First, I'll talk about a few vehicles that I have found in my practice have a high percentage of problems, then I'll show you how to research cars yourself before you buy one.
Known Bad Cars and Trucks: This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are a few vehicles that I have found to be problematic.
Ford Diesel Trucks. Ford F-250, F-350 and F-450 trucks with "Super Duty" diesel engines have been known for years to have major problems. Usually starting at around 30,000 miles or later, the engines start to have major failures in the turbocharger and other systems that frequently strand their owners. Since most people buy these trucks to haul large trailers or boats, a breakdown is a serious problem. Ford has now changed the engine, and I haven't had any clients come to me with 2011 trucks, so this may not be a problem in the future, but it's probably too soon to tell.
BMW High Pressure Fuel Pump. Recent model BMW's with a component known as the High Pressure Fuel Pump (HPFP) have been having major failures with that pump, resulting in the car breaking down. Ultimately, BMW North America recalled these vehicles.
BMW 745. The 2002 model of the BMW 745 had major electrical problems. You would not, of course, at this point, encounter this except as a used car, since the problems seem to have been solved in later years.
Mercedes S Class. Recent models of the Mercedes S and some other classes, have had major problems with their Airmatic suspension system. This is a hydraulic, computer-controlled system that is intended to automatically adjust to respond to road conditions. Unfortunately, my clients have recounted numerous stories where they have walked out to their garage in the morning to find their very expensive German car "listing" to one side. This has turned out to be a very difficult problem to diagnose and repair because of the complexity of the system. The same is true of their "ABC" or Automatic Body Control suspension system.
How to Avoid a Bad Car or Truck: The most important rule here is to buy with your "head" and not your "heart". If your approach to car shopping is to go down to the dealer and let the salesman talk you into buying a car, or you buy a car because you've "fallen in love with it", then you are asking for problems down the road. Instead, be methodical, and do research. First, figure out what you really need in a car or truck. Next, develop a list of vehicles that meets those needs. Next, research that list.
Researching: The internet gives you a number of great tools for this task. One approach is to go to your favorite search engine, such as Google, and type in "[make and model of vehicle] complaints". You'll be amazed at all the different user forums that exist out there for fans of different vehicles. They can be a great source of information. Another source is the NHTSA site: http://www.safercar.gov/ You'll find a wealth of information there. If you go to the "Vehicle Owners" tab, there are several research tools there that you can use to locate complaints and recalls. Look around the site and you'll learn a lot. The Kelly Blue Book site, http://www.kbb.com/ can provide you with a great deal of help, not just the value of vehicles. It can actually help you pick the list of candidate vehicles, and get reviews on those vehicles. Consumer Reports is also a great resource. You have to pay for a subscription to be able to access the reviews, but it's well worth the price. http://web.consumerreports.org.
One last suggestion--try hanging out around the customer lounge at the dealership that sells the cars in which you are interested. I can't tell you how many of my clients have told me, after they bought a Lemon, that they were talking with other owners while they were waiting for their most recent repair, and found out they were having the same problems. Why not get this information before you buy the Lemon?
The Bottom Line: Do your research before you buy, choose the car or truck that your research tells you is the best bet, and then stick with that decision. This isn't going to guarantee that you won't get a Lemon, of course, but at least you'll avoid the known Lemons.
I'll have a new topic for you next time. In the meantime, be sure to check out my websites When Bad Cars Happen to Good People and San Diego Lemon Law.
See you next time!
© 2011 Douglas C. Sohn
Doug Sohn is a San Diego attorney specializing in Lemon Law cases. He is a native of San Diego and lives in the North County with his wife, Cheri, and 3 of their 5 children. Cheri also works with Doug in the practice.