The probability of acquiring a troublesome used car is low but it's not zero
Canadians continue to buy used vehicles in big numbers, despite the risk of picking a lemon among the peaches. Automobiles may have never benefited from higher levels of quality than the ones built today, and the probability of acquiring a troublesome model may be low – but it’s not zero. Consider the lack of warranty coverage in many cases and the whole 'buying used' thing can seem dicey. Just like your mother warned you.
Fortunately, the internet is a treasure trove of information that provides revealing accounts of every car and truck, much of it based on the first-hand experiences of their owners. We’ve pulled together the most surprising verdicts of the past year, listing 10 used models that may be prudent to avoid. Because engines that shut down unexpectedly, timing chains that stretch and break, and transmissions that give up the ghost are big-time fails that no driver should have to endure.
The gargantuan Mercedes-Benz GL three-row luxury ute didn’t hail from Stuttgart, but from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where it was built alongside the M- and R-Class people movers. Tailored for North American pastimes such as towing the boat to the lake and circling mall parking lots at Christmas, the unibody GL shared about three-quarters of its components with its line mates. The GL450 was powered by an all-aluminum 4.7-L DOHC V-8 that made 335 hp and 339 lb-ft of torque.
Optional was the 210-hp GL320 Bluetec turbodiesel, starting in 2009, which utilized urea injection to sanitize its exhaust. Its 398 lb-ft of torque made it a magnificent towing aid. Both engines were teamed with Mercedes’ velvety seven-speed automatic transmission.
Gripes? The GL’s Airmatic suspension system is known to malfunction and repairs to the air compressor and other components are costly. The automatic transmission reportedly can become troublesome at higher mileage. Numerous electronic sensors can stop working and engine seals may leak. The heating element for the turbodiesel’s AdBlue fluid tank commonly fails. Without a warranty, the GL becomes a very expensive driveway fixture.
For the first time in its celebrated history, Jeep spawned two lightweight, front-drive crossovers: the Compass and Patriot. The pair shared their unibody platform, fully independent suspension and continuously variable transmission with the late Dodge Caliber. Unlike its Compass twin, the Patriot offered optional Freedom Drive II AWD, which included stiffer springs, skid plates, a taller ride height and an electronic low-range setting. Power came from an all-aluminum, 2.4-L DOHC four cylinder, good for 172 hp. Front-drive Sport models got a 158-hp, 2.0-L four.
Injection-molded out of hard plastic, jagged seams are easy to spot in the built-to-a-budget cabin. Occupants got plenty of head and legroom, but cargo space suffered due to the high load-floor in back. Indicative of its lackluster assembly, rainwater sometimes seeped into the cabin, usually via the dome light on the ceiling. A more serious concern involves stalling at speed. The Patriot’s two-piece fuel tank uses a transfer tube between the two halves, which was manufactured incorrectly in some cases. Owners have also reported overheated CVT transmissions (the unit reverts to limp mode), as well as quick-wearing ball joints and other suspension bits.
For those who see beauty in the extraterrestrial Nissan Juke – hey, it sells well in Europe – there are some endearing aspects to this compact crossover. The front-drive Juke uses a simple torsion-beam rear suspension, while all-wheel-drive iterations employ sophisticated multilink geometry. Its AWD system features two separate wet-clutch packs on the rear axle to distribute torque left or right and sharpen the steering response. The Juke picked up motorcycle cues inside, from its compact instrument cluster mounted on the steering column to the boffo fuel-tank-shaped centre console.
All models used the same direct-injected and turbocharged 1.6-L four-cylinder that’s good for 188 hp (the Nismo RS made 215 hp). A CVT automatic transmission was standard equipment, while a six-speed manual stick was available in front-drive models. The Juke felt agile and chuckable, thanks to its well-sorted chassis. However, owners discovered the timing chain can wear prematurely and break without warning, destroying the engine. Nissan is voluntarily replacing the chains on 2011 to 2013 models. Exasperating no-starts, cracked CV boots, rusting exhaust systems and fragile manual gearboxes are other documented maladies.
The new global-platform Ford Focus – available as a four-door sedan and five-door hatchback – was launched early in 2011, thrusting Ford back in the hunt in the small-car segment after retiring the previous long-in-the-tooth Focus. The European-bred compact was universally acclaimed by the automotive press for its driving dynamics. The direct-injected 2.0-L DOHC four-cylinder engine produced 160 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque, working through a five-speed manual transmission or six-speed sequential gearbox that emulated an automatic. (The high-performance ST, introduced for 2013, used a 252-hp 2.0-L turbocharged four-cylinder engine.)
Developed by Ford and Getrag, the automated six-speed relied on dry clutches and electric solenoid actuation to provide quick shifts, avoiding the hydraulic losses associated with torque converters. Unfortunately, that complex automatic is the car’s Achilles heel. It has frustrated many drivers with its jerky shifts, slippage and outright mechanical failure. Fixes have included numerous software upgrades, new clutches, TCM computer swaps and complete transmission replacements. If you can work a stick, the Focus is a rewarding drive. Conversely, plenty of owners have concluded the Focus is automatically a lemon.
Marketed as the brand’s first crossover, some viewed the Countryman as Mini’s first real car with four adult-sized doors, a taller stance and optional all-wheel drive. While it was 41 cm longer than a two-door Mini Cooper, it was barely bigger than Honda’s diminutive Fit and it was still 9 cm shorter than a Volkswagen Golf. The base model used a direct-injected 1.6-L DOHC four cylinder that produced 121 hp dispatched to the front wheels. A six-speed manual transmission was standard, with a six-speed automatic optional. The Countryman S used a turbocharged version of the same 1.6-L, churning out 181 hp.
