Knowledge proves powerful when purchasing new car

Buying a used car is not as risky an endeavor as it once was. Significant improvements in design, construction and reliability have pushed the used-car business to the forefront of the automotive industry.

Although auto tampering and manipulated owner histories have not been eliminated from the car-buying experience, there are still ways to avoid getting exploited at the car lot.

“When I bought my used car, I brought a mechanic with me so the salesman wouldn’t try to take advantage of me,” said Myron Daniels, 20, a junior business student from St. Louis.

On its Web site, the Better Business Bureau suggests that used car shoppers consider how they will use their vehicles and the size, style and features they need or prefer. The bureau’s Web site also suggests that car buyers take into account their budget and financing options as well as repair costs.

After considering these factors, smart shoppers are ready to select a car model. Consumer Reports Magazine publishes a listing of the best and worst used car models sold in the current market. The list shows models whose reliability has consistently been better or worse than the norm.

Of the models listed as “reliability risks,” most were what Consumer Reports calls “twins” or “triplets,” which are comparable models sold under different nameplates.

Among these 27 risky vehicles are Dodge Neon, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Pontiac Grand Am, Volkswagen New Beetle and Plymouth Neon.

Consumer Reports also lists more than 30 statistically reliable cars. Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Celica and Corolla, Honda Accord and Civic and Ford Escort are among those on the list of good bets.

“Three years ago, my father bought me a 1989 Toyota Camry and I haven’t had any major problems with it yet,” said LaKesha Springle, 22, an FSU senior sports administration student from Thomasville, Ga.

The bureau suggests car buyers spend time researching potential vehicles.

Consumers should check auto and consumer books, such as Edmund’s Used Cars Prices and Ratings and magazines such as Consumer Reports, for information on the reliability records of various models.

These listings, however, are merely starting points.

When consumers finally make it to the car lot, before kicking tires and checking price tags, the bureau advises car buyers to check for a “Buyers Guide” sticker on the car windows.

All public retailers are required to apply these stickers to their cars under the Federal Trade Commission’s Used Car Rule. “Buyers Guide” stickers tell consumers whether a vehicle is under warranty and, if so, relate the conditions of the warranty.

Beware of cars without warranty. The bureau reports that once a consumer buys a used car “as is,” the dealer is relieved of his or her responsibility to the car. If a vehicle is not under warranty or sold “as is,” it is covered by an implied warranty.

Under most state laws, implied warranties “make dealers legally responsible if the cars they sell fail to meet reasonable quality standards at the time of sale,” reports the bureau’s Web site.

After taking these facts into careful consideration, the consumer’s next step is to examine the car. The bureau suggests car shoppers look for rust and blisters on the surface of the vehicle.

Mismatched paint, misaligned body panels and gritty surfaces are all signs of a new paint job that may be concealing body problems. Warning signs of past accidents are cracks, heat-discolored areas, doors that fit unevenly and loose bumpers. Uneven wear on the front tires can be an indication of bad alignment or front suspension damage.

Another tip given by the bureau is to search for the guarantee date sticker on the car battery. The bureau’s Web site says, “a battery generally needs to be replaced after 25,000 miles.”

Check the shock absorbers by leaning on a corner of the car then releasing it. The shocks may need replacing if the car keeps bouncing up and down.

Inspect all fluids. Oil that has bubbles or is whitish in color could mean major problems.

Radiator fluid should not look rusty and transmission fluid should not smell rancid or look brown.

The bureau also suggests that consumers should be certain all lights and directional signals are in proper working order.

Check the radio, heater, air conditioner and windshield wipers. A car shopper should also look for locations of airbags and ask salespeople if they have ever been deployed.

Making wise consumer decisions can be a difficult and arduous process. Using these tips, however, can mean the difference between pouring money into repair costs and purchasing a dependable used car.

To investigate and compare used car prices, the bureau suggests seaching libraries, book stores, banks and insurance agencies for a copy of the monthly National Automotive Dealers Association Official Used Car Guide or monthly Kelly Blue Book to estimate a car’s resale value.

In addition to these resources, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s toll-free hotline, 800-424-9393, gives information about whether a certain vehicle has been recalled for safety defects.