If you're just starting to shop for your next vehicle but not so sure that the new-car smell is a necessity, you have some great alternatives.

Through the certified pre-owned programs (commonly abbreviated as simply CPO) now supported by most automakers, approved dealerships pick out the best vehicles that are traded in, thoroughly inspect them, then back them with a warranty that in some cases is as good or better than traditional new-car coverage.

But experts agree that while these automaker-supported programs might look quite similar, they vary greatly in how they're run at the dealership level. For some CPO programs it's a mere check to make sure nothing's worn out and in need of replacement, but for others the inspection is meticulous and could truly be called a factory-caliber reconditioning, with cosmetic blemishes touched up, worn trim pieces replaced, service conducted, and any other wearables like belts and brake pads preemptively replaced.

"If you're going to do it right, you're going to cherry-pick all the good vehicles," says ALG chief economist Matt Traylen, citing one of the reasons why BMW has established such a strong program. For the inferior programs, according to Traylen, the best cars aren't always picked out, the reconditioning process isn't done well, and you simply end up with "a warranty that you're going to pay a lot of money for."

With automakers that have a more rigid, meticulous certification process -- Porsche, for instance, says Kelley Blue Book executive market analyst James Bell -- "it's going to cost more money so they'll have to dig that back out come sale time."

Indeed, CPO programs have become a high-volume operation, and big business for dealerships and automakers. There were about 1.53 million vehicles sold through CPO programs in calendar year 2009 (compared to about 10.43 million new-vehicle sales), with General Motors, Toyota/Lexus, and Honda/Acura the highest CPO movers. BMW is, surprisingly, a CPO powerhouse; the BMW brand alone sold a surprising 114,000 CPO vehicles in 2009; this is a brand that sold just 242,000 new vehicles in the U.S. in that same period.

Looking for a CPO vehicle? Start your search here!

The CPO market has mostly gone up and down with the larger trends in new-car sales, an indicator that people are selecting certified used as an alternative to a new car as much if not more than an alternative to used. CPO sales have risen in March and April of this year after 13 months of decline.

When you're looking at how one CPO program stacks up with another, don't get hung up on the number of inspection points, experts caution. If one says they inspect 300 points, and the other just 130, the former might simply count each tire separately, or count the exhaust system as several points.

"Cars that qualify for certified pre-owned are, for the most part, better," asserted Charlie Vogelheim, the executive editor for IntelliChoice. IntelliChoice evaluates and rates CPO programs annually, looking at details of the vehicle inspection process, warranties and program benefits, and dealer participation levels. Vogelheim says that in choosing a CPO vehicle, you can be sure of three things. The first is that it had a clean title and was in good condition in the first place to qualify. The second is that in most cases work was done to bring wear items back to like-new condition. Third, there's the peace of mind that comes with an additional warranty. Here are some other program questions you should ask:

  • Is this vehicle offered through the automaker's official CPO program?
  • When does CPO coverage start/end?
  • What does the CPO warranty cover?
  • What are the additional perks of the program?

A number of programs offered by some used-car dealers aim to sound like manufacturer-supported programs. They might use some of the same words and terms to convince you that they provide comparable coverage, but they're generally not the same. As more viable alternatives, several new programs have started on national level, some supported by so-called megadealer networks and claiming to provide the same level of assurance, but they haven't yet proven themselves for consistency, said Vogelheim. IntelliChoice plans to include them in the future.

Bell recommends that vehicles with mechanical complexity or lackluster reliability should be bought under CPO programs. On the other hand, some automakers for which consumer perception lags reality (Jaguar, for instance) are offering especially strong CPO programs as an assurance that their reliability is good, in hopes that better resale value will follow.

Although the additional peace of mind might be worth a lot, Bell says before pulling the trigger on a purchase you should simply step back and look at how much more you're going to be paying for a CPO vehicle versus an equivalent used car in top condition and ask, "CPO costs this much, but for it I'm going to get this... Is it worth it?" Kelley Blue Book has just started listing CPO values, alongside used-car values for comparison, so you can see exactly what that premium typically is.

GM, for example, openly claims in marketing that you get $1,925 of built-in value, on a national average, with its GM Certified vehicles.

CPO doesn't always make sense for the same reasons. Sometimes it allows you to get a vehicle that's just like what you'd find in the new lot for a fraction of the price. Sometimes it adds the security of new-car ownership to an affordable used-car purchase. Other times it lets you purchase the best example of a sought-after used model that's no longer made, with the assurance of a factory warranty.

Here are ten vehicles that we've selected as CPO best buys:

From Kelley Blue Book, we're listing CPO prices along with retail used values for vehicles in excellent condition, with about 15,000 miles per year, averaging values in all cases for Chicago and Los Angeles.

2007 Saturn Aura XR

CPO Price: $15,090
Equivalent price used: $14,640
Perks: 12-month/12,000-mile warranty from CPO purchase date; 5-year/100,000-mile powertrain from original in-service date; roadside assistance; 3-day/150-mile money-back or 30-day/1500-mile trade-in exchange; trial subscriptions of XM Satellite Radio and OnStar
Why buy CPO: You'll get a sophisticated, refined sedan without any unexpected repair bills.

