Shopping for a used car? Do your homework

LOS ANGELES There are plenty of used cars out there for sale. But how do you know you're getting a good deal? And how do you know you're buying a good car?

"You want a car that has performed well in /*Consumer Reports*/ road tests and that is reliable and likely to hold up for the long term," said Jon Linkov, Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports has come up with a list of the "best of the best" used cars. There are plenty of good choices, several for less than $12,000.

Those bargain used cars include the 2002 and 2003 /*Subaru Impreza WRX*/. And this 2003 /*Acura RSX*/. Also, the 2004 /*MAZDA3*/. Consumer Reports recommends getting the MAZDA3 with side-curtain air bags, an important safety feature that was an option in 2004.

"Whatever car you're considering, have it thoroughly inspected by an independent mechanic," said Linkov. "A dealer should let you do that as long as you leave identification behind."

But first look over the car carefully yourself. Check the body closely, looking for dents, scratches and rust.

And check the tailpipe. White steam is OK, but dark smoke is a sign of trouble. Consumer Reports' research shows cars have gotten vastly more reliable. A well-maintained car should last 100,000 miles, even 200,000 without a major breakdown.

Consumer Reports says you always want to take any car you're considering for a test drive. Spend at least half an hour and drive up hills and on a variety of road surfaces.



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