(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, but you’re on a tight budget, a late-model used car may be a wise choice. Buying used means you won’t suffer the depreciation associated with brand-new vehicles. However, with a plethora of used cars to choose from, how can you be sure you’re not spending your money on a clunker?

In the early 1990s, some automakers started CPO programs to bank on low-mileage trade-ins and lease returns. Many vehicles were returning to dealerships in excellent condition, so rather than sending them to auction, manufacturers created programs to resell the cars complete with detailed inspections, reconditioning, extended warranties, extra perks, and added peace of mind.

Today, nearly every major automaker offers a CPO program. While these programs share some similarities among brands, they vary widely. Moreover, mainstream CPO programs generally differ from luxury CPO programs.

Click here to see our Best CPO rankings.

How Much Does a CPO Vehicle Cost?

CPO cars, trucks, and SUVs generally cost more than non-certified used vehicles. This is to be expected, though, since CPO models undergo a detailed, multi-point inspection and reconditioning process. They also come with a manufacturer-backed warranty. Often, these programs feature a long list of extras, including free maintenance, free roadside assistance, and a complimentary loaner vehicle. You may see a cheaper sticker price on a non-certified model, but it likely wasn't inspected as thoroughly as a CPO model, and it won't come with any of the extras above.

You shouldn't settle for the sticker price on a CPO car. Just as you would if you were buying a new vehicle, you should negotiate the price of the CPO model to ensure you're getting the best deal.

Special CPO Deals From Manufacturers

Brand Rate
BMW As low as 1.49%
Ford As low as 1.99%
Infiniti As low as 1.49%
Jaguar As low as 0.9%
Land Rover As low as 0.9%
Lexus As low as 0.9%
Lincoln As low as 1.9%
Mazda As low as 3.99%
Mercedes-Benz As low as 1.99%
Nissan As low as 1.99%
Toyota As low as 3.49%

Visit our used car deals page to see even more of this month's manufacturer-sponsored CPO deals.

How Does a Non-Luxury CPO Program Work?

CPO programs vary. We’ll use Toyota’s as an example of what a CPO program from a non-luxury automaker looks like.

Each car must be seven years old or newer and have less than 85,000 miles. Qualifying cars undergo a 160-point inspection and come complete with a CarFax vehicle history report. Every certified pre-owned Toyota gets a 12-month/12,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 7-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. It’s important to note that the powertrain warranty begins on the car’s original purchase date.

Toyota also includes extras like one year of free roadside assistance, a complimentary loaner car, and travel reimbursement protection. The loaner and the travel reimbursement are only available if your car is in for a covered repair. Toyota charges a $50 deductible for all covered repairs.

If you want to know more about the ins and outs of CPO programs, read our guide on how they work.

How Does a Luxury CPO Program Work?

Like mainstream programs, luxury CPO programs differ between automakers. We’ll take a look at Mercedes-Benz to give you a basic idea of how a luxury CPO program works.

For a car to qualify as a Mercedes CPO vehicle, it must be six years old or newer and have less than 75,000 miles. Eligible vehicles are then put through a rigorous, 164-point inspection.

(Mercedes-Benz USA)

If the car still has coverage under its original new-car warranty (four years/50,000 miles), the warranty transfers to the CPO buyer. If the original coverage is expired, or once it does expire, the owner gets an extra year of certified limited warranty with unlimited mileage. There’s also an option to purchase one or two years of additional coverage, which also features unlimited mileage.

Extras include 24-hour complimentary roadside assistance and up to $300 in compensation for travel expenses incurred as the result of a covered repair.

Some Certified Cars Aren’t Manufacturer-Sponsored

Keep in mind that not all certified used cars are manufacturer-sponsored. Some dealers have their own certified programs with similar benefits. However, they don’t come with a manufacturer-backed warranty. Additionally, since the dealer is free to set its own parameters for certification, vehicle qualifications and the inspection process may not be consistent with manufacturer standards.

Are There Reasons a CPO Program May Not Be the Best Option for You?

CPO vehicles are more expensive than “regular” pre-owned cars. You’re paying more up front for the inspection, warranty, and various extras in the hope that you won’t have to sink money into the vehicle later.

However, there’s no way to forecast what may happen after the warranty expires, or how much repairs may cost. If you opt for a used car without certification, you could use the money you save to cover expenses later.

CPO programs also aren’t available for older cars, so if you like to buy low-cost, high-mileage rides, CPO isn’t for you.

To learn more, read our article on the pros and cons of buying CPO vehicles.

Which CPO Program Should I Choose?

Now that you have a general idea of what a CPO program is, how it works, and why you might want to buy a certified pre-owned vehicle, you'll want to consider which company to buy from. That's where our team of researchers and journalists can help.

We analyzed the CPO programs offered by most major carmakers to find which ones are best for consumers. We gathered data on everything from the lengths and coverage limits of their warranties, to the amount of any deductible you'd need to pay on repairs. We also checked if the CPO programs throw in extras like complimentary maintenance or a free loaner vehicle if your car is in the shop.

Check out our Best CPO Program awards, or read more about each carmaker's CPO program in detail using the links below.

CPO Buying Guides

Acura Honda Mini
Audi Hyundai Mitsubishi
BMW Infiniti Nissan
Buick Jaguar Porsche
Cadillac Jeep Ram
Chevrolet Kia Subaru
Chrysler Land Rover Tesla
Dodge Lexus Toyota
Fiat Lincoln Volkswagen
Ford Mazda Volvo
GMC Mercedes-Benz  

Final Thoughts

No matter which path you choose, it’s advantageous to have the used car checked out by a trustworthy, third-party mechanic before you close the deal. This will help you make a more informed buying decision.

More Shopping Tools From U.S. News & World Report

Are you in the market for a used car? Visit our used car rankings to research models and see how they compare to the competition. Then, check out our used car deals page to find the month’s best manufacturer offers. You can also search for a certified pre-owned vehicle for sale near you.