What Makes A Certified Used Car “Certified?”

Certified Pre-owned (CPO) cars, have surged in popularity since they were first introduced in the late 1990s, currently accounting for 41 percent of all used car purchases. Consumers are often drawn to what seems like a great deal on a car that is just as good as new. But how exactly does a used car become certified?

First, you should understand that not all certifications are created equal. The term “certification” has no legal definition, and is, in a sense, meaningless. What matters is who puts their stamp of approval on the car.


Cars Certified By the Manufacturer

This is what probably comes to mind when you think of a “certified used car.” Just about every manufacturer has a certification process. Some are better than others, but all include the following:

  • An exact criteria for what can qualify as a certified used car.
    This generally means that the car can be no more than six years old and have no more than 80,000 miles. One of the exceptions is Toyota, which allows a seven year old vehicle with up to 85,000 miles.

  • At least a 100-point inspection by a manufacturer-trained mechanic.
    This varies a lot from automaker to automaker. General Motors only requires a 108-point inspection, while Audi mandates a 300-point inspection.

  • A manufacturer’s warranty that is added on top of the original warranty.
    These also vary a lot. GM only offers 3 months or 3,000 miles, while Ford offers a 6-year, 75,000 mile warranty.

Aside from the manufacturer training the mechanics and setting the standards, most of the actual certification is done at the dealership. When a used car meets the manufacturer’s age and mileage standards, it is then inspected. If the car requires extensive repairs, it is typically rejected. Otherwise, any damaged or broken parts are repaired or replaced, all fluids are changed, and it is branded as a CPO vehicle.

Now something you should be aware of is that part of the decision to accept a used car and sell it as certified is made by the individual mechanic. For instance, one mechanic might certify a car that’s been in an accident, as long as it’s running well, while another might not. No matter where you get a used car, a vehicle history report is a good investment, though it doesn’t always reveal everything about a car.

So which manufacturers offer the best certified cars? According to IntelliChoice, the top five non-luxury certified programs are offered by Volkswagen, Mazda, Honda, Toyota, and Ford, in that order.


Cars Not Certified By the Manufacturer

Some cars are labeled as certified, when in fact the manufacturer is not backing the car at all. If the car is being sold by an independent lot, or if the car’s brand doesn’t match that of the dealership, you know that it isn’t a true manufacturer-certified car.

In this case, “certified” can mean just about anything, but what it usually implies is that the dealer offers a third-party service contract for the vehicle. As opposed to manufacturer-certified cars, you shouldn’t expect a vigorous selection or inspection process.

Some auto superstores offer their own certification programs. For instance, CarMax promises a 125-point inspection, along with a thirty-day limited warranty, on every used car it sells. Despite the promise of a thorough check, CarMax doesn’t offer one of the best attractions of most CPO autos: The long warranty.


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