You can save a lot of money with these nearly new luxury models. By Mark Solheim, Editor January 31, 2006 The days of slim pickings at used-car lots are over. Today, you'll find them packed with pristine two- and three-year-old models turned in by leasers and purchasers chasing the latest incentives. These vehicles represent a used-car buyer's dream: They've already experienced their steepest depreciation, but they can still offer many miles of trouble-free service.Buyers shopping for recent-vintage luxury cars have the best selection, partly because they are leased more often than lower-priced cars. Plus, pricier makes usually have four-year warranties, so it's likely the coverage has yet to run out. If that's not enough of a safety net, you can buy a certified used vehicle and get a longer warranty. Luxury cars tend to hold their value better than lower-cost automobiles, so you won't see as big a markdown. But you can still expect 30% to 50% to be sliced off the sticker price after three years. Later, we give examples of what you'd likely pay for five luxury models with great repair records. Winter can be a fallow time for new-car shoppers. The end-of-year sales are over, and carmakers tend to be stingy with incentives until summer-clearance time rolls around. But winter is peak season for used-car buyers. Dealers try to empty their lots so they can buy fresh vehicles at auction in time for the spring selling season. Advertisement Going the distance The universe of used cars has expanded thanks to the Internet. Sites such as AutoTrader.com and Cars.com list used cars nationwide from dealers as well as individuals (who almost always charge less than dealers). You can request to see listings within a radius of, say, 50 or 100 miles, but auto sites report that many buyers are willing to search the entire U.S. for bargains. That's because they're assured a broad selection and, explains Chris Satovick, of Vehix.com, an automotive research and shopping site, they can take advantage of regional price differences. For example, he says, SUVs are cheaper and more abundant in California, and late-model luxury cars are often cheaper in the Southwest as well as in the Chicago area. Satovick has tested the strategy himself. In 2004 he was looking for a 2002 BMW X5 SUV with the 4.6is trim package. He wasn't having much luck finding one at a price he liked near his home in Salt Lake City, but he found exactly what he wanted in Dallas. Satovick paid an inspector $100 to check and test-drive the car. After the inspector gave him the thumbs up, the SUV was loaded on a truck, a Dallas bank official checked the title, and the seller got the money. Even with $700 for shipping, Satovick saved $8,600 compared with local prices. He was so pleased that he used the same strategy in November to buy his wife a 2003 Land Rover Discovery from a seller in Denver. This time, he saved $2,000 to $3,000. You can hire a certified inspector through Carfax.com or eBayMotors.com for about $100. Shipping costs vary by distance and whether you choose open or covered transport. Get two or three bids -- you can get a free estimate at DAS and other shippers. Or you can buy a one-way plane ticket and drive the car home yourself. Another option is to bid for a car on eBay Motors. You'll have to familiarize yourself with the rules of online auctions, but the site has good tutorials. EBay also offers buyer-protection programs, including insurance of up to $20,000 against fraud on most vehicles. Advertisement Certifiable Buying from an individual is the best way to get a bargain, but buying a certified, pre-owned car can remove a lot of anxiety. Standards vary from program to program, but all take newer, low-mileage cars, inspect them, and offer an additional warranty. Certified programs have soared in popularity the past few years. Peace of mind comes at a price, however. On average, buyers pay about $1,000 more for a certified vehicle. For luxury models, the premium can rise to $3,000, but the protections you get also tend to be more generous. Stick with a certification program that's backed by the manufacturer rather than by a dealer. The latter is usually an extended warranty in disguise, which offers fewer protections. Check price guides to get an idea of supply and demand, but be aware that the quoted prices may differ. Kelley Blue Book gives prices you'll likely pay to a dealer (average retail) as well as to a private party. But Kelley points out that its retail value is the starting point for negotiation between the consumer and dealer. By contrast, average retail and private-party values quoted by Edmunds.com are actual transaction prices. Dealers and banks also use NADA Guides and Black Book (for subscribers only). If you finance with a loan from your bank, the institution might limit you to an amount equal to the average retail value in the price guide it uses. Advertisement When you've found a car you like, get the vehicle's history from Carfax.com ($25 for unlimited reports). The site provides ownership history and odometer readings, and any accident reports or title fraud. One trouble spot is the surge in flood-damaged cars from states affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The states are still processing titles to reflect damage, so it's possible that a flooded car will have a clean title. Carfax is attaching advisories to its vehicle-history reports on cars that were registered in affected areas recommending that they be checked by a mechanic. That's good advice for any car you want to buy that isn't certified. A local mechanic will probably charge $50 to $75 -- a bit less than you'd spend to hire an inspector in a distant location. Larry Gamache, of Carfax, suggests a tactic that should help weed out sellers looking to pass off lemons. Tell the seller that if the mechanic's inspection doesn't turn up any major problems not already disclosed, you'll pay for it. But if the inspector gives the car some unexpected black marks, the seller pays for the inspection. A seller who has disclosed all of a car's problems should be comfortable with that. Good as new These popular used vehicles get high marks for reliability and are likely to be found in certified used programs. Prices are actual transaction prices from Edmunds.com for base models and assume the vehicle is "clean" -- that is, no major mechanical or cosmetic problems -- and has been driven 12,000 miles a year. Advertisement 2004 Acura MDX Original price: $36,945 Dealer retail: $29,700 Private party: $27,350 Certified: $32,140 Certification includes: 150-point inspection, warranty coverage for 60 months or 62,000 miles from original purchase date. 2004 BMW 530i Original price: $45,595 Dealer retail: $37,360 Private party: $34,970 Certified: $40,850 Certification includes: 195-point inspection, warranty coverage extended by 24 months or 50,000 miles after expiration of new-car warranty. 2003 Lexus ES300 Original price: $37,080 Dealer retail: $24,175 Private party: $21,860 Certified: $26,590 Certification includes: 160-point inspection, warranty for 36 months from your date of purchase or 100,000 miles from original purchase date. 2004 Saab 9-5 Aero Sport Wagon Original price: $41,265 Dealer retail: $27,625 Private party: $25,020 Certified: $30,090 Certification includes: 110-point inspection, warranty coverage for 72 months or 100,000 miles from original purchase date. 2004 Lincoln Town Car Signature Original price: $42,470 Dealer retail: $23,935 Private party: $21,640 Certified: $25,880 Certification includes: 141-point inspection, warranty coverage for 72 months or 75,000 miles from original purchase date.