By getting a three-year-old vehicle, you'll be able to make the most of GM's powertrain coverage, which is based on original service date. Among 2007 models, the Aura stood out as a gem in GM's lineup. In XR trim, it was the first of GM's affordable mid-size cars to offer both the new-generation 3.6-liter DOHC V6 with variable valve timing and the modern six-speed automatic. Altogether, it drove like a more expensive sedan.

While Saturn made its name, originally, on no-haggle pricing and no fuss at the dealership, of course you can haggle on a CPO Saturn. With the brand officially mothballed but still fully supported through GM's other dealerships, you're likely to get a good deal. The other big advantage, of course, is that the GM Certified program is supported by thousands of dealerships, so you'll never be far from help if you need it.

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2006 BMW 325i

CPO Price: $22,365
Equivalent price used: $21,115
Perks: 24-month/50,000-mile coverage after new car warranty expires; roadside assistance; available BMW Assist; $50 warranty deductible
Why buy CPO: Because BMW systematically picks the best cars for its CPO program, if you can't afford a new 3-Series, a used one will still put a smile on your face.

Just as BMW's cars have long been lauded among the top sporting machines, BMW's remarketing efforts with its Certified Pre-Owned program is a well-oiled machine, picking out the best trade-ins and lease turn-ins to be reinspected and resold. The automaker covers everything except wearable items and maintenance, and for a little extra you can add a maintenance plan that covers all wearables like brakes and clutch replacement. The 2006 model was the first of the current-generation 3-Series, so unless you look closely it could be mistaken for a new 2010 model. And although the 325i is the base model, this sport sedan is a joy to drive, with a sweet 215-hp, 3.0-liter inline six and excellent steering and handling.

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2007 Jaguar XK

CPO Price: $45,835
Equivalent price used: $44,535
Perks: 24-month/50,000-mile comprehensive after new car warranty expires or from CPO purchase date; roadside assistance; no deductible
Why buy CPO: Jaguar's low resale value is your gain, especially when you get the reassurance of two years or more of factory coverage.

Jaguar introduced an all new, redesigned XK Coupe and Convertible in 2007. With leaner proportions that rivaled the Aston Martin DB9 -- a supercar that cost twice as much -- plus a roomy, luxurious interior and the feel of a sporty grand-touring coupe, the XK was positively dreamy for anyone looking for a hot luxury cruiser. While new XK models include a more powerful V8, the 2007 model's 290-hp engine is plenty satisfying. A new 2010 Jaguar XK Coupe starts at $83k, so you're getting a vehicle that looks virtually the same for nearly half the price. Jag dealerships have also been consistently rated near the top in customer satisfaction.

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2005 Porsche Boxster

CPO Price: $24,340
Equivalent price used: $22,180
Perks: 24-month, 50,000-mile comprehensive warranty after new car warranty expires or from CPO purchase date; roadside assistance; no deductible; transferable to next owner
Why buy CPO: Trouble-free ownership of a sensational sports car that you might not have thought you could afford.

With their sonorous, mid-mounted six-cylinder engines and well-designed soft-top arrangement, Boxsters are thrilling yet surprisingly practical. They have a reputation for being quite reliable and trouble-free -- provided you do all the maintenance you're supposed to. With a Porsche Approved vehicle, you know it's all been inspected, with many parts replaced, and done by specialists. CPO warranty coverage is one of the few to be transferable to subsequent owners, thereby enhancing resale value. Who knew you could get a Boxster with a factory-supported warranty, for about the same money as a new Miata?

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2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS55

CPO Price: $42,665
Equivalent price used: $40,765
Perks: 12-month/100,000-mile comprehensive warranty after 4/50k new car warranty expires or from CPO purchase date; roadside assistance; no deductible; 7-day/500-mile exchange
Why buy CPO: Because it'll make you look like a Wall Street high roller on a foreman's budget.

The CLS has changed very little during the five years it's been around. It's still one of the most eye-catching luxury sedans from the outside, with a specially trimmed interior and bucket seats in back. In AMG high-performance guise, the CLS55 looks every bit like a $100,000 car, for a fraction of the cost. And for probably just a few thousand more than one would cost from a sketchy used car lot, you can get one that's been meticulously inspected and repaired where needed. An extended factory-supported warranty that's transferable to a new owner can be purchased at extra charge on CPO vehicles only. One final note: Just make sure you don't have a long commute as the CLS55 AMG will drink your budget away in premium fuel.

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2005 Ferrari F430 Spider

CPO Price: $175,000 est.
Equivalent price used: $160,000 est.
Perks: 24-month factory warranty from the CPO purchase date; 24 months roadside assistance
Why buy CPO: You'll be guaranteed you're getting one of the better-cared-for examples, with no costly repair issues. And besides, even if you wanted to buy new you might have to wait for months or years.

