Five Used Car Features to Avoid

Shattered Panoramic Sunroof

Weekly, and for years, your writer has studied used cars – scouring owner forums, perusing automotive technician chat rooms, checking with various mechanic pals, and more – to give readers a better sense of how to shop smarter for a second-hand ride.

From Prius’s to Porsches, Sentras to Silverados and Optimas to Odysseys, I’ve spent hours researching potential problems with just about any few-year-old vehicle you might care to name.

In the process, I’ve come to accumulate a list of features and technologies that have consistently appeared to be more problematic than others, as reported by vehicle owners, and validated by automotive technicians.

On a model-wide basis, pinning down vehicle reliability is tricky. There are many variables: locale, driving habits, owner education about maintenance requirements, among others. Further, numerous websites that claim to be an authority on vehicle reliability fail to consider reported problems that are caused by user error or to take maintenance into consideration.

In the wrong hands, even the market’s most reliable model can become a total heap, and in the right hands, even a vehicle typically noted for poor reliability can be a worry-free daily driver for years. The sticky? Many factors are at play when it comes to determining how reliable an entire vehicle is, or isn’t. There’s no silver bullet, and no final authority, in most cases, when it comes to pinning down how reliable a vehicle is or is not.

Bear the above in mind as you read on through a list of features and technologies I’ve noted, across numerous models and brands, that I often advise against. By and large, I find these issues in an owners’ forum thread, often dozens of pages long, with a “me too” list of folks suffering from similar problems; and which I then check and validate with numerous automotive technicians familiar with the problems from the service side of the equation.

Here’s a closer look.

Air Suspension

Air Suspension

Does the vehicle you’re considering have air suspension that adjusts its ride height or ride quality? Skip it – unless you think terms like “compressor replacement”, “valve block failure”, or “air line leaks” sound like a boatload of fun. Common on larger off-road and utility vehicles and various large luxury cars, an air suspension system is typically an optional factory add-on that promises improvements to ground clearance, comfort and handing. I’ve yet to research an air-suspension equipped vehicle that didn’t have a considerable group of owners griping of numerous, expensive problems as it aged.

Often, a bad seal or leaky air line starts the snowball effect of air suspension failure – causing the air compressor to run more often to maintain system pressure, and burning it out faster. The leak also allows contaminants and moisture into the air system, causing issues with other components. Few if any of these will be cheap to fix. Solution? Avoid an air-suspension-equipped model that’s not covered by warranty, and if you’re dead set on one, be triple-certain to have it checked out by a qualified technician ahead of your purchase.

Motorized Sliding Doors

2014 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT Plus

Are you looking for a minivan? Does it have power sliding doors? Do you like migraines? Using an electric motor and cable to open a sliding door can be a magical bit of convenience-enhancing trickery, but motorized sliding doors almost never seem to be worth the headaches they cause many owners after a few years. Many minivan models across virtually all makes have owners reporting issues around motor failure, broken motorized door hardware, and wonky switches, sensors and grounds, which can cause frustratingly sporadic operation that often results in violent sobbing.

Most owners would rather eat a lightbulb than try to figure out why their motorized sliding doors aren’t working on any given day. So, if you’re shopping for a minivan, remember that opening a sliding door manually is considerably less stressful than motorized sliding door diagnosis, the associated cost of parts, and the labour to rip half of the interior out to access the offending part. At least most motorized sliding doors can still be operated with relative ease after they conk out.

Direct Injection (DI) Engines

Direct-injected Engine

“BUT EVERYTHING HAS A DIRECT INJECTED ENGINE!” I hear you say. Very true: in fact, I can hardly remember the last time I drove a new car that didn’t have a DI engine, which moves the fuel injectors from the intake tract into the cylinder to help boost fuel mileage and performance – delivering the improvements that shoppers (and governments) demand.

The technology is proliferating the marketplace – and so are numerous owners who report an excessive amount of valve-gunk buildup in this type of engine as it ages. Why? Largely regardless of brand or model, it’s all in the design of the DI engine. The gist? All engines generate harmful gunk which likes to accumulate on intake valves. In an old-school fuel injected engine, this is a non-issue, as the intake valves are cleaned by fuel spray, every time the injectors fire – which they do, many times per second.

In a DI engine, the intake valves are never exposed to any fuel spray, so valve gunk builds up unchecked. Too much valve gunk makes your DI engine drink more fuel, perform poorly, and even misfire, which can damage other engine components. No amount of pour-in-tank cleaner will help the situation, and valve gunk in a DI engine can only be removed manually, after some degree of engine dismantling, which can be pricey.

Set on a vehicle with a DI engine? Using a top-tier fuel and oil at all times, and staying on top of spark-plug change intervals religiously can help indirectly.

Complicated Central Command

BMW 7-series Gesture Control

Luxury central command controller systems, including BMW’s iDrive system, the COMAND system in a Mercedes-Benz, and Audi’s MMI interface put hundreds of functions within the driver’s reach, accessible with little more than a few millimetres of fingertip movement. Though plenty of these systems seem to work just fine for the life of the vehicle, some recurring issues across each of them dull the appeal.