The Countryman’s ALL4 all-wheel-drive system employed an electro-hydraulic differential working off the transmission’s final drive to vary the power distribution from front to rear. Chief among the reported mechanical lapses is a short-lived clutch (Mini has an improved clutch available). Also noteworthy is a high-pressure fuel pump failure that can leave motorists stranded. Owners reported frustrating oil leaks, broken door locks and power window actuators, faulty ignition coils, and other electrical gremlins. The timing chain can slacken and cause drivability issues.
The third-generation Subaru Forester completed its transformation from tall wagon to full-fledged compact crossover in 2009. It gained a stouter unibody, a 9-cm longer wheelbase, a broader track, 23 cm of ground clearance and a new unequal length control-arm rear suspension to yield more cargo room and enhanced cornering ability. The cabin benefited from the greater dimensions – the formerly cramped rear bench grew to among best in class – while maintaining exemplary headroom. The seats’ “h-point” was set at an optimal height to allow easy ingress and egress.
Subaru’s 2.5-L four-cylinder “boxer” engine was updated for 2011 with chain-driven twin cams and lighter pistons to produce 170 hp and 174 lb-ft of torque. The XT employed a turbocharger and intercooler to generate 224 hp. Subaru’s symmetrical AWD with its viscous limited-slip centre differential was standard, driving all four wheels all the time. Mechanical setbacks included voracious oil consumption: owners reported as much as one litre lost in 1,000 kilometres of driving. Other issues included turbo failure, worn-out transmissions, short-lived wheel bearings and catalytic converters, collapsed driver’s seats and malfunctioning air conditioners.
Keen to grow its presence in North America, Volkswagen supersized its Jetta sedan for 2011, endowing it with more rear legroom and a cohesive exterior design that looked more Audi than VW. But it was done on a budget, which meant removing some costs, mostly from the cabin appointments. Engine choices included an ancient 115-hp eight-valve 2.0-L four cylinder, a 170-hp 2.5-L inline five-cylinder, and the popular TDI 2.0-L turbodiesel four that produced 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. Added in 2012 was the GTI’s vaunted 200-hp 2.0-L turbocharged gasoline engine.
Despite the cost cutting, German driving dynamics remained intact; the Jetta’s hydraulic steering was immediate and its directness inspired driver confidence. So what’s not to like? TDI owners have been plagued by high-pressure fuel pump failures, which see the pump grinding itself to smithereens and contaminating the fuel system. Other TDI faults include failed fuel injectors, bad fuel pressure sensors, broken turbochargers and frozen intercoolers. Engine coils may fail prematurely in gasoline models, sometimes stalling on the highway at speed. High oil consumption is an issue with the 2.0T turbo gasoline engine.
Hyundai’s California-designed Sonata for 2011 was strikingly swoopy, delighting buyers with its new “fluidic sculpture” design language. Its coupe-like profile enveloped a full-size cabin and the trunk was big enough for airport runs. The front-drive platform was made 19% less bendy thanks to high-strength steel. The primary engine was a direct-injection 2.4-L DOHC four cylinder that made 198 hp; optional dual exhaust raised the output by two horses. The base model offered a six-speed manual transmission (later dropped), while most were outfitted with a six-speed automatic.
A performance option arrived later in the form of a direct-injection, 2.0-L twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder, good for 274 hp. Reliability was good for the most part – until drivers racked up high mileage. At that point, owners reported oil consumption, engine bearing and piston ring-land failures and connecting-rod knock, leading to complete engine demolition. It’s devastating news for an automaker that’s spent three decades burnishing its reputation. To make amends with owners, Hyundai is recalling the 2.4-L and 2.0-L engines made in its Alabama facility.
Sharing nothing with the iconic 1950s original beyond its cuddly profile, the reincarnated Fiat 500 utilized the front-drive platform of Fiat’s Panda econobox, which made it more than a half-metre longer with seating for four very close friends. The base 500 was powered by a 1.4-L SOHC four-cylinder that produced 101 hp, hooked up to a five-speed manual transmission or optional six-speed automatic. The 500 Abarth performance model squeezed 160 hp out of its turbocharged 1.4 working exclusively with the five-speed manual gearbox (a milder Turbo model with 135 hp on tap debuted for 2013).
The Mexican-built 500 did not endear itself to North Americans who lined up to buy the premiere examples in 2011. The most common reported problem has to do with fast-wearing clutches and other manual transmission components – odd, given Italians’ penchant for traditional gearboxes. Other reported issues include noisy steering columns and suspensions, leaking valve-cover gaskets, faulty ignition coils and headlights, worn wheel bearings, broken power-window regulators and bad radios. A sobering note: Fiat occupies the basement of J.D. Power’s dependability rankings.
GMC’s first compact crossover used the same laudably rigid, but heavy, platform that underpinned the redesigned Chevrolet Equinox. Four-cylinder Terrains relied on electric power-steering (V-6 models used a conventional hydraulic pump), while an electronic noise-cancellation system suppressed powertrain resonance. The interior was handsome with its sweeping instrument panel adorned with chrome and faux-metal accents. Configured for five occupants, there was enough room to allow the rear bench to slide fore and aft to fine-tune the generous legroom.
The 2.4-L DOHC four produced 182 hp, while the optional 3.0-L DOHC V-6 made 264 hp (it was replaced with Cadillac’s 301-hp 3.6-L V-6 in 2013). Both direct-injection engines mated to the standard six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive was optional with either powerplant. Owners complained the four cylinder’s touted fuel economy was overly optimistic. Mechanically, some 2010-2013 models equipped with the four-banger became candidates for new pistons and piston rings due to leaking high-pressure fuel pumps that diluted the oil and hastened ring wear. In addition, stretched timing chains on the 2.4-L four can reportedly jump the gear teeth and wreck the engine.
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