Lusty sheetmetal and goosebump-inducing engine sounds have been part of Ferrari's heritage for decades, but reliability? Well, it's always been the weak link, with Ferraris demanding a lot of mechanical attention to keep them in tip-top condition. Even a seemingly simple repair like replacing gaskets or drive belts can cost thousands. The remedy? Go with a Ferrari Approved model. Among them, used F430 Spiders (convertibles) remain one of the most-loved and reasonably accessible models of recent years, with some preferring them to the F430's tech-centric successor, the F458 Italia. When it was new, the F430 started at about $205,000 and was selling at $50,000 or more above its sticker in some cases. For a good deal less coin, and not much more than a normal used one, you can have at least a couple of years of worry-free fun.

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2005 Volvo XC70

CPO Price: $18,530
Equivalent price used: $17,230
Perks: 72-month/100,000-mile comprehensive warranty after original in-service date, roadside assistance; no deductible; $5,000 car theft protection; additional full coverage to 84 or 96 months
Why buy CPO: For a little more money than a used one, you can't go wrong with one of the top-rated CPO programs.

These wagons are comfortable workhorses, with a spacious interior, decent performance from Volvo's turbocharged five-cylinder engine, and top-notch safety ratings. For those with kids to tote, official Volvo integrated booster seats were optional and available as add-ons at the dealership. Volvo has won IntelliChoice's Best Certified Pre-Owned Award for three years in a row, and IntelliChoice executive editor Charlie Vogelheim says that Volvo's warranty coverage "really put them over the top." The program covers just about any mechanical repair except for scheduled maintenance and standard wear items like tires and brakes, and comes with the assurance that if there's an issue with the title, such as a severe accident that didn't show up in the standard title check, Volvo will buy it back. Coverage is also transferable to the next owner.

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2007 Lexus ES 350

CPO Price: $26,110
Equivalent price used: $24,960
Perks: 36-month comprehensive warranty from CPO sale (or 100,000-miles max); roadside assistance; complimentary loaner during warranty repairs; first oil service free; no deductible
Why buy CPO: The Lexus badge -- and most importantly, the superior dealership experience -- for a Camry price.

If you value comfort and luxury over performance, and want to travel in style on a tight budget, the Lexus ES 350 might be the way to go. A longtime favorite of realtors and other for whom first impressions are important, the ES 350 pairs more lavish interior appointments and the vaunted Lexus badge and dealership experience with trusty Camry underpinnings. And you can get it, with an excellent three-year warranty, for less than the cost of a V6 Camry. Lexus also offers financing deals on par with those for new models.

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2006 Volkswagen Touareg TDI

CPO Price: $38,465
Equivalent price used: $37,615
Perks: 24-month/24,000-mile warranty, after new car warranty expires or from CPO sale date; roadside assistance; no deductible
Why buy CPO: Because this engine isn't coming back, and it allows you to own a truly exceptional vehicle with a spotty repair record, with the financial worries lifted.

For 2004 and 2006, Volkswagen made a whopper of an engine available on its Touareg SUV: a 310-horsepower, 5.0-liter turbocharged diesel V10. It's the TDI's 553 pound-feet of torque (more than any full-size SUV's gasoline V8) that makes the this model so exceptional. It's a rather rare powertrain, but it handles the heaviest of loads without breaking a sweat, and if you plan to tow, the Touareg TDI would be a much more stylish, comfortable choice. But only buy the best example, and buy it CPO, as the Touareg has been plagued with reliability issues, meaning that you're likely to get your CPO premium back from the automaker. And while Volkswagen's U.S. dealership service hasn't been much to brag about, VW's CPO program "was good all around," said Intellichoice's Vogelheim. "They ranked second or third best in every measurement we had."

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2006 Pontiac GTO

CPO Price: $18,685
Equivalent price used: $18,235
Perks: 12-month/12,000-mile warranty from CPO purchase date; 5-year/100,000-mile powertrain from original in-service date; roadside assistance; 3-day/150-mile money-back or 30-day/1500-mile trade-in exchange; trial subscriptions of XM Satellite Radio and OnStar
Why buy CPO: You're far more likely to get a garage queen that hasn't been run ragged.

With its low-key appearance, rather soft suspension, and a huge 6.0-liter V8 making 400 hp, the GTO was the closest we've seen in recent years to the old-style muscle-car formula. Some will appreciate how the GTO packs in the tire-smoking torque but doesn't come off like a fashion victim, as some see the new Camaro. With GM's huge CPO program, you'll have no problem finding one in the system and they haven't been selling for much more than the excellent examples on used lots. Most GTOs cost around $35k when new, but you can get a four-year-old GTO in near-perfect condition for well under $20k.

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Search AOL Autos Used Listings For The Top Ten CPO Vehicles
2007 Saturn Aura XR 2006 BMW 325i 2007 Jaguar XK 2005 Porsche Boxster 2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS55
2005 Ferrari F430 Spider 2005 Volvo XC70 2007 Lexus ES 350 2006 Volkswagen Touareg TDI 2006 Pontiac GTO