How to Navigate the Certified Pre-Owned Realm and Get Great Deals on Wheels

a 2002 hyundai tuscon driving on the road
2002 Hyundai Tuscon. Hyundai is among the top-ranked CPO programs.

A new car can be an expensive investment — and not a very economically justifiable one when you consider it loses nearly 10% of its value the second you drive it off the lot.

On the flipside, buying a used car doesn’t offer much peace of mind, as its full history may not be readily available, making its future questionable.

Nestled neatly between new cars and used cars like Goldilocks’ favorite porridge is something called certified pre-owned, and for 2.6 million drivers in 2016, a CPO vehicle was just right.

So What the Heck Is CPO?

CPO vehicles are used cars at their core, but they have undergone extensive inspections, so they’re backed by warranties. They also meet specific age and mileage criteria. They carry many of the same benefits as new cars but at a lower price, though not as low as your run-of-the-mill used car.

In general, CPO vehicles are more gently used than the other used cars, haven’t been in a major collision and have had any underlying issues fixed. Otherwise, the car could not be listed as certified pre-owned.

Because of the stringent requirements to becoming a CPO car, many of them are returned lease vehicles or trade-ins from drivers who don’t hold onto a car for more than a few years, according to Edmunds.

For drivers who want to avoid the large depreciation costs of a new car but want more peace of mind than a used car offers, CPO is the way to go.

A CPO Caveat

Edmunds points out that dealerships have been known to use the term “certified” to attract potential customers to vehicles that are not true CPOs. There is a difference between a manufacturer’s CPO program and one from a dealership — you’ll want to look for cars that fit under the former.

To do so, only shop for a make of vehicle that dealership specializes in. For example, only look for certified pre-owned Hondas at a Honda dealership.

Second, look for a sticker that signifies the vehicle is part of the manufacturer’s CPO program.

The Industry’s Best CPO Programs

Not all CPO programs are created equal. Sites like U.S. News & World Report and Edmunds have reviewed automakers’ CPO programs and picked their favorites based on the associated perks. Here’s what some of those top-rated CPO programs get you.

Lexus CPO

2014 Lexus CT
The 2014 CT is one of the models currently eligible for the Lexus CPO program. Photo courtesy of Lexus

Both U.S. News and Edmunds listed Lexus as a top CPO program — the former lists Lexus as the best. As a marketing ploy, Lexus calls its CPO models “L/Certified,” but for our purposes, this is the same as a typical CPO program.

To qualify, a used Lexus must pass a 161-point inspection by a certified technician. The perks of L/Certified vehicles include:

  • An unlimited-mileage warranty that, if combined with the basic new-vehicle warranty, gives drivers six years of coverage
  • Complimentary maintenance for two years or 20,000 miles
  • Roadside assistance with a convenient app
  • Trip interruption coverage — if your Lexus breaks down while traveling, the automaker will take care of lodging up to $200 per night with $50 per day of rental car reimbursement for five days
  • Free loaner car during warranty repairs that last longer than eight hours

Hyundai CPO

Despite the Lexus CPO program’s top marks, Lexus is still a luxury brand, placing it out of reach for more budget-focused drivers. A strong alternative is Edmunds’ top-ranked selection, Hyundai.

To qualify, used Hyundais must be less than five model years old, have fewer than 60,000 miles and pass a certified technician’s 150-point inspection. According to Hyundai, CPO benefits add $2,066 of value to a vehicle. The perks of Hyundai Certified Pre-Owned vehicles include:

  • The remainder of the five-year/60,000-mile warranty, meaning Hyundai will cover a 2-year-old car with 20,000 miles for three more years or 40,000 more miles
  • A 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty
  • A Carfax vehicle history report
  • Rental car reimbursement up to $35 per day for a max of 10 days
  • Roadside assistance for 10 years and unlimited miles
  • Travel interruption reimbursement of up to $100 per day and $500 per occurrence if your CPO Hyundai strands you 150 miles or more from home
  • 90-day trial of SiriusXM satellite radio

Honda CPO

Honda also made it on both lists for best CPO programs.To qualify, used Hondas must be less than 6 years old, have fewer than 80,000 miles on them and pass a certified technician’s 182-point inspection. The perks of Honda CPO vehicles include:

  • A 12-month/12,000-mile limited warranty
  • A 7-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty
  • Honda Care, which includes 24-hour roadside assistance, extensive component coverage and concierge emergency services
  • Three-month trial of SiriusXM satellite radio

Chevrolet/Buick/GMC CPO

2016 chevy malibu by golden gate bridge
A Chevy, including the 2016 Malibu, is an attractive CPO choice for drivers on a budget. Photo courtesy of Chevrolet.

Though Chevrolet’s sister brands, GMC and Buick, were also highly rated by U.S. News and Edmunds, Chevrolet is the most affordable brand under the General Motors umbrella, making its CPO program the most enticing to true Penny Hoarders.

The following CPO benefits apply to all three brands.

To qualify, GM vehicles must be newer than five model years, have fewer than 75,000 miles and pass the 172-point inspection and reconditioning process. According to GM, CPO benefits add $2,800 of value to a vehicle. The perks of GM CPO vehicles include:

  • 12-month/12,000-mile bumper-to-bumper limited warranty
  • Six-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty
  • A three-day/150-mile vehicle exchange program
  • Two free maintenance visits over the course of two years or 24,000 miles
  • 24/7 roadside assistance and courtesy transportation
  • Carfax vehicle history report
  • Three-month trials of SiriusXM “All-Access” satellite radio and OnStar services

Are CPO vehicles as good as new? Certainly not. Do they offer more of a guarantee than a typical used car? You betcha.

At the very least, CPO vehicles are smart considerations for Penny Hoarders who want to make sound financial investments within their budgets that won’t immediately need constant funding to keep them going.

Timothy Moore, a Nashville-based editor and writer, has written for the automotive industry for five years. He currently drives a Hyper Blue 2017 Subaru Crosstrek and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but maybe for a Tesla.