Manufacturers discovered long ago that there was money in loaning cars out instead of selling them. Leasing cars for a given term to companies for use by employees; to dealerships for test drives and for management to drive; and to rental car companies and fleets.
But those companies have to do something with their cars after getting them back — sometimes “lightly used,” sometimes not.
Preparing a Program Car
Program cars don’t typically include individually leased cars; those are generally taken back once the lease ends and are sold as pre-owned or “factory certified” vehicles. Program cars come from fleet leases; many are former rental cars, but the occasional luxury car comes back from a company perk package or from a dealership manager who got a deal on the lease.
When manufacturers get ex-fleet cars back, they return to the factory, dealership or a certified shop for inspection and restoration to a near-stock condition.
Pro — Good Maintenance
Corporations, as a rule, take better care of their cars than most private owners do. Very few vehicles out there get as many regular inspections as rental cars do, and you can bet that a Lexus driven by a dealership owner gets a regular oil change, as well as interior and exterior detailing.
If a door handle squeaks, someone will lubricate it. If a tire wobbles, it gets balanced. So, you can rest assured that a program car at any given mileage is likely to be in at least as good shape as any privately owned car at the same mileage.
Con — High Mileage
No matter how well the car was maintained, the fact is that a used car is a used car. Regular oil changes, suspension greasing and inspections can’t do much to change the fact that driving any car is going to put some wear on it.
And rental car fleets and test-drivers don’t sit still for long — they’re driven by people who know, for a fact, that breaking them is fairly consequence-free as long as the insurance is paid up. There’s a reason those cars get so many inspections and maintenance, after all.
Pro — Properly Broken In
Not all wear is bad wear; in fact, all manufacturers prescribe some sort of break-in procedure for new cars that can last as long as the first few thousand miles. Picture yourself buying a brand-new, 400-horsepower Hemi Charger: How long are you going to drive that car before checking the range of its speedometer?
Do you know the proper break-in procedure for the manual transmission on a Chevy Aveo? Corporate fleets do, and proper break-in can make a huge difference in the car’s longevity.
Con — Check the Source
Not all program cars come from fleets that take excellent care of them. Ever wonder what happens to that “lemon” you returned under the lemon law? That’s right — it can become a program car. So can “buy back” cars that weren’t used by fleets, and so might not have been subject to the highest of service standards.
Even more terrifyingly, manufacturers can buy back cars from insurance companies — cars that have been completely totaled in an accident. Such cars aren’t necessarily unsafe; they do, after all, pass factory standards after repair. But it’s worth checking your VIN number’s history to find out who originally owned the car, and why they don’t now.
Pro — Cheap and Under Warranty
The best thing about a program car is that it’s a lot cheaper than a new car — 25 to 40 percent, in many cases. Even better, your particular car may still have a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty, as many new cars do. If so, you’ve still got plenty of time to enjoy it before the factory will no longer pick up the tab for repairs.
Con — Options
If you’re already contemplating the purchase of a used car, then odds are good that you don’t mind the fact that you didn’t check your own option boxes. But, more relevantly, rental fleets will often order cars that others can’t in order to save money.
For instance, Chrysler’s less-than-impressive 2.7-liter saw use on many full-sized fleet-car models, when the consumer-spec base model used a much more powerful 3.5-liter V-6. So, be prepared to make a few sacrifices, unless you buy a program car formerly belonging to GM upper management, or to the vice-president of Exxon-Mobil. Then, you’re in like Flint.