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Consider certified used cars

We've talked about used cars in this column before, but since used vehicles can be a great value for car buyers, this is a subject worth revisiting.

Traditionally, buying a used car was thought of as purchasing someone else's problems. However, some people now lease cars for three years and then turn them back in for newer models. Others move up to different vehicles (or move down) for financial reasons. Then there are the rental companies that sell their cars in order to have later models to offer customers. All this means that while you should be cautious and conscientious when shopping for a used car, there are some great opportunities out there.

One way to ensure that you are getting a good car is to purchase it from a dealer who has a certification program offering a warranty to cover your vehicle. Mercedes was the first to come up with used-car certification.

Not only did this mean that they spiffed up the vehicle, but they also went over it with a fine-tooth comb to make sure it lived up to its billing.

In all probability there was more than good marketing behind this offer _ there was liability. No dealer wanted his car to break down or, worse, fail in some way that could cause injury or death. So putting the cars under warranty made good sense all the way around.

Today, nearly every automaker has some sort of used-car certified warranty program, and used-car sales reflect this. Certified sales in the United States climbed from 460,000 in 2000 to a projected 1.5-million in 2003. When you realize that a new car will lose thousands of dollars of its value in the first year of life alone, shopping for a low-mileage, well-maintained certified used car makes great sense. This is particularly true when a model doesn't change much from year to year, and your used vehicle looks pretty much like its brand-new brethren.

There is a proviso, though: Certified cars will cost you more, but then it is a fact of life that "you gets what you pays for." The extra dollars _ $1,800 on average, according to the market research firm J.D. Power and Associates _ cover the dealers' cost of upgrading, inspecting and refitting to bring a vehicle up to snuff.

One way to view this extra cost is that it's better to pay a known cost now, rather than be exposed to potentially higher costs down the line when something (like an engine) quits. Following Murphy's Law, or a derivative thereof, these types of breakdowns inevitably happen in some remote spot during the weekend. (I even had one occur on New Year's Eve some years back _ try getting a car fixed on New Year's Day, when every mechanic in town is committed to football.)

One more note about certified cars: Certifications differ widely. At the bottom of the heap is the one that lasts for 3,000 miles or for three months beyond the remainder on the original warranty, whichever comes first. GM offers this. The best of the bunch is Jaguar's two years plus 50,000 miles beyond original warranty. Some warranties cover power train only, and others may charge a deductible for each repair, so read the fine print to avoid surprises.

QUIZ

(Be the first to answer the following question and win a small prize.)

Question: In what year did the Plymouth division of Chrysler produce its first cars?

Answer to last week's quiz:

Question: Car manufacturers were hit hard by the Depression, when most consumers could no longer afford new vehicles. What car company nevertheless continued to pay its shareholders dividends throughout the Depression?

Answer: Chrysler was the only car company to pay dividends to its shareholders throughout the Depression.

(Send questions, suggestions or quiz answers to infoamericaontheroad.com, and we will do our best to respond, either in a subsequent column or via e-mail. Happy motoring!)

_ TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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