When buying used cars, it should go without saying that caution is a virtue. Many car buyers use every resource at their disposal, including the Internet, in order to research a potential purchase before handing over a check to a dealership or private seller. Online research is an excellent tool to use when buying a secondhand or even new car, but it should always be combined with direct and specific questions posed towards the seller.
Sometimes buyers feel nervous or uncomfortable when asking for items such as maintenance records or bills to back up claimed repairs, or proof from a dealer that listed equipment is actually installed. Generally, people seek to avoid confrontation and move the sale along as smoothly as possible. The consequences of ignoring due diligence when purchasing a used car, however, can at best be costly and at worst put you and your passengers at risk.
Sound dramatic? Perhaps, but a story which has made its way back into the headlines this past week illustrates the dangers involved in not taking a hard look at any potential used car purchase - regardless of who the seller might be. Throughout 2009, Enterprise Rent-A-Car sold off some of its fleet of sedans, including recent editions of the Chevrolet Impala. This popular family car was offered across the country at attractive prices, and more than 100,000 buyers jumped at the chance to pick up what they thought was a standard version of the Chevrolet sedan.
For the most part, these buyers were right - the Chevrolet Impalas that they purchased were identical to any used Impala found at a Chevrolet dealer lot, except for one important detail. Enterprise had ordered the vehicles through the General Motors fleet program, which allows for certain modifications to be made to standard equipment levels. In the interests of cost cutting, none of the Impalas purchased by Enterprise were outfitted with the same standard level of safety equipment found on the version of the car that made it to Chevrolet showrooms. Specifically, Enterprise bought their fleet of soon-to-be rental cars without the side airbags installed - saving them $145 per car.
None of this would have been a big deal had those buyers purchasing these used Chevrolet Impalas from Enterprise been informed of the omitted equipment. Instead, not only were shoppers left in the dark about the missing airbags, but the stickers on each of the cars' windows that accompany these airbags were left in place, furthering the illusion that the sedans were outfitted identically to any other Chevrolet Impala of the same year. In a few worst case scenarios, television news crews investigating the story found themselves being to told by sales personnel on several car lots that the cars in fact had the missing airbags installed.
Naturally, many of the drivers who bought these used Chevrolet Impalas, whether directly from Enterprise or from a used car lot are upset, feeling that they were deceived by company personnel during the purchase process. For its part, Enterprise has stated that it is willing to buy back each affected Impala and pay a $750 premium over its book value, or alternatively pay a settlement of $200 to each customer. This is despite not having technically broken any particular laws due to the airbag information omission.
The lesson of this used rental car debacle is to stay informed. When researching a particular automobile, take note of what equipment should be installed and what shouldn't, and ask for details if something seems amiss when you are inspecting the vehicle with the seller. In the case of rental cars, it helps to be aware of the fact that fleet vehicles can often be sold with different levels of equipment than what you might typically see in a dealer showroom.
Even with the safety stickers in place, each of these Impalas offered prospective buyers a clue about the true nature of their safety equipment: their vehicle identification numbers showed 'AK5,' which indicated that the side airbag option had been deleted. The door trim itself was also missing the word 'Airbag,' which would have provided an additional indication to savvy buyers. These small items might seem easy to miss when looking at a potential used car purchase, but going in armed with as much information about a vehicle - and its origin - as possible gives you an edge in avoiding unfortunate issues down the road.