What Are Certified Used Cars?

If you're considering a used car, certified vehicles might be a good fit

What are Certified Vehicles?

Certified used cars present an attractive alternative to buying a higher-priced new car. For less than the price of a new car, you have the opportunity to afford "more car" — and one you can drive with confidence.

As a “Certified” vehicle, the dealer is placing the manufacturer’s stamp of approval that this vehicle drives and feels as close to brand-new as possible, even if the odometer is showing 30,000 or 40,000 miles or more.

If you are buying a certified used car, it has already been thoroughly inspected by a mechanic with factory training. Anything that was wrong, or about to go wrong, has been maintained or repaired. In other words, the certification process has removed one of the major drawbacks to buying a used car: uncertainty about the mechanical condition of the vehicle.

With a certified car, the dealer has gone out of its way to offer you a vehicle that meets the highest standards set by the manufacturer. It’s a chance to obtain a quality car at a price that’s likely lower than the combined purchase and repair costs of an uncertified vehicle.

Origin of Certified Programs

Certified used car programs began in the mid-1990s as more vehicles were returned by customers leasing their vehicles. These cars were in good mechanical condition, usually with fewer than 40,000 miles on the odometer. The best of these vehicles were put on sale at the dealership where the car was returned; the rest were sent to auction where they were acquired and then sold at used car lots.

Gradually, dealerships realized they needed a way to move these perfectly good vehicles that were building up on their lots. They needed a way to draw attention to the best values and remove objections about possible future breakdowns. The term “certified” was a way to draw attention to these cream puffs as they became available.

As the popularity of certified programs spread, manufacturers started their own certified programs. Now, almost all brands offer such a program.

The Certification Process

Here's how a typical certified used car program works. When a vehicle is returned from a lease, or traded in on the purchase of a new car, the dealership evaluates its condition and considers it for the certified used car program. Taking VW as an example, the car has certain requirements to meet right off the top: The car must be five model years old or newer with fewer than 75,000 miles on the odometer, and it has to have been operated by the previous owner for at least 12 months.

If the car falls within those guidelines, then mechanics check it over carefully. If the cost to bring the vehicle up to Certified standards is too high, then the vehicle is sold at auction.

Volkswagen, to continue with the example, then does a 112-point inspection of all major systems. If any problems are found, they are repaired, with the goal of bringing the vehicle as close to "as new" condition as possible. The car is then sold with a limited 2-year/24,000-mile warranty that covers, among other things, the powertrain, electrical system and air conditioning. Finally, 24-hour roadside assistance is provided for two years to ensure added peace-of-mind.

Many other manufacturers have similar inspection standards with comparable warranties. Honda completes a 150-point inspection and offers a limited factory warranty of seven years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain and 12 months or 12,000 miles on non-powertrain components, plus any unused new-car warranty coverage.

Dealer Certified

Be aware that the word “Certified” can mean different things at different dealers. Be sure to familiarize yourself with what has been inspected during the certification process and that it is backed by a manufacturer warranty. If the warranty is only good at the one dealership, then it is not a factory-backed “Certified” vehicle.

Consider driving “Certified.” It’s the right choice for those who want to save money and don’t need to drive “new,” but still want to the peace-of-mind of a solid warranty.

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