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Certified Pre-Owned: How to Compare CPO Programs

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author photo by Russ Heaps October 2018

Everyone has different reasons for considering certified pre-owned (CPO). As a compromise of price and protection, CPO is usually the solution sought by consumers wishing to avoid the higher prices of brand-new cars, but still desiring the additional piece of mind the extra warranty protections CPO provides over and above typical used cars.

Most consumers find themselves looking at certified pre-owned cars after choosing a specific vehicle and then choking on the suggested retail price of that vehicle new. As with leasing, CPO is an option for reducing the size of that monthly payment. But for those who begin their vehicle search looking at CPO, understand that the details vary from manufacturer to manufacturer -- sometimes varying wildly.

Every carmaker's CPO program can be distilled down to a few key areas. These are the core elements on which to compare one CPO program to another. Big divergences in any one of these areas translate into fewer benefits, less protection or both, which obviously ultimately affects the consumer's piece of mind. Here are some key areas to research when choosing among CPO programs.

First Things First

Before entering into the world of CPO, here's one thing you should understand: CPO is an auto-manufacturer program, supervised and underwritten by the manufacturer but implemented by that carmaker's individual franchised dealers.

Point Inspection

If you have ever attempted to price shop a particular mattress, you soon found that the same mattress might be marketed in different names by different retailers. How can you compare prices when you're not sure if you are actually comparing apples to apples. Simple. You can't.

One of the big selling points of CPO, and the very backbone of every CPO program, is the comprehensive inspection of the vehicle's parts and systems, ensuring everything is in good working order. Each carmaker has its own list of inspection points and guidelines for addressing issues discovered in the inspection. So far, so good.

Where things become a little murky is in exactly what is inspected. Glancing over several different CPO programs, you will find some inspections, like Audi, perform a 300-point inspection; while others, like Cadillac, inspect 172 points. Still others, like BMW, don't mention the number of points at all, but simply say, comprehensive. Even in the case of Audi and Cadillac, the real difference may be much less because Cadillac may be counting systems, such as brakes, as one point. Audi may be counting elements (rotors, pads and so forth) of the system as separate points. Ask for a list of exactly what is inspected.

Warranty

If your reason for shopping CPO is the after-purchase protection against repairs provided by additional program warranties, this is particularly important. On newer CPO vehicles, there is probably some part of the original new-car warranty still in effect. Any additional CPO-program protection will begin when the original expires. Here, the specific vehicle being shopped can make a big difference in terms of after-purchase protection. Once that original warranty expires, the CPO coverage begins. Sometimes this is as simple as a 12-month extension of the original warranty. Some carmakers, however, do it for less than a year, while others may only cover certain elements, like the powertrain. Moreover, some CPO warranties have deductibles that must be paid by the owner before the CPO protection picks up the balance.

If your major reason for shopping CPO is the extended warranty, make sure you understand exactly what that coverage amounts to.

Financing

A benefit of buying certified pre-owned is most of the carmakers offer financing deals through their captive lenders, like Ford Motor Credit for example, that aren't offered for a regular used car. If you don't want to bother lining up financing before heading to the dealership, you probably aren't going to spend the time comparing CPO finance rates, but just a point in the interest rate can make a big difference in what you will eventually pay for a car. If you plan to have the dealer handle financing, take the time and compare the CPO interest rates.

Miscellaneous

Some CPO programs allow for exchanging a vehicle within a limited amount of time. Sometimes this is a dealer issue, and sometimes it's mandated by the carmaker. If that's important to you, ask.

Roadside assistance is included in some CPO programs, like Ford. Others offer different perks, such as free satellite radio for some set period. Acura even offers concierge service to its CPO customers.

What it means to you: As with any new- or used-car purchase, getting the most out of certified pre-owned requires some effort on the buyer's part.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Certified Pre-Owned: How to Compare CPO Programs - Autotrader