There’s always an element of risk when you buy a used car, even if the vehicle history report checks out and a trusted mechanic does a thorough pre-purchase inspection. If you don’t want that uneasy, roll-of-the-dice feeling, a powertrain warranty may provide some peace of mind. But what is a powertrain warranty?
What does a powertrain warranty cover?
First, let’s define “powertrain,” which includes the engine, transmission and drivetrain—driveshaft and differential for rear-wheel drive or transaxle and CV shafts for front-wheel drive. A serious problem that requires a transmission rebuild or engine replacement can easily cost more than a vehicle’s Kelley Blue Book value, so having powertrain coverage can be a really solid idea.
So, what is included in a powertrain warranty?
- Engine: includes internal parts like pistons, rods, bearings, intake and exhaust valves, crankshaft, oil pump, timing belt or chain and gears and water pump.
- Transmission: includes internal parts like clutches, bands, planetary gears, pumps, mounts and torque converter.
- FWD and RWD systems: For a front-wheel-drive vehicle, this would include the wheel bearings, hubs, half-shafts and CV joints; for rear-wheel-drive vehicles, the driveshaft, brackets, differential, axles and axle bearings—also the transfer case for 4WD or AWD.
- Other parts and systems: This could include things like the flywheel, exhaust system, catalytic converter, power steering and steering mechanism—steering box or rack, column, linkages, etc.
What’s not included in a powertrain warranty?
Here’s where we get into the fine print. What’s covered in a powertrain warranty, outside of the basics we listed above, can vary quite a bit from one policy to another, so make sure you closely review the details. Expect to see these common exclusions:
- Engine: While the mechanical parts are covered, the radiator and hoses, starter motor, heater core, some of the sensors and other engine management, emission control and fuel metering systems may not be.
- Transmission: Parts like the transmission or transfer case cooling lines, shift solenoid, wiring harnesses, relays and processors may not be covered.
- Drive system: Things like the axle bearings and wheel bearings may be considered subject to normal wear and not covered.
- Brakes: Brake components like the pads and rotors are normal wear items and aren’t covered, while parts like the ABS sensors and pumps, vehicle stability control system, traction control, master cylinder and wheel cylinders usually are.
- Suspension: Shocks or MacPherson struts are usually considered normal wear items.
- Other parts and systems: Things like the air conditioner; power windows, locks, mirrors and seats; and radio and infotainment are not considered part of the powertrain and are not covered. Seals, gaskets and other internal parts also may not be covered, especially if a gasket is leaking because of age and shrinkage.
It’s also important to note parts damaged because of abuse (racing, offroad use, and, in some instances, even commercial use) are not covered under most warranties and can even void warranty coverage completely in some cases. In addition, vandalism, theft, collisions, flooding and glass breakage aren’t covered—but they should be covered in a full-coverage, comprehensive insurance policy, which lenders usually require anyway until a vehicle is paid off. If you really feel like you need this coverage and don’t have full-coverage insurance, consider a bumper-to-bumper warranty.
How long does a powertrain warranty last?
Powertrain coverage is usually five years or 60,000 miles, whichever comes first. Fleet vehicles and work vehicles might be eligible for a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty. However, powertrain warranties can vary from make to make, and some are better than others. Consider the following examples.
Good coverage examples
Kia’s powertrain warranty may be 10 years and 100,000 miles, including major engine, transmission and powertrain components listed above. Kia’s also features rust-through protection for a five-year, 100,000-mile period and a five-year, 60,000-mile warranty phase for bumper-to-bumper coverage and roadside assistance.
Another one to consider is Hyundai. New models typically offer a great warranty, with five years or 60,000 miles for bumper-to-bumper and 10 years or 100,000 miles for powertrain.
Not-so-good coverage examples
Surprisingly, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota may only offer three years or 36,000 miles for basic coverage and roadside assistance and five years or 60,000 miles for powertrain warranty, although rust-through coverage is for the vehicle’s service life. On the other hand, consider Lincoln, which may offer four years or 50,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper coverage and six years or 70,000 miles for powertrain. These are the types of considerations to keep in mind at time of purchase.
Powertrain vs. other warranties
Most manufacturers offer no shortage of different warranty coverage, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. To try and avoid that, here’s a breakdown of some common warranty options and how they differ from a powertrain warranty.
If this sounds comprehensive, it’s because it is. Bumper-to-bumper warranties cover everything, including the power accessories and comfort options, HVAC, infotainment, etc. Things like the headliner, door panels, upholstery and other cosmetics aren’t covered because they’re considered normal wear items.
