A How-To for the Practical Car Buyer

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Don’t get me wrong, it is completely justified to buy a car based on emotion. One of our cars, a BMW, was bought to satisfy that passion inside of me.

How To Begin

But our other car, a Honda Accord, was bought using the practical side of my brain. The market for new cars is definitely picking up after a dismal year last year. You might be one of the millions who will be in the market for a new car this year. And assuming your car purchase will be made with one primary goal – to satisfy that practical side of your brain – here are some tips to maximize your purchase.

1. Choose the type of vehicle you need.

This is obvious right? Very few people will cross-shop a Ford F-150 with a Honda Civic. Determine what your family’s needs are, and narrow it down to a class of car, whether it be a family sedan, a minivan, or a SUV.

2. Safety is the most important fact?

Well, at least to me. I remember reading a study where the majority of people polled considered themselves “above average” drivers. Statistically, this is impossible. The fact of the matter is, you might be a terrific driver, the safest driver in the history of driving. That will still not protect you if you are stopped at a red light and a distracted driver decides to rear-end you. What can help protect you is being in a safe vehicle.
The good news is that most modern new cars come with a standard menu of safety devices. Front and side airbags and anti-lock brakes have been standard on most cars for a while now. And from 2012, all new cars have to come with electronic stability control. This technology has been proven to be able to reduce certain accidents and save lives. Many cars already come with it, so I would not buy a new car today without it.
I would recommend going to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) website and researching the make and model of the car you are considering. Keep in mind that the front impact tests show results based on the car’s size, so you should only use those results to compare cars of similar size. However, the side