Yes, good people of Jalopnik, it's true: Friday is upon us once more. The week is almost over, the weekend is almost here, and that means the time has come for Letters to Doug, the weekly column where I almost answer your automotive questions.
And remember: you, too, can participate in Letters to Doug by simply e-mailing me your question at Letters2Doug@gmail.com, or by Tweeting me at @DougDeMuro. Names will be changed to protect the question asker, just in case you're wondering about something like the best car for transporting giant boxes of cocaine. (Answer: Oldsmobile Silhouette with a rotary club bumper sticker.)
Anyway: on to this week's question, which comes to us from a loyal reader in Texas named Mike, who writes:
Good morning, Doug!
I bought from CarMax the 2004 CLK55 AMG you profiled a couple weeks ago. (I had lost the car twice in the interim to people whose fubar credit meant they couldn't secure a $17k loan.)
I based my decision on your Range Rover adventures with CarMax, your recommendation of unreliable-yet-best cars, and the potent I-have-no-children-and-no-wife-and-my-Id-says-I-WANT-IT argument.
So, the point: for this Merc, do you suggest looking into an M-B warranty, or should I stop thinking and just get the MaxCare?
With my thanks,
A loyal reader in Texas named Mike
Now, before I address Mike's question, I want to cover perhaps the most important point that I notice in this letter: someone actually bought a car based on my recommendation. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: if you've ever wondered whether automotive journalism sells cars, you have the answer right here.
Now, I don't know if it sells new cars, and I don't know if it sells pickups, or family cars, or luxury SUVs, or tiny hatchbacks. But I do know there is one man driving around Texas right now in an 11-year-old Mercedes just because I recommended it. This gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling; the kind of feeling you get when you're selflessly making a difference, the kind of feeling you get when you've changed someone's life; the kind of feeling you get when you know you've done right in the world. And the only thing I ask in return is that the CarMax salesman calls me up and writes me a personal check to split the commission, plus interest and a nominal late fee, of course.
Anyway: on to the real topic here, which is: should I buy a CarMax warranty or a certified pre-owned warranty?
As you might expect, I get this question constantly, because people are always a little leery of third-party automotive warranties like the one you get from CarMax. And I understand this, because there are a lot of third-party warranties out there that have all these exclusions. For example: you sign up for a third-party warranty when you buy a used car, and one day your radiator breaks. So you go to get it repaired and discover that your radiator isn't covered by your warranty, and neither is your engine, or your transmission, or your electronics, or your suspension, but if you ever have a problem with your radio buttons, then we'll cover it at a generous labor rate of $37 an hour.
But in my experience, CarMax's warranty isn't like that. On the contrary, I've been to the dealer on six separate occasions for CarMax-covered warranty issues, and the entire process has gone smoothly five different times. On the sixth visit, which was my most recent, CarMax said the dealer gave them the wrong part number, and the dealer said CarMax didn't understand the problem, but either way, everything got straightened out and the entire repair was covered in the end.
So this brings us to the next question people usually ask, which is: Does the factory CPO warranty cover anything the CarMax warranty doesn't? And the answer here is usually not. I say "usually" because there might be some differences between the factory warranty and the CarMax warranty, like some small hose that isn't covered, or some little switch that doesn't fall under the warranty, but in general I would say that CarMax's warranty — which is essentially a bumper-to-bumper plan — covers everything a factory certified pre-owned program would.
In fact, what I've noticed is that the CarMax warranty often covers more than the factory warranty. As an example, let's consider Acura's certified pre-owned warranty. Acura's warranty offers 1 year or 12,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper coverage, plus powertrain coverage for up to 7 years or 100,000 miles from the original date of sale. Meanwhile, CarMax's bumper-to-bumper warranty covers vehicles for 5 years from the date of purchase or up to 125,000 total miles.
So, to play out this scenario with a real-life example: say you buy a 2008 Acura with a certified pre-owned warranty from an Acura dealer. You get one year of bumper-to-bumper coverage, and two years of powertrain coverage before your warranty is over. Now pretend you buy the same car from CarMax. You'd have five years of bumper-to-bumper coverage from the day you buy the car. In other words: CarMax's bumper-to-bumper warranty is five times as long as Acura's.
And then there's another CarMax advantage: the age limit. In the case of our loyal reader from Texas named Mike, for example, his 2004 Mercedes would never be covered by a Mercedes-Benz CPO warranty, because Mercedes-Benz won't certify a car that's more than six years old. So although Mike can buy a 5-year warranty from CarMax for his 2004 Mercedes –a warranty that will still be valid in 2020, when the vehicle is sixteen years old – he can't get a factory CPO warranty on a Mercedes unless it's a 2009 model or newer. And even then, he would be subject to the terms of the Mercedes CPO warranty, which provides just one year of coverage.
Of course, the CarMax warranty does have a few drawbacks – including, most notably, the fact that it costs extra to buy, whereas automaker certified pre-owned warranties are "included" in each purchase. But do you really believe car manufacturers are giving out something for nothing? A check of CPO versus non-CPO used cars will quickly prove to you that automakers do charge extra for CPO vehicles, even if the warranty cost is technically included in the final price.
The CarMax warranty's other drawback is that opting for the warranty simply makes no sense for a vehicle that's only a year or two old. After all: those cars are still covered by their manufacturer warranty, so there's no need to spend extra money for the CarMax plan.
But if you're looking at an 11-year-old AMG Mercedes like Mike, you have just one option: buy it from CarMax, and buy it with a warranty. Mike told me he spent $3,089 for his 5-year plan, which I suspect he will eventually come to realize is the best money he's ever spent. Other than the cost to buy the CLK55, of course.
@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.