In 2021, the average new car transaction price hovers around $38,000 -- and prices continue to climb today. That's why, for many folks, buying a used car makes the most financial sense.
Automakers, unwilling to miss a potential revenue stream, offer a less expensive alternative: certified preowned vehicles, or CPO vehicles. These models can provide you with the same peace of mind new-car owners experience, but do so at 50% to 75% of the cost of a brand-new car.
What is a CPO car?
A certified preowned car is a used vehicle that shows hardly any signs of having been used before your potential purchase. CPO cars are typically off-lease units returned to the dealership where they were first sold new. Once the original lease is up, the original lessor returns the car oftentimes in exchange for a new lease or to purchase something else.
Usually, these off-lease cars are around three years old with fewer than 12,000 miles per year of previous service, but on the high end, many automakers won't consider a used car for manufacturer certification if it's more than six years old and has more than 75,000 miles on the clock.
CPO cars are often well-maintained, damage-free and come back to the dealer with relatively few miles on the odometer because of the mileage limits inherent with new-car leases. If a leased vehicle returns in crummy condition, the original lessor is faced with steep fees to offset any damage or extra mileage.
The restrictions placed on the first possessor ensure that the dealer has a steady stream of top-quality used cars to resell, thus giving the dealer an opportunity to make a second-time profit. Of course, CPO cars can come from standard dealer trades, but for the mosts part, these are off-lease vehicles ready for a second lease on life, if you will.
If an initial inspection process deems the vehicle worthy of being put through the certification process, the dealer must send its identifying information, the car's VIN, a multipoint inspection checklist and a payment to the automaker to get the vehicle manufacturer-certified. Once the dealer makes any necessary repairs and the mandatory vehicle history report checks out, the manufacturer gives its approval, at which point the dealer can list the car for sale on the dealer's lot and website as a CPO vehicle.
Once you buy that CPO vehicle, you are then privy to a manufacturer-backed warranty similar to a new-car warranty. For most vehicle brands, that means zero-deductible repairs nationwide at any of the manufacturer's dealerships for a duration and mileage longer than the original warranty. Sometimes, depending on the brand, CPO shoppers have the option to finance or lease, usually at interest rates that are less than with a regular used car.
Once the customer signs their paperwork and drives off, they'll have access to 24-hour roadside assistance as well as complimentary towing, trip-interruption coverage and a loaner car to use while the CPO car is being serviced or repaired. Speaking of service, Lexus is a standout among other car companies by including complimentary maintenance for the first 20,000 miles or two years you pull the trigger on a CPO vehicle from the brand.
And there's another perk: For any CPO vehicle that came with satellite radio from the factory, regardless of manufacturer, the new owner gets a free, three-month trial of SiriusXM.
How much more does CPO cost?
Although CPO programs are often best enjoyed with luxury brands, due to a greater likelihood of repairs that will often cost more than with a mainstream car, they can be excellent options for volume brands, too. CPO luxury cars commonly cost thousands more than their conventional counterparts, but if that ends up saving you thousands on warrantable repairs, you could end up coming out on top. At any rate, someone looking for a like-new car at a better price and peace of mind should certainly check out any CPO program for their brand of choice in this market.
Why is a CPO car better than a typical used car?
Yes, you'll have to spend more money, but for those extra Benjamins, you're getting a lot of extra peace of mind by knowing the car is in good condition and that it will be covered under a warranty that's comparable in length and milage with a new-car warranty.
How do you know it's in good condition? The multi-point inspection. On the low end, Porsche performs a 111-point inspection, while its cousins at Audi are more intensive with their 300-plus-point inspection. Regardless of how many points are checked, these inspections ensure that a car's major mechanical, electronic, emissions and safety components are up to spec. If any of them aren't, they're repaired, even if the problem's a cosmetic issue.
Aside from differing inspection intensity, there are other aspects that make some CPO programs better than others. Expecting to rack up a ton of miles on your next car? Numerous brands offer unlimited-mile warranties, such as Lexus and BMW, within a the warranty coverage period. Some brands even give you a few days to return a car if you're not satisfied with it.
Just be aware some CPO programs do include a warranty deductible. Still, spending $100 on a repair that may cost a couple grand is certainly the better deal.
Regardless of what you're looking for in a CPO program -- and this applies to any instance you're making a large monetary expenditure -- be sure to check the fine print and make sure the CPO deal you're considering is suitable for your needs. If you're irked by the thought of having to shell out a few hundred to a few thousand dollars more for a CPO car versus a comparable used vehicle, remember, you're still paying thousands less than what the equivalent new set of wheels would cost.
Living with a CPO car
On top of the dealership's assurances that you're getting a like-new car for what is hopefully a reasonable premium above a used-car price, CPO cars come with their own manufacturer-backed warranty that extends the life of the original new-car warranty.
Here's an example: Once upon a time, a Roadshow staffer purchased a 2014 Audi TT. The car showed 21,000 miles, which left 29,000 miles and about a year left on the original warranty. Once the original factory warranty ended, the CPO warranty took over. With it, they received another year of full warranty coverage with unlimited mileage.
CPO program pros and cons
If you choose to buy certified preowned, always keep these two tenets in your mind: First, you get what you pay for. Second, with used cars, you run the risk of buying someone else's problems.
While you most likely will end up behind the wheel of something that's downright dependable, a used car generally isn't as reliable as a new one. So you're saving money, but at the likely expense of slightly inferior longevity and the lack of the euphoric new-car smell.
CPO multipoint inspections and their associated extended warranties lessen your risk of hassling with a car in the event it turns out to be a reliability nightmare. Furthermore, car companies working in conjunction with dealerships will oftentimes finance CPO vehicles at a lower interest rate than what they would've for a regular used car, so some of the extra money you spend upfront can end up being saved with lower-cost financing.
But CPO isn't for everyone. It's certainly a very good option for people who want to save money on luxury cars from brands that are synonymous for high repair costs and less-than-stellar reliability. It's worth taking a closer look if the deal is ripe on mass-market brand, like Honda or Hyundai.
A CPO vehicle can come close to providing all that a new car offers, but for a lot less. With the inherent savings you'll enjoy compared with a brand-new car, in many cases, the numbers just make sense.
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