Both major and minor collisions can cause structural damage to a vehicle. Though not impossible to repair, a vehicle that suffers structural damage can be difficult and expensive to fix. Unfortunately, the vehicle’s safety may be compromised, and related mechanical problems could surface prematurely down the road.
What Is Structural Damage?
Structural damage refers to any damage made to a vehicle’s underlying structure or underpinnings. Back when all vehicles were constructed using body-on-frame construction, this also was called a “bent frame.” Today, pickup trucks and the few truck-based sport utility vehicles left on the market are the only models in which the body and a ladder-like frame are separate elements that are bonded together. Trucks retain this design for its inherent durability and the ability to support larger and more powerful engines.
Today’s cars and car-based crossover SUVs are based on what’s called “unibody” construction. Here, the body panels and the underlying chassis are built as a one-piece skeleton-like shell. This configuration reduces a model’s weight while maintaining its structural integrity. Shaving pounds from a vehicle is the easiest way to boost its fuel economy.
How Does Structural Damage Happen?
A vehicle can suffer structural damage in a collision with another vehicle or a fixed object, such as a light pole. Impact to a pivotal point of a car or truck’s chassis can cause the frame or unibody to bend, break or otherwise become compromised. A unibody frame is designed to collapse upon impact to absorb crash forces better than a body-on-frame vehicle for added safety. Unfortunately, this means that a unibody vehicle can more easily develop major structural damage in a crash.
If the cost to repair a given vehicle is more than its pre-collision resale value, it will be declared a total loss for insurance purposes. A totaled vehicle is usually scrapped and is issued what’s known as a salvaged or rebuilt title. Avoid any used car that’s been repaired and sold with a salvaged title, no matter how great a deal it seems.
Can You Fix A Car With A Bent Frame?
It is possible for a trained mechanic to repair a car that’s had structural damage, assuming the cost isn’t steep enough to total the vehicle. In a unibody car or crossover SUV, the entire body and its underpinnings are considered part of its structure. Damage to one part of the shell essentially affects the entire structure. Though damaged sections of a unibody frame can be replaced, driving a vehicle that’s undergone structural damage should be considered a safety risk. What’s more, the underlying damage can cause additional mechanical problems later on.
What Does Structural Damage Mean To A Car’s Resale Value?
A car that’s suffered structural damage and has been repaired usually will retain a lower-than-average resale value. This can vary, of course, according to the vehicle and the severity and nature of the damage. Sources we checked indicate a structurally damaged car or truck should be worth anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent less than an undamaged model.
Can A Used Car Dealer Sell A Vehicle With Frame Damage?
In most states, a used car dealer must disclose whether a vehicle has been salvaged, damaged in a flood or has been rebuilt. But a private seller might not even be aware of any underlying damage if the car had been wrecked by a prior owner. Also, most used cars are sold “as is.” That means they’re being offered without a warranty of any kind, and with limited, if any, consumer protection. Only a few states extend “lemon law” protection to used-vehicle buyers, and it typically applies only to qualifying models sold by dealerships.
How Can I Tell If A Used Car Has Had Structural Damage Repaired?
You won’t be able to simply eyeball a given car or truck to determine whether it’s had structural damage. Fortunately, obtaining a CARFAX Vehicle History Report will indicate if a pre-owned vehicle has been in a wreck and whether any structural damage was reported. It also will indicate whether a model was previously salvaged and rebuilt.
Still, you’ll want to take an extensive test drive and take note of any suspect vibrations, thumps or harshness that might indicate underlying problems. Even better, have the vehicle checked out by a mechanic that works with a qualified collision repair facility. A trained technician will be able to tell whether a car or truck has sustained structural damage by looking for torn, separated or re-welded parts. Most importantly, he or she will be able to determine whether it’s structurally sound and is safe to drive.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2012. It has been completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.