Getting halves of two cars was not what Paulette Day expected when she
bought a red 2004 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that year from a dealership near
Detroit for $22,000. The car was used, but it was a "G.M. certified"
car, meaning it had supposedly passed a rigorous inspection by the dealer.
As General Motors says in its marketing material, buying a certified car
means "the reliability of new and the affordability of used."
Not in this case. Ms. Day said she became suspicious about the car after
noticing the paint did not match. After a mechanic put the car on a lift
and saw the welds, Ms. Day learned that it included pieces from the front
of one Monte Carlo and the rear of another, both seriously damaged in
crashes. "I thought being certified, there are supposed to be so
many checkpoints to make sure the car is safe," she said. "I
think they skipped over all of it. They would have had to notice that."
Certified used cars have become popular over the last five years, favored
by consumers worried about getting a lemon when they buy used. A guarantee
from an automaker that the car checks out is peace of mind for which an
increasing number of people are willing to pay extra, sometimes $2,000
or more. But some consumers are finding that certified does not protect
them and some, like Ms. Day, are filing lawsuits. Robert Minton, a G.M.
spokesman, said the automaker would not comment on Ms. Day’s case.
Three telephone calls to the dealership, Rowan Pontiac GMC in Southgate,
Mich., were not returned.
Automakers said buying a certified vehicle was the next best thing to buying
new and that, in general, customers have been pleased with the programs.
Indeed, most consumers who buy vehicles certified by automakers say they
are substantially more satisfied with their vehicles than those who bought
comparable used vehicles, said Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing
Research, a firm in Bandon, Ore., that studies buying habits. Certified
vehicles "pretty much matched the satisfaction numbers you see from
new cars," he said. Last year, new-car dealers sold about six million
used vehicles that were one to four years old. About 1.7 million of those
vehicles were certified, he said.
Automakers said that more than 100 items were inspected before a vehicle
could be certified. Many involve major mechanical components and the frame.
However, some of the inspection items are insignificant, like checking
windshield-washer fluid, said Jack Gillis, director of public affairs
for the Consumer Federation of America.
If problems were found, the automakers said they had to be fixed for the
vehicle to be listed as certified. Certification programs, which vary
from automaker to automaker, usually cover current models and the previous
four or five model years. Vehicles must have relatively low mileage, often
less than 60,000 miles.
The automakers’ provide inspection guidelines and the extended warranty
that comes with the certification, for which they charge the dealer several
hundred dollars. The dealers conduct the actual inspections and decide
how much more to charge the buyer for a certified vehicle. On average,
a certified used car costs about $2,200 more than one that is not certified,
CNW found. One problem for consumers is that there are no industry standards
to define what certified means. Anyone from a major new-car dealer to
the owner of a small used-car lot can say a vehicle is certified. Also,
most automakers allow vehicles that have been in crashes to be certified
if the damage was properly repaired and did not involve damage to the frame.
"So long as the damage has been repaired, most vehicles can be certified,"
said Virginia Y. Calderón, a San Diego lawyer who often handles
complaints about certified cars. "You always have to be concerned
about that." In some lawsuits automakers have denied responsibility
by saying the dealer — not the automaker — certified the vehicle.
The only guarantee with a certified used vehicle is that the dealer and
the automaker make more money, Cliff Weathers, deputy editor for autos
at Consumer Reports , said. With relatively new vehicles in particular,
certification makes little sense because they are likely to be relatively
trouble-free anyway, he said.
Calling a used vehicle certified suggests it is better, but there is no
way a consumer can be sure, said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers
for Auto Reliability and Safety, a California-based advocacy group.
Ms. Shahan lobbied the California legislature to enact a Car Buyer’s
Bill of Rights, which took effect last year. It includes a certified used-car
section that prohibits automakers from certifying a vehicle with frame
damage. "There are some problems with the manufacturer programs where
they have been lax," Ms. Shahan said. She also said that because
the dealer paid the expense of any repairs, there was a built-in conflict
of interest not to make them, Ms. Shahan said. It is a system that depends
heavily on the honesty and diligence of the dealer. Automakers said good
dealers saw the value of the program and would not abuse it.
"Ultimately, the dealer is our eyes," said Larry Pryg, advertising
and marketing manager for G.M. Certified Used Vehicles. In Ms. Day’s
case that system failed, said Dani K. Liblang, a Birmingham, Mich., lawyer
representing Ms. Day. It is hard to imagine how mechanics at Rowan Pontiac
GMC could not have known that the Monte Carlo was two vehicles, Ms. Liblang
said. "It took our expert less than five minutes to figure out that
this vehicle was two vehicles welded together with two different vehicle
identification numbers," she said.
Auto company officials in charge of the certified programs said they ensured
that the inspections were done correctly and that only the best used vehicles
were certified. They conduct audits at the dealerships by inspecting some
vehicles themselves. But many automakers warn the dealers in advance,
with Toyota being an exception.
Automakers said they also checked the paperwork of vehicles the dealers
wished to certify. That includes looking at Carfax vehicle history reports
to see if the vehicle was in a major accident or had flood damage. But
that still leaves consumers vulnerable because even major problems may
not show up on Carfax, Ms. Liblang said. A Carfax inquiry run in April
on the vehicle identification number for the front of Ms. Day’s
Monte Carlo showed no problems. Ms. Shahan of the California consumers’
group said that buying a certified used vehicle was a waste of money and
suggested that consumers use a different strategy.
"Basically you are paying a lot to have somebody else to do an inspection,"
she said. "Instead, spend $100 or $200 and get your own inspection
Auto company officials responded that few consumers have the time or knowledge
to find a competent mechanic familiar with the particular model. In addition,
certified vehicles come with factory warranties. Ms. Day, who still has
her Monte Carlo, had some advice for those who find certified used vehicles
alluring. "Whether they say it is certified or not," she said,
"take it somewhere and have it checked because you never know what
you are getting."