By JIM PARKER

The Post and Courier

The acronym, CPO, sounds like a nickname foisted on a Star Wars robot droid, as in “hey C3PO, I’m gonna call you CPO from now on.”

Yet to a car shopper, the term isn’t spacey at all. In fact, vehicles with that designation can wind up as smart buys.

The lettering stands for “certified pre-owned,” a feature in which dealers subject used cars to 100-point-plus inspections before listing them for sale.

Sales of certified pre-owned cars climbed to 21 percent of all used car transactions at franchise dealerships, an all-time high, according to automotive information company Edmunds.com.

The CPO findings are in the online resource’s latest quarterly Used Car Market Report, which came out in May.

According to the evaluation, CPO sales through March of this year are up 6.2 percent from the first three months of 2012.

“Car manufacturers love certified pre-owned programs because they attract new customers, strengthen loyalty and help to move off-lease inventory,” said Joe Spina, director of used car analysis for Edmunds.com.

“We can expect even higher levels of CPO sales later this year as dealers absorb a growing influx of lease returns,” he said.

Certified pre-owned vehicles are typically priced higher than their used car counterparts, according to Edmunds.com. But shoppers like them because the models tend to be more reliable. Along with the extensive inspection, CPO cars carry an extended warranty. The warranty, Edmunds.com notes, “alleviates the buyer’s fear of inheriting someone else’s problem.”

Edmunds.com said it provides a review where shoppers can compare the terms of every manufacturer’s CPO program. The comparison is at http://www.edmunds.com/certified-cars/compare-program.html.

Used car sales account for about 75 percent of all vehicle sales in the U.S. each year, Edmunds.com pointed out.

Here’s a closer look at findings in the first quarter 2013 report:

• Used car sales as a whole dropped about 6 percent nationwide in the January through March time frame to 9.7 million vehicles.

• Pre-owned vehicle prices at franchise dealerships averaged $15,793, up just 0.5 percent for the year. Subaru cars and trucks sold faster at franchise dealerships than any used car brand.

• Edmunds.com foresees a “typical” used car price pattern this year with costs increasing in the spring, leveling out in early summer and dropping after that.

• The record CPO momentum of 2012 and early this year will continue.

• Look for a slight increase in alternative fuel vehicle inventories as new hybrids come off leases.

In addition, the Edmunds.com report listed the top selling used vehicles by segment in first quarter 2013.

They were the Honda Accord for midsize car; Honda Civic, compact car; Ford F-150, large truck; Chrysler 300, large car; Ford Explorer, midsize traditional SUV; Dodge Grand Caravan, minivan; Honda CR-V, compact crossover SUV; Ford Expedition, large traditional SUV; BMW 3 Series, entry luxury car; Chevy Equinox, midsize crossover SUV; Nissan Frontier, compact truck; BMW 5 Series, midrange luxury car; Chevy Camaro, entry sport car; Hyundai Accent, subcompact car; Mercedes-Benz M-Class, midrange luxury SUV; Lexus RX 350, entry luxury SUV; Ford E-Series, van; Cadillac Escalade, premium luxury SUV; GMC Acadia, large crossover SUV; Mercedes CLK-Class, midrange sport car; BMW 7 Series, premium luxury car; and BMW 6 Series, premium sport car.

Just one category had a switch between first quarter 2012 and 2013, the Frontier replacing the Dodge (Ram) Dakota as best-selling used compact truck.

But, there were a host of changes from the fourth quarter of last year to March of this year. The Chevrolet Silverado 1500 was best-selling used large truck at the end of last year; the Chevy Impala lead for large car, Jeep Grand Cherokee, midsize traditional car; Honda Odyssey, minivan; Chevy Tahoe, large traditional SUV; Honda Pilot, midsize crossover vehicle; Dodge Dakota, compact truck; Mercedes E-Class, midrange luxury car; Ford Mustang, entry sport car; Acura MDX, midrange luxury SUV; Ford Windstar, van; Chevy Traverse, large crossover SUV; Chevy Corvette, midrange sport car; Mercedes S-Class, premium luxury car; and Porsche 911, premium sport car.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.