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The year that was in used cars

Published December 14, 2012

Contemplating buying a used car? You’ll get the best advice from people who already own that model, but who has time to hang around gas bars peppering drivers with questions?

Each week Wheels scrutinizes a late-model used vehicle and outlines the reliability issues raised by the owners who drive them. Readers share their experiences, and their remarks are augmented by owners’ feedback archived on consumer websites.

Based on that experience, here are the good, bad and ugly used cars we reviewed over the past year.

THE GOOD

Kia Spectra: All the supermodels in the world couldn’t have drawn much attention to the 2005-’09 Spectra. Kia had turned to corporate parent Hyundai for its well-sorted Elantra front-drive platform to underpin its wallflower Spectra.

This innocuous four-door sedan was reasonably roomy, thanks to its tall roof and nicely finished interior. The Elantra’s 138-hp DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder worked through a ropey five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic. Also dispatched from South Korea was the handy Spectra5 hatchback/wagon.

Mechanical setbacks are surprisingly few. The engine may hesitate or stall due to problems with the evaporative control system or a slipping timing belt. Other reported faults include underperforming air conditioners, loose window seals, faulty Check Engine lamps and malfunctioning power door locks.

Ford Focus: After renovating Ford’s entry-level car rather than federalizing its second-generation European model, the 2008-’11 Focus turned out better than anyone expected. The reconstituted car was available as a four-door sedan and, for the first time, a two-door coupe. Gone were the hatchbacks and wagon.

The reskinned body was more aero-efficient and quieter, the suspension was retuned and the brakes were improved. The seats provided more lateral and lumbar support, while Microsoft’s Sync provided a voice-activated interface. The lone engine was a 140-hp DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder that owners raved was downright miserly with fuel.

The Michigan-built Focus may exhibit suspension problems. Reportedly, tires may not last more than 40-50,000 km, particularly the rear pair. Other setbacks include a few troublesome automatic transmissions, bad engine mounts (causing vibration), broken door latches, short-lived wheel bearings and a bevy of rattles.

Hyundai Genesis: Responding to customers clamoring for a pricier offering, Hyundai released its rear-drive 2009-’11 Genesis, a premium sedan that potentially could give Lexus engineers sleepless nights. Since BMW’s 5 Series sedan was benchmarked for its torsional rigidity, Hyundai resorted to industrial adhesive to enhance stiffness and quell rattles.

The shiny cabin featured high-gloss genuine wood trim and a leather-wrapped dash. Hyundai’s aluminum DOHC 4.6 L V8 produced 375 hp with premium fuel, tied to a German ZF six-speed automatic transmission. Lesser Genesis sedans made do with a 290-hp DOHC 3.8 L V6 mated to an Aisin six-speed slushbox.

Complaints clustered around the factory-fit Dunlop tires, which had a dismally short service life. Less common were gripes about jerky transmissions; some were reflashed, others were replaced outright. Other grievances described vibration and alignment issues, poor-performing entertainment and navigation systems, and fussy cruise controls.

Dodge Challenger: Unlike the re-imagined Chevrolet Camaro, the 2008-’11 Challenger faithfully traced the lines of the 1970-’74 original — even if the scale was thrown off trying to fit it over the rear-drive Chrysler 300’s shortened wheelbase. The coupe’s generous dimensions allowed for a cavernous interior that could seat five.

The chassis incorporated some Mercedes-Benz bits, including a five-speed automatic transmission, rack-and-pinion steering and control-arm front and multi-link rear suspensions. The Challenger’s cornucopia of engines included the 425-hp 6.1 L Hemi V8, a 372-hp multi-displacement 5.7 L Hemi V8, and the base 250-hp 3.5 L V6.

The Brampton-built Challenger surprised buyers with its refined drivetrains, smooth ride and accommodating cabin. Owners’ quality assessments tend to be a little forgiving, given the car’s sentimental value and fetching design, but be aware of slipping transmissions and fast-wearing front-end components, including tie rods and sway-bar links.

THE BAD

Volkswagen Passat: The 2006-’10 Passat was the automaker’s sixth-generation mid-size sedan since the Dasher arrived here in 1974, bringing larger dimensions, fresh styling and more power. The new interior featured the clean lines of a Bauhaus-styled home. There was even a five-door wagon, a rarity in the segment.

The base motor was a 2.0 L turbocharged four-cylinder, good for 200 hp and 207 lb.-ft. of torque. The upgrade was Volkswagen’s 280-hp 3.6 L VR6, which featured two cylinder banks with just 10.6 degrees separating them, sharing a common head. Both engines were early adopters of direct fuel injection.

Unfortunately, the 2.0T gasoline engine is notorious for consuming oil and eventually seizing up, if not monitored. Its coil-over-plug ignition packs can fail regularly. Complete steering columns have been replaced, and there are numerous electrical sensors to fret over. Passats can consume thousands in post-warranty repairs, owners warn.

Cadillac CTS: By utilizing GM’s rigid Sigma II rear-drive platform, the second-generation 2008-’11 CTS enjoyed a wider stance and improved stability. It was a driver’s car, evidenced by the fact that the chassis had been tuned on Germany’s Nürburgring racetrack.

The base engine was a carried-over 263-hp, DOHC 3.6 L V6. New was a direct-injected version of the same aluminum engine, yielding a robust 304 hp. Both motors were available with an Aisin six-speed manual transmission or six-speed automatic. All-wheel drive became available for the first time.

Sadly, the CTS was hobbled by its 3.6 L engine, which can consume oil and eat itself if left unchecked. Driveline vibration may be traced to unbalanced driveshafts. Quality concerns are numerous: slipping transmissions, worn timing chains, faulty keyless ignitions and radios, leaky seals, bad steering columns, noisy sunroofs, squeaky brakes and annoying rattles.

Land Rover: We reviewed two used Land Rover models over the past year and both of them ended up on our naughty list.

The entry-level 2008-’11 Land Rover LR2 had adopted a version of Ford’s C1 platform that underpinned the Focus, hoping to exorcise its old Freelander demons. Although it turned out better, it was faint praise.

There were numerous reported software and electrical issues in the LR2, including lit warning lamps, bad sensors and mysterious stalling in traffic. Owners also listed overheating engines, faulty cylinder heads, transmission issues, short-lived batteries, broken sunroof guides, fluid leaks and navigation system glitches.

The flagship 2003-’09 Range Rover fared no better. Its air-spring suspension is notoriously trouble-prone. The transmission may exhibit harsh downshifts and eventually fail. The electronics can present numerous problems from faulty power seats to countless engine codes. Owners also reported short-lived radiators, fuel and water pumps, and bad steering columns. Repair costs are very dear.

THE UGLY

Dodge Journey: Thanks to its low entry price and appealing design, the 2009-’11 Dodge Journey is a Canadian bestseller, providing uncommonly good value.

But mechanical complaints are abundant. The most common has to do with the Journey’s insatiable appetite for brakes and tires. Some owners kvetch about annual brake service and rubber that lasts barely two years.

More disquieting is the fact that some engines were shutting off in the middle of traffic. A Transport Canada recall states the Wireless Ignition Node may allow the ignition key to inadvertently move from the ON position to the accessory (ACC) position while driving, causing the engine to shut down.

Other reported issues include a no-start condition, hard-shifting or faulty transmissions, worn axle seals, leaking transfer cases, failed air conditioners and window regulators, electrical faults, peeling paint and flimsy interior trim. Cabin water leaks may be traced to improperly sealed body seams.

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