never had any drivetrain issues with the 750 in respects to transmission or engine until the intake gaskets started leaking. In BMW’s defense, the car was 12 yrs old when that started to happen and I have no doubts had I replaced those that the engine would have gone another 100k. To do the job was going to be such a pain in the ass and I knew that once I did this I’d still be dumping another couple thousand into it next year for something else. I decided to cut my losses and get something that was better on gas.

        • I have to agree about exercising caution when looking at the used higher-end BMW models. Seven years ago, I bought a ’97 528 that was a dealer trade-in on Ebay, but only after much exhaustive research. I found the prices on the 740’s of similar age to be suspiciously low and found that the motor in those was notorious for being high-maintenance. Same goes for the one in the 540 which, I believe was basically the same motor. The 2.8, however, seemed to be the same overall unit they had been using in many other models for many years. Knowing German engineers, I’ve seen that once they find something that works well, they tend to stick with it for a long time.

          The car I ended up getting was mostly a base model with the exception of having the “comfort seats” and the DSP premium sound system, so the list of bells and whistles to inevitably break was kept to a minimum. As it is, I lucked out and got one that not only has a manual transmission, but had a black interior – rare during a period when people only seemed to want white or what I started calling “Rich Man Tan” – both of which rapidly start to look like hammered crap unless meticulously cared for. Aside from needing brake rotors and lower control arms replaced, everything else worked in it.

          Now, all these years later, window regulators on three windows need to be replaced and like death and taxes, the long-anticipated ABS failure finally arrived. The worst part of that is merely that the speedo doesn’t work. The odometer has read 247,000 miles for the last 50,000 or so and, sans traction control (or Stability Control as they call it), it drives just like a real car.

          All that aside, the 2.8 that’s in it has been rock-solid, it still handles great, and as far as general maintenance goes, the cost of parts really haven’t been much different from the DSM I was driving previously.

          • The problem is that interior color choice is restricted by exterior color choice. The marketeers and industrial designers don’t want us know-nothing buyers choosing color combos they don’t approve of I suppose.

            It could be limiting the possible variations at the factory but I doubt that was the primary concern.


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