What Is a Fleet Vehicle, and Should I Buy One?

2020 Honda CR-V

Roughly 1 in 5 new vehicles sold in 2019 was a “fleet” purchase, a car or truck bought by a rental car company, other type of business or a government agency that buys vehicles in bulk, from three or four at a time to tens of thousands per year. Eventually, most of those approximately 3 million fleet vehicles purchased annually will wind up on used-car lots or for sale online. Rental cars are most likely to be the first to show up in the used-car market, and government-owned vehicles are most likely to be the last.

With any used fleet vehicle, there will be pluses and minuses.

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Among the pluses is that these vehicles generally receive regular maintenance — oil changes, air filters, brakes and the like. Among the minuses are that they are often driven by several different drivers, some of whom don’t treat them with TLC, and that they can rack up a lot of miles in a hurry.

Fleet vehicles that get the hardest use are those that toil in urban areas — taxicabs, police vehicles, cars and trucks owned by public utilities, for example. They spend much of their lives in stop-and-go driving on bumpy streets with a lot of idling — what vehicle manufacturers describe as “severe use” in their owner’s manuals and maintenance guides. This driving is hardest on the engine, transmission, brakes and suspension.

Taxi companies, utilities, police departments and other government agencies tend to keep vehicles in their fleets for several years, and they often have well over 100,000 miles before they get retired from active duty. Though they frequently come with beefed-up suspensions and other heavy-duty components, buying one of those vehicles is like giving a big contract to an aging professional athlete whose best years are long gone. They also come with a higher risk of major repairs down the road.

Rental cars, on the other hand, tend to be used more for highway driving. Sure, they get driven in cities as well, but rentals that rack up 20,000 miles in a year probably did most of it on the open road because people rented them for vacations.

Some advisers caution to never buy a used rental car because they are used by different drivers almost daily, some of whom deliberately trash these vehicles, especially if they (or their employer) ante up for a damage waiver. But while some probably do trash rental cars, most renters drive them gently and carefully so they don’t get dinged for any extra costs, especially those who decline the expensive damage waivers. 

Moreover, rental companies often buy fleet vehicles and are the biggest source of 1- and 2-year-old used cars. Rental agencies generally sell their vehicles after a year or two (though they may hang on to them longer because of the financial strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic).

CarMax and other used-car dealers sell a lot of ex-rental vehicles. Many certified pre-owned vehicles that franchised dealers sell also come from rental fleets, and they’re supposed to be the cream of the used-car crop. A Carfax, AutoCheck or other history report for a used vehicle will show if it was once a rental car.

Rental companies also sell vehicles themselves, and they typically warranty the powertrain and other components for 12 months or 12,000 miles, plus the balance of the manufacturer’s warranty. Some rental companies allow test-driving a vehicle as a rental for up to three days, and the rental cost is waived if the vehicle ultimately is purchased.

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Should You Buy a Used Fleet Vehicle?

Yes, if you take these usual precautions that you would when buying any used vehicle:

  • With any used vehicle, you are buying unused miles, so the fewer miles on the odometer, the better — and highway miles are kinder and gentler than city miles.
  • A manufacturer’s warranty will be far more comprehensive than any warranty provided by the seller, so buy a vehicle that still has the original warranties. The more warranty left, the better.
  • If a vehicle history report is not provided, purchasing one is a good idea because it should show more information than what the seller provides, possibly including accident damage.
  • Have the vehicle inspected by a qualified independent mechanic for mechanical condition and any signs of rust or physical or water damage.

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