Choosing a car is a little bit like dating. There are so many different cars out there. What do you need in a car? What do you prefer in a car? Is there that special connection when you’re driving it?
But unlike dating (or just like dating, depending on your outlook), you can settle for a vehicle that fits your needs right now, even if you can’t see yourself in it long term.
And as long as you’re smart about the financing, it’s easy enough to trade it in for a newer model when it no longer suits your needs.
Make an inventory of your needs
- What will you use the car for most? If you’re just driving back and forth to work, all you need is a dependable car with good gas mileage. If you have to haul around kids, you need it to be roomy. If you entertain clients, it needs to have some style and class. You get the idea.
- Where do you live? You may need four-wheel drive or front-wheel drive. It needs to be able to withstand some major wear and tear if you live on a bumpy gravel road.
- Do you drive in stop-and-go traffic often? That may make an automatic transmission a necessity.
Now that you have a list of your needs, it’s time for more research. There is an awful lot of research, isn’t there? There are thousands of models to choose from. But your needs should help narrow them down fairly quickly.
Auto magazines are a great place to get less biased information about particular models and the advantages/disadvantages associated with them. Consumer Reports is a very thorough publication with a reputation for bias-free reporting.
Dealerships are often the worst place to get information. They have a lot of material, but it is very heavily biased and you may have to endure a strong sales pitch just to get simple information. If you visit the dealership when they are closed, you can look at the cars and read the information on the vehicles without worrying about the salespeople. You can also get a lot of information from the manufacturer’s website and literature, but stick to the facts they provide since much of the material will be heavily biased.
Great sources of information are your friends and family or even strangers. Find others who have owned the model you are interested in. Ask about their experience with it.
Take special care in buying a first-year model, meaning the first year a manufacturer produces a certain model of car. The first year is a time to iron out the kinks and you may become an unwilling guinea pig and have unforeseen problems that the manufacturer will correct for the next year’s model.
The test drive
You’ve compared numbers and features. You’ve checked into the gas mileage. Now it’s time to put away all the theory and speculation and get to the point of choosing a car — how it drives.
You have to be able to focus when test-driving a car. If you go to a dealership to test-drive cars, make sure the salesperson gives you some space to make your decision. As a matter of fact, tell the sales team you have no intention of buying on that day. They should leave you alone long enough to test-drive without distraction. If they don’t, be sure to avoid them when you’re going to actually buy a car. If they get too pushy, go to another dealership for your test drives.
If you’re not comfortable with visiting dealerships just for a test drive, try renting the cars you are interested in. It may cost you $100 to try out your top favorites, but you’re paying for the freedom of driving a whole day without listening to any sales pitches.
Compare the dealerships
Shopping for a dealership is just as important as the other comparisons you have been doing. It can help you save a lot of money AND ensure that you have some customer support while you’re still under warranty.
All dealerships pay the same price for the cars in the beginning. But don’t let them fool you. Dealerships with better CSI ratings (Customer Satisfaction Index ratings) often get better bonuses that allow them to offer you a better price.
JASON ALDERMAN directs Visa’s financial education programs. Sign up for his free newsletter at www.practicalmoneyskills.com/newsletter.