Sometimes, when I'm bored, I like to go online and read angry customer complaints about used car dealers. Have you ever done this? I highly recommend it. Hearing from these people is fun, and it's entertaining, and it's a good reminder of why we have to put warning labels all over everything.
I say this because these people aren't always the brightest bulbs in the drawer. In fact, I would say they're some of the dimmest. They're the kind of bulb most modern restaurants are installing above their tables these days; the kind that's so dim that sometimes you have to pull out your phone flashlight to make sure you're still sitting next to your wife.
To explain what I mean, please allow me to illustrate the most common story in nearly every one of these complaints, using three easy-to-remember steps.
1. A customer — we'll call him Kenny, because that's almost always his name — purchases a used vehicle from a used car dealership. The vehicle is something truly horrible, such as a 1997 Dodge Intrepid with 246,000 miles. It has been owned by 11 different people in the last 17 years, including a milkman, a paperboy, a T-shirt repairman, and a guy who thought he was Jesus. The dealer purchased it from an auction for $67.35 in coins. Then they ran it through a gas station car wash and put it on their front line. Before selling it to Kenny, they had it for 19 days.
2. Six months after Kenny buys the car, the transmission dies.
3. Kenny blames the used car dealership.
You might think I'm exaggerating here, but this is almost always exactly what happens: a person buys a car that has been on the road for years, driven by multiple previous owners in a wide variety of scenarios, including the famous used car scenario of: Let's see how fast we can go in reverse.
And then when this car breaks down, they don't blame the prior owner, who once drove away from the gas station with the pump dangling from the car, and they don't blame the manufacturer, whose entire testing procedure consisted of driving a pre-production model around Southfield, Michigan, for three hours on a sunny August morning. They blame the used car dealer, who had the vehicle for approximately 0.04 percent of its 15-year lifespan. The used car dealer, who picked it up at auction, with no knowledge of the prior owners. The used car dealer, who drove it 6.3 total miles out of the 219,462 miles currently showing on the odometer.
Now, you might think I'm exaggerating with these complaints, but I'm not. For proof, I've copied down a few of my favorite angry posts from one of the "ripped off consumer" websites, where people go to complain about car dealerships, and insurance firms, and computer manufacturers, and staple gun companies, and you get the feeling that, if you were to listen to every one of these complaints, you would never own anything more complicated than a tree.
Here's one especially excellent complaint:
Horrible service and they lie to you only for you to purchase a car to increase their gross profits and sale numbers. I purchased a car from the Tinley Park, IL location and I was shown the so call "Carfax report" by Jim to only to hear five months later that the car may need a new transmission. Wtf.
First, this person says that the dealer "lies" – a serious complaint that should be examined further. But when we discover why the complainer thinks the dealer is lying, it turns out that the transmission died on a car five months after the sale date – something the buyer thinks is ridiculous, considering the car had a clean Carfax. This is like saying that you're angry that your house was just demolished by an asteroid, considering that a plumber recently told you that all the pipes are OK.
Unfortunately, that particular complainer doesn't announce what vehicle had the transmission problems. But the next hilarious complaint comes to us from a woman with – surprise, surprise – a Volkswagen. It is:
I will never purchase a vehicle from [dealer] and I'll never use their service department either. $2300 for the warranty for them to refuse me for service. 63000 miles and since I did not service the trans. My valve body is not covered. This Single mom is so mad. Buyers beware.
Just to be clear, this person made two important mistakes. First, she didn't service the transmission, which is a crucial part of remaining within the terms of an aftermarket warranty. Imagine if you never did any maintenance to your engine, and you drove 45,000 miles on the same oil, and suddenly the whole thing blew up. There is no warranty on earth that would cover this. Warranty company executives would tell this story at parties. Future warranties would include a pamphlet with your photograph and a long, scary re-telling of your story, as written by Stephen King. ("The noise emanating from the transmission reminded her of a time when she was a child, and the family home collapsed during a loud storm, raging with wind, rain, and God's wrath for all those people her father murdered.")
This woman's second mistake, of course, was purchasing a Volkswagen when she wanted reliable transportation. Of the two mistakes, I would say this is probably the larger one. Searching for reliable transportation and ending up with a Volkswagen is the automotive equivalent of walking into Target right before Christmas, and your son wants a bike, and you want to get him a bike, and you walk into the bike aisle, and you see all the bikes on display, and you end up buying him a file cabinet.
And yet in spite of all this, she still blames the dealer. Not Volkswagen, for making a vehicle whose transmission only lasted 63,000 miles. Not the prior owners, who probably played several rousing rounds of "Let's see how fast we can go before it doesn't let us shift into reverse anymore" before trading it in to the dealer. No – she blames the used car dealer who sold her the vehicle that she herself picked out.
But that's not the best complaint that I found. That honor goes to this person, who bought a used "Grand Jeep Cherokee" with some tire issues:
I bought a Grand Jeep Cherokee in June 2014. Within two and half months my tires are completely bald till the wire in the tire is coming out. A tire in that condition should not have been sold at all. I was driving on the beltway and noticed my truck was sliding to and fro. I wasn't sure what the problem was until my husband took a look at it and said my tires are completely bald. Somehow they camouflaged the tires to make them look good.
Now, I admit that a bald tire is probably something that should be replaced before a vehicle is sold. But I would also argue that the dealer probably didn't camouflage the tires in order to make them look good. Used car dealers may be sneaky, ladies and gentlemen, but they're not magicians. Even if they dress up like magicians in those ads where they say they'll finance anyone, regardless of whether you're divorced, or bankrupt, or jobless, or currently serving time for eating human flesh.
OK, fine, we get it, you might be thinking. The dealer isn't at fault. So what's your point? Well, my point is this: if you're buying a used car, you can't just blame the dealer for all your problems. Instead, you need to research the car. Go on the forums. Check the Carfax. Ask your friends. Get a mechanical inspection. Because when you sign those papers to buy your used car, you're assuming all the risks that go along with it. It might need new tires. It might need new brakes. It might need a new transmission.
It might be a Volkswagen.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.