Let my idiocy help you buy the right used car

Sandy Radburnd

"Nah", said Colin. "I've never seen this in X-Trails before".


It'd been less than three weeks since Emilie and I had dropped $4,800 on this wagon.

All I could do was laugh. "Mate, I've officially learned my lesson about buying cars with 200,000 kilometres on the clock!".

Before I share Colin's reply, here's the backstory.

I thought we'd done our homework.

More than a few hours had gone into googling older SUVs, figuring out which one had a reputation for reliability and safety.

We landed on a 2002 Nissan X-Trail.

After finding one locally, we showed up, shook a dude's hand and took her for a spin.

As I accelerated up to 100, I noticed a pretty fierce vibration shaking the whole car. Sweet. It was a wheel balancing issue (a $100 fix), which was perfect ammo for negotiating down the $5,500 asking price.

It worked. $4,800.

"Nah. It's not a wheel balancing issue."

Shane, my mechanic, handed back the keys.

"Wherever that vibration is coming from, it's somewhere in the engine."

We were $800 later, and the problem was still a mystery.

Yup. It looked a lot like I'd landed us an 18 year-old car with serious transmission issues.

Shane sent me to Colin, and here's what he had to say.

"This was a good buy! I see similar stuff in cars less than a year old - you've just been unlucky."


I'd expected to be lectured on my bad call.

At that moment, I realised I was standing in front of a dude who'd know more than just about anyone about picking a second-hand car.

"Do you have a rule for buying problem-free cars, yourself? Is there a brand you swear by?"

To save you from a storm of quotation marks, I'll bullet down his lessons:

  • European cars are icy queens: they're beautiful and a pleasure to drive, but likely to screw you over
  • After many conversations with insurers, he'd found they recommended sticking to the most basic Toyotas, Hondas, and Mazdas you can find.

I laughed and told him I'd read that the most expensive car in the world was a cheap Porsche. His reply was even better.

If you can't afford a brand new BMW, you can't afford a BMW.

The fix never happened.

Another $800 later, Colin called to say that going deeper with the diagnosis would mean removing the transmission and exploring it part by part. The cost was so high, it made more sense for her to jiggle til she dies. Hopefully, that'll be in five years and another 150,000ks.

Either way, the X-Trail is happily shuddering her way to the foothills of the Ruahine Ranges, and to beaches where we can work remotely from her big boot.

Lesson learned.

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