Why Buy Used? Used Cars are Just Plain Better

In other parts of this series, we’ve argued that new cars are a waste of money while buying used means getting far more bang for your buck.

But here’s possibly the best reason of all to buy a used car: in many cases, older models are actually better than comparable new cars.

Really. Here’s why.

They don’t make ’em like they used to

Automakers are always working to build less expensive cars, while the cost of materials is continuously on the rise. Advances in production techniques certainly help, but in general, it’s inevitable that newer models have to be made more cheaply. This means shortcuts, often in the form of crappier materials and build quality.

Take a C-Class Mercedes-Benz, for example. A few years ago, I owned a 190E (precursor to the C-Class) that stickered for just a hair under $40,000 — in 1993! That’s the equivalent of $65,000 today, which is C63 territory.

190E seats after 20+ years
190E seats after 20+ years

The build quality of that 190E was simply astounding. The leather on the seats, for instance, showed not a single crease or wear mark after 20+ years — and, unlike most new luxury cars, the high-cost material in that old Benz covered every inch of the seats, not just the part you sit on.

Think about what would happen today if Mercedes tried to build an entry-level car with this kind of material investment. They’d have to charge considerably more than rival automakers in the segment, which is a kiss of death in the current marketplace.

Yep, they don’t make them like they used to, and this is why.

Used cars have a story to tell

Here’s a minor pet peeve of mine: people who display new cars at the local weekend car show. Sure, your brand new Alfa-Romeo 4C is a technical marvel, and I enjoyed reading about it in Car and Driver. But when I go to Supercar Sunday, I’d rather see something that I can’t see anywhere else, like this tastefully modified GTV that an adoring owner has been tinkering with for years:

Alfa resto-mod
This Alfa has an interesting story

The truth is that any old chump can walk into a new car dealership and buy a new car. There’s no skill involved. You just have to have the cash — or, more likely, the credit.

Finding an interesting, well-kept older car, on the other hand, takes some labor and know-how, plus a little bit of luck (and, of course, help from our community). And the best ones come with a unique and personal history, a story to tell.

My old 190E, for instance, was originally purchased by an 80-year-old Florida grandmother. Apparently, she walked into Benz dealership intending to buy a new S-class but instead fell in love with the Baby Benz that was sitting on the showroom floor, in rare Sportline trim. She drove it until she passed away at the age of 95.

A grandmother's 190E
A grandmother’s 190E: classy, spirited and lithe

Picturing her zipping around town in that little Benz was part of the fun of owning the car, which embodied some of the qualities I imagined she must have had: classy, spirited and lithe.

Sadly, the car was totaled by a distracted Highlander driver, who ran a red light. In its final act, the 190E’s well-engineered structure absorbed the hit from the larger vehicle as intended, protecting my family from harm.

Excuse me if I get a little misty-eyed remembering what was, when it rolled off the assembly line, just a bunch of expensive parts screwed together well. By the end of its life, it had become something more.

Complexity is the enemy of value

The final point I want to make is that newer cars are typically more complex than the models they replace — with fancier and more automated electronics, creature comforts, mechanicals, etc. While these goodies are added primarily to meet consumer demand, they do not always translate into boons for whoever is driving the car ten years down the road.

That’s because, as the car ages, complexity becomes the enemy of value. If you buy a 2002 Mercedes-Benz SL500, for instance, you’ll never have to worry about its Active Body Control (ABC) hydraulics acting up — because it doesn’t have any. Therefore, you’ll never have to replace a $1500 ABC control unit or a $1900 hydraulic rear strut assembly (one for each side). In fact, you could install new OE parts at all four corners of the older SL before you spent as much as it takes to buy a single ABC component.

And sometimes the newer tech simply isn’t as good as the old-fashioned stuff it replaces. Case in point: electrically-assisted steering on newer BMWs. Yes, it provides a marginal improvement in fuel economy (because it eliminates the hydraulic pump’s continuous drag on the engine). However, by most accounts, BMW’s new setup robs the cars of their famously good steering feel, mainly because the mechanical connection from driver’s hand to wheel hub is partially severed and replaced by wires.

So, if you’re like me and want your 3-series with an inline six and hydraulic steering — and a manual transmission, too, while we’re at it — that means the only choice you’ve got is buying used.

Hey, don’t get us wrong. Used cars aren’t always better.

But if you’re willing to be patient and wait for the right specimen to come along, you’ll end up with a more interesting and quite possibly better-built car for a fraction of the as-new price. That’s really what it’s all about.

Additional posts in the Why Buy Used series…

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