Drivetrain warranties are similar to powertrain warranties in that they cover the transmission and other parts. The difference is they exclude the engine. These warranties are pretty scarce now—automakers have all had to up their warranty games to stay competitive with each other.
The days of new cars starting to lose oil at 40,000 miles are pretty much over; improvements in metallurgy, design and manufacturing have made today’s engines far more reliable. One of the first automakers to offer a longer warranty phase, Chrysler, felt confident enough about the Aries/Reliant “K-car” models to offer a five-year, 50,000-mile warranty in the early 1980s.
These warranties cover the cost of repair in the event of rust, corrosion and other elemental damage to metal components. They usually last anywhere from 10 years or 100,000 miles to the lifetime of the vehicle. Their generous coverage speaks to improvements in design, manufacturing and metallurgy that have made vehicle rust less of an issue than a generation ago.
Do I need to buy a powertrain warranty?
Many automakers offer a powertrain warranty on new vehicles. But if you have a fleet vehicle or a work truck, it might be a good idea to opt for an extended warranty. If that’s the case, be sure that you go over the details carefully because the terms and the coverage can vary a lot. To decide if a powertrain warranty is worth the money, consider the following questions.
Can you handle major repair costs?
Everyone’s financial situation is different, but vehicles are more complex and difficult to service than ever and repair costs can be high. Worth noting: German and Japanese cars in particular have a reputation for having expensive replacement parts. Here’s an idea on how much these costs can run:
- Timing belt, $500-$700: Many vehicles still use a timing chain that lasts the entire life cycle of the car, but vehicles that use a belt need service at regular intervals. Going past that interval is pushing your luck because a broken timing belt can throw the valves out of sync with the pistons and result in a wrecked engine.
- AC compressor, $500-$800: Nobody wants to drive around in a vehicle with failed air conditioning, and nothing can happen in an AC system without a working compressor.
- Fuel pump, $700-$2,000: With older vehicles, the fuel pump was easily accessible, right on the side of the engine. Fuel-injected vehicles have the fuel pump in the gas tank, so replacement means dropping the tank and draining the fuel first—a job beyond the capabilities of most DIYers.
- Catalytic converter, $1,500-$2,000: The catalytic converter in the exhaust system is what keeps your vehicle in compliance with emissions standards, and the emissions system and fuel metering can’t operate without it. A fused, melted-down cat will stop your vehicle cold until it’s replaced.
- Automatic transmission, $3,000-$5,000: Today’s automatics are more complex than ever and require repair by a factory-trained tech. On an older vehicle, a failed transmission often means its last stop will be the salvage yard because the cost to repair or replace it is greater than the value of the vehicle.
How reliable is your vehicle?
You wouldn’t make any major purchase without doing your homework first, and it’s not too hard to find the reputation of a make and model of a vehicle before you pull the trigger. Bear in mind that certain years of the same vehicle can be less reliable than others—for instance, 1990s and 2000s-era Dodge minivans had a reputation for transmission problems which has since been resolved in later versions, and Subarus of a certain era had head gasket issues that were later corrected. There are plenty of high-dollar cars that start getting temperamental and high-maintenance after about 100,000 miles.
Run a make and model report on the vehicle you’re eyeing, and you’ll likely find useful information regarding recalls and reliability. While you’re at it, talk to a mechanic or automotive tech who you trust. They get their hands dirty keeping vehicles on the road, and they’ll give you the straight story on what’s junk and what isn’t.
How long do you plan to keep your vehicle?
Some people like to move on every few years, while others like to keep a vehicle until it’s on its absolute last legs. If you’re the type who likes to drive them into the ground, you should maybe consider an extended warranty. If, on the other hand, you like to trade every few years, that factory warranty can be a selling point when you trade or sell.
Does another warranty make more sense?
Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to make sure everything’s covered. If that’s the case, you may feel better opting for a more comprehensive bumper-to-bumper extended warranty, just to be on the safe side. If not, your car insurance coverage may provide all the peace of mind you need.
How much are you spending?
There are plenty of older vehicles in the sub-$5,000 category that are on the used car market and still have plenty of good miles left on them. If you’re spending that kind of money, you might find it a good idea to get extra coverage. It’s also worth remembering that many dealerships offer certified pre-owned coverage on their used inventory.
Do your homework, make your decision carefully and don’t let yourself get steamrolled into anything.