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2012 Annual Auto Issue: Seven ways to avoid a lemon

By: · March 2, 2012

Our best and worst used car lists can steer you to models that have reliable track records. But any vehicle can become a clunker if it has been neglected or has sustained accident or flood damage. You can protect yourself from buying someone else’s problems by knowing what to look for.

Check for signs of collision repair. Those include mismatched body panels; a door, hood, or trunk that doesn’t close properly; or paint overspray on chrome or rubber trim or in the vehicle’s wheel wells. You can also test for the presence of body filler with a small magnet. If it doesn’t stick well to a steel panel, the car may have filler under the paint, which could indicate that a dent has been repaired.

Beware of flood damage. It might be hard to spot, but water can permeate a car and cause ongoing problems. A moldy or mildew smell, discolored carpeting, or intermittent electrical problems may be signs.

Check the fluids. Wet spots in the engine compartment or under the vehicle can indicate leaking oil or fluids. Inspect the level and condition of the engine oil and transmission fluid. Gritty or gelatinous oil indicates that it hasn’t been changed regularly. Thin, frothy oil that’s the color of chocolate milk may point to a blown head gasket or to a severely damaged block or cylinder head. Fine metal particles in the oil reflect internal damage or heavy wear. The transmission fluid should be bright red to light reddish brown, not dark brown, black, or mustard colored; those colors or a strong burned smell can indicate serious problems.

Read the smoke signals. If the tailpipe emits blue smoke after the car has warmed up, the engine may be burning oil—a bad sign. Billowing white smoke indicates water in the combustion chamber, usually because of a blown head gasket, damaged cylinder head, or even a cracked block—all expensive repairs.

Step on the gas.
While driving, does the engine rev excessively before the car accelerates? That is a common sign of a misadjusted or worn-out clutch, or a damaged automatic transmission. Listen for knocks and pings while accelerating, which could reflect an overheating engine.

Check the vehicle’s history. A vehicle-history report from CarFax or Experian Automotive can alert you to possible odometer fraud; reveal past fire, flood, and accident damage; or tell you whether a rebuilt or salvage title has ever been issued for the vehicle. But those services don’t catch everything, so a clean report is no guarantee that a car is problem-free.

Get it inspected. Have any used car thoroughly inspected by a qualified mechanic. He should also check for any recalls related to the car and verify whether the work was done.

See our guide to buying a used car.

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