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Shopping for a Used Car
Buying an Used Car
Advices: Buying Used Car
Cleaner Used Car
Maintaining Used Car
Vehicle History Report

Buying a Cleaner Used Car

Used Car - Why Cleaner Vehicle?

Cars today are less polluting than ever before. Newer cars are generally cleaner cars, especially those with the most advanced pollution control equipment. These cars often get better gas mileage. If you are not in a position to buy a new car, you can still buy a cleaner-running used car. No matter how old a car is, whether or not it pollutes largely depends on how well it is maintained. Cars that pollute less are more efficient. Cars that are more efficient save you money.

Buying a cleaner-running used car or used truck can be one of the most important pollution preventing decisions you can make. If you are buying a used car, the first thing you should consider is the age of the car. Generally, the newer the car, the less it pollutes. But just as important is how well the car has been maintained. In some heavily polluted areas of the United States, pre-1981 cars account for less than a fourth of the vehicles on the road but produce more than half the ozone-causing emissions. A five-year-old car that is poorly maintained is likely to pollute more than an older car that has had better care. So always check the owner’s manual (to see when maintenance should be scheduled) and the maintenance record to be sure that the car has been properly maintained. Also, check the fuel-efficiency rating of the car that interests you. (See Section C.) Fuel-efficient cars produce lower carbon monoxide emissions per mile and will save you money.

What to Look For

There are certain things you should do when buying a used car.

  • First, look at the emissions inspection sticker. This sticker will tell you whether or not the vehicle meets the minimum requirements for emissions in your state.
  • Start the engine and pay close attention to what happens. Be sure no engine or warning lights stay on. Also, check to see if smoke comes out of the tailpipe. If some white smoke comes out first — it's okay. That's just a little condensation because the engine started cold. It should disappear when the engine warms up. If the smoke continues for longer than about 10 seconds, there could be a problem with the engine. If you see dirty or blue smoke from the tailpipe, the engine probably needs repair.
  • Buy a car with fuel injection if you have the choice. Vehicles that have fuel injection are 10 percent more efficient than carburetor-based engines.
  • The popular minivans and sport utility vehicles are not currently subject to the same standards as passenger vehicles and can pollute more than regular cars.
  • Listen to the engine. Is it smooth or rough? Even if it sounds smooth, ALWAYS have a qualified auto repair professional check it out first. Along with the mechanics of the car, the professional should check that the catalytic converter and other pollution control devices are working properly.
  • Be aware that low-emission vehicles (sometimes called California cars) will become increasingly available over the next few years. The low-emission vehicle is like any other car except that it has technology to reduce tailpipe emissions. Alternatively fueled vehicles, which are powered by a variety of fuels such as compressed natural gas, methanol, ethanol, or electricity, are also becoming more available. Technology and pollution control requirements are providing a greater choice of less-polluting cars than ever before.


2. Car Buyer’s Checklist

  • How old is the car? New vehicles generally pollute less.
  • How large is the car? Smaller cars are generally more fuel efficient.
  • How many cylinders does the car have? Larger engines typically result in lower gas mileage.
  • What is the gear/axle ratio? Gear/rear axle ratio is important for efficiency — sometimes there are choices, especially for small trucks.
  • Does the gas cap fit tightly? There should be a hissing sound when you loosen it.
  • Has the vehicle been well maintained?
  • Does the vehicle have a valid emissions inspection sticker?
  • Is the catalytic converter connected?
  • Does the gas tank have any leaks?
  • How many miles are on the engine? Less than 12,000 or 15,000 miles per year of vehicle age is ideal, but well-maintained high mileage vehicles with documented service and repair records may be fine.
  • Does the engine idle smoothly?
  • Do you see exhaust from the tailpipe? If so, what color is it and how long does it last? If white exhaust comes out first — it's okay, that's just condensation. If you see exhaust for longer than 10 seconds or it is dirty or blue, the engine probably needs repair.
  • Do any warning lights stay on when you start the vehicle?
  • Does the vehicle have any missing components (or nonremovable add-ons that have changed the vehicle's aerodynamics)?

3. Determining Fuel Efficiency

When you're in the market for a new car, consult the annual Fuel Economy Guide, prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE). This guide contains information about the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks for the current model year. You can use this guide to compare the estimated mileage of different makes, models, and classes of vehicles. (Available on the Department of Energy’s Web page

All new cars and trucks carry a fuel economy label, usually on one of the windows, that gives that vehicle's estimated miles per gallon under highway and city operating conditions.

Used cars and trucks do not carry the EPA/DOE fuel economy label. You should still check the EPA/DOE Fuel Economy Guide for the model year of the vehicle you are considering. If the vehicle's engine is in good condition, the guide is a good source of information about gas mileage.

Free copies of EPA/DOE Fuel Economy Guide for the current year are available from all new car dealerships; the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO, 81009; DOE, (800) 363-3732; and on DOE’s Web site at

Mileage information is also reported in Consumer Reports and Kiplinger's Car Buyer's Guide. The Car Buyer's Guide is available at newsstands and bookstores for $3.95 or can be ordered for $5.40 (includes shipping and handling) by calling (800) 544-0155. These publications are also available at most libraries.

Features that decrease drag or increase fuel efficiency include the following:

  • Fuel injection
  • Flush windows
  • Lower vehicle weight
  • Optimized windshield angle slope
  • Sealed openings or body design spaces
  • Smooth wheel covers
  • Streamlined front end
  • Underbody panel
  • A cleanly washed vehicle can decrease drag by up to 12 percent
Features that increase drag or decrease fuel efficiency include the following:
  • Brake-cooling devices
  • Extra vehicle weight (removing 100 pounds can increase efficiency by 1 percent)
  • Oversized side-view mirrors
  • Oversized tires
  • Pop-up headlamps
  • Roof- and trunk-mounted luggage and ski racks

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