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Used cars 2013: The good, the bad and the ugly

These 8 models were this year’s big surprises — pleasantly or unpleasantly

Published December 27, 2013

Winter solstice is almost upon us, and with it comes the inevitable end-of-year reviews taking stock of all we have learned and forgotten since the last time the sun started coming back this way.

Each week, we scrutinize a late-model used vehicle and highlight the reliability issues raised by the owners who drive them. Our readers share their experiences, augmented by owners’ feedback archived on consumer-oriented websites.

Here are our good, bad and ugly picks of the past year, outlining the models that surprised us, pleasantly and unpleasantly, as they might you.

The Good

2010-12 Ford Fusion Hybrid: The Mexican-built Fusion wore its Lady Schick front grille well, behind which whirred a Mazda-supplied four-cylinder modified to run on the gas-saving Atkinson cycle.

The 156-hp, 2.5-L engine was paired with an AC electric motor, good for 106 hp and 166 lb.-ft. of torque. Working together, the duo produced 191 hp. Japan’s Aisin supplied the continuously variable automatic transmission.

Compared to the Toyota Camry Hybrid, the Fusion is the more gratifying driver’s car, with its nimble chassis, nicely weighted steering and taut, if slightly stiff, suspension. It can hustle, taking 8.5 seconds to reach 96 km/h — decent for a gas sipper.

The few mechanical complaints centred on weak air conditioners, squeaky brakes, a “surging” CVT transmission, and a truculent Sync communications interface. Still, long-term reliability appears better than the average gas-only car.

2010-12 Kia Soul: Taking cues from a telephone booth (kids, ask your parents), the quirky Soul was tall inside, with chair-height seating to aid entry and egress.

Built on a modified Rio front-drive platform, the Soul disguised its econobox roots well. Owners raved about the cheerful interior and paint colours, refined demeanor and youth-friendly tech options.

There were two available engines: a base 1.6-L four-cylinder making 122 hp and a 2.0-L four putting out 142 horses. The smaller mill came only with a five-speed manual gearbox; the larger one mated to an optional four-speed automatic.

Dislikes included the big blind spots to the rear, the lack of a spare tire, road noise, susceptibility to crosswinds and scratch-prone interior.

Reliability has been above reproach. Reported boo-boos include easily chipped paint and windshields, some faulty brake-light switches and errant rattles.

2010-12 Suzuki Kizashi: Japan’s fourth-largest automaker determined it could no longer sell cars here profitably, so the exceedingly rare Kizashi is destined to be orphaned –– but that’s okay because plunging depreciation draws used-car shoppers.

This sporting midsize four-door sedan does a good impression of a European sedan in terms of its driving character, thanks to Suzuki’s suspension development work in Germany.

Power is supplied by an all-aluminum 180-hp, DOHC 2.4-L four-cylinder working through a Jatco-supplied CVT automatic driving the front or all four wheels.

The attractive but slightly cramped cabin was put together with top-drawer materials and packed with premium gear.

Complaints amounted to a paint finish that’s too thin and scratch-prone, a few early CVTs that malfunctioned, finicky push-button ignition, fast-wearing Dunlop tires and fussy windshield washer nozzles.

2009-10 Pontiac Vibe: Speaking of orphaned cars, the Vibe still resonates with buyers, thanks to its frugal ways and bulletproof reliability. Assembled by mellow UAW members in sunny California, the Vibe used Toyota Corolla underpinnings to great effect.

The base engine was a 1.8-L four-cylinder making 132 hp, while a torque-rich, 158-hp 2.4-L four lifted from the Camry powered GT models.

The 1.8 made do with a four-speed slushbox or five-speed stick; the larger four could be bundled with the available five-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive hardware.

The Vibe’s tall stance and flat floor yielded good room inside for five. The rear bench split 60/40 to extend what was a meagre cargo hold.

Rare mechanical letdowns included a few leaky sunroofs, bad radios, loose weatherstripping and dashboard rattles. The paint is susceptible to chips and scratches easily.

The Bad

2002-08 BMW 7 Series: One of the benefits of buying used is that astronomically priced models become attainable, thanks to the ravages of depreciation.

The sophisticated 7 Series sedan is such a fetching siren, however, that it can draw bargain hunters too close to the jagged shoals of overextended credit.

Power was initially supplied by a 325-hp 4.4-L V8, replaced by a muscular 360-hp 4.8-L V8 in the 750i and 750Li after the 2006 update.

In typical BMW fashion, the steering was nicely weighted with excellent feedback. Owners relished the sedan’s serene deportment and posh furnishings, including air-cooled seating.

Unfortunately, the 7 is a fickle ride, and mechanical glitches can punish the unwary. Reported mechanical woes included transmission failures, faulty ignition systems, worn camshafts, fluid leaks, malfunctioning doors and trunk lids, iDrive snafus, multiple warning lamps, broken air conditioners and drippy moonroofs.

2007-11 Jeep Wrangler: Updating the iconic Wrangler was no easy task, but Chrysler stylists did it expertly; they even managed to spawn a four-door Unlimited model for the first time.

Fortified by a stiffer, fully boxed frame, the updated Wrangler was 14 cm wider and rode on a substantially longer wheelbase.

All Wranglers used the same pushrod 3.8-L V6, good for 202 hp. Transmission choices included a six-speed manual gearbox and optional four-speed automatic.

The standard four-wheel-drive system included low-range gearing and locking differentials that could not be left engaged on dry pavement.

Wranglers trade on the outdoorsy lifestyle statement they make. But they also come with an unnerving “death wobble” that can be traced to prematurely worn tie-rod ends, bushings and steering dampers.

Other headaches include leaky tops, short-lived clutches, poor gaskets and seals, wonky electronics, faulty automatics, bad camshaft sensors and water in the differential.

2005-12 Nissan Pathfinder: This redesigned sport utility reverted to body-on-frame construction (like the 1986 original) by adopting the stout F-Alpha truck frame. With a 16-cm-longer wheelbase and more width to boot, it was roomy enough to offer seating for seven for the first time.

The lone engine choice at the outset was a 4.0-L version of Nissan’s VQ-series V6, good for 270 hp and 291 lb.-ft. of torque. It was tied to a conventional five-speed automatic transmission. An optional 310-hp 5.6-L V8 arrived for 2008.

Despite their good name, some Pathfinders are failing as a result of a cracked radiator assembly leading to coolant contaminating the transmission fluid, which is a gearbox’s Kryptonite. Transmission shudder is often the first symptom. A new box is about $7,000. Luckily, Nissan has made good on a warranty extension up to 10 years.

The Ugly

2010-12 Chevrolet Equinox: It’s a shame that this Ontario-made SUV is our raspberry pick this year, but its propensity to consume oil and cannibalize its timing chain has wrought disappointment for too many owners.

Many Equinox drivers do adore its upmarket interior, spacious back seat, limousine-quiet ride and good value.

In fact, those equipped with the optional 264-hp 3.0-L V6 have very little to complain about. It’s the direct-injection, 182-hp 2.4-L four-cylinder that has generated so much consternation.

Numerous engines were destroyed after the timing chains stretched and skipped or broke altogether. A tractor-like chugging is the ominous first sign.

Plenty of others noted voracious oil consumption by the four-cylinder, some finding little oil on their dipsticks. And the high-pressure fuel pumps are reputed to fail. Sadly, the Equinox can lose its vernal energy.

wheels@thestar.ca

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