Software updates. Rebooting. System restarting. Inconsistent operation. Lag. Total central command system failure.

Problems like these range from niggling inconveniences to total pains-in-the-backside that make users get Italian-level angry in 2.2 seconds. Corrupt software, poor battery voltage or failure of some electronic component within the system are often the culprit.

Sometimes, the fix is as easy as a simple hard reset, which you can do in your driveway. Other issues require software updates to fix, which require a dealer. Severe problems may require new hardware, which is pricey.

If you’re set on a ride with a system like these, be triple sure it’s working properly, and confirm that all software is up to date, and that all buttons and control knob positions are fully functional, before you buy. If you’re an apprehensive user of advanced technology, the benefits of a system like these may be outweighed by the potential for frustration.

Panoramic Sunroofs

2016 Tesla Model X

A big-ass sunroof is a luxury item, a conversation starter, and a bit of a novelty that can practically turn your crossover, coupe or sedan into a convertible. There’s nothing nicer on a pleasant day than opening the lid on your ride of choice – unless that panoramic sunroof has plans of its own.

These may include allowing water leaks into the vehicle’s cabin through a leaky or clogged drainage tube, failing to open or close fully (or at all) if there’s an issue with the motor, wiring, sensors or roof track itself, to full-out panoramic sunroof explosions.

Regardless of make or model, panoramic sunroofs tend to have higher-than-average levels of owner complaints hurled their way for issues like these. Unless you’re a fan of water leaks, or exploding-glass roulette, a panoramic sunroof is typically best avoided.

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Justin Pritchard
Justin Pritchard is a native of Windsor, Ontario – though he’s called Sudbury his home for the past 20 years. Justin is a full-time auto writer, consultant and presenter of EastLink TV’s AutoPilot. His work can be seen weekly in numerous outlets across the country. When not writing about the latest new models and industry trends, you’ll probably find him fixing his 1993 Toyota MR2 GTS.
Justin Pritchard

Latest posts by Justin Pritchard (see all)

  • Michael Bettencourt

    Love my Ford C-Max Energi’s tinted pano roof. It doesn’t open, so no leaks, and I’m hoping shatter-proof too. Amazing on crisp but bright autumn days when driving through fall colour country.

  • Arno Dyck

    In my workplace we see many minivans at the end of their life. A power sliding door is a very nice feature and I’m often surprised with how many of them still work after 11 years or more. Not to mention the abuse the family van takes.

  • JustinR937

    I have a 2013 Audi A4 with the DI engine. At 61500 kms I had to get the whole engine cleaned out . So much gunk in there was cause it to idle very low and rough. $2700 bucks later (coverd by warrenty ) feels like a new car. Just afraid I will have to do it again a couple of years out of my own pocket.

  • Ian

    2.0t is technically idi, that carbon build up isn’t due to fuel system, it’s due to exhaust gas recirculation and vw/Audi’s failure to run a catch can or equivalent incline filter. Run a catch can or get a water meth injection kit and you’ll never have to worry about it again.

    Vw audi 2.0t has since had an update and run a filter from factory as of 2015 with positive results

  • Ian


  • obtunded

    The best advice I could think of for purchasing a used car is simply stay away from anything made by or for Chrysler….

  • Robert J Bedford

    Chrysler is CRAP ,Amen

  • Luka

    Any JiffyLube or similar location can clean the gunk out of your valves on your DI engine, in about 20 minutes and for about $40. They simply unhook a vacuum hose on the head and hook up the valve cleaning system, then run your car at reasonable rpm (2-3,000) until the self draining can is empty. Harmful deposits are dislodged, burned and exit the vehicle out the tail pipe. This is hundreds of dollars cheaper than having the head of the motor taken apart, and is in fact recommended by most manufacturers every 40,000 km or so. On our Veloster Turbo we do it every spring, when we do our seasonal tire change over, cabin air filter, and oil change. Car still delivers 8.0 L /100 km city, and around 6.5 at 110 on the highway between Halifax and Ottawa.

  • Luka

    Haven’t had a bad one yet… My concorde Lxi did 325,000 km…

  • Luka

    I disagree entirely. I’ve never had a bad Chrysler product. It all comes down to how the person owned it. I have however had a very unreliable Acura, despite people always going on about Honda/Acura reliability.

  • Jon

    That’s not that high.

  • Jon

    Rev it up more often.

  • Robert J Bedford

    That’s great I guess mine were all crap and so were my friends SAD

  • Robert J Bedford

    I had problems with Honda and Acura now drive Lexus ,best car I ever had ,seven years old close to 175,00 kms not one issue ,yet, touch wood

  • Robert J Bedford

    Best advice

  • obtunded

    Don’t take my word for it then, try and find one single consumer protection or anti-lemon publication that recommends one. Systemic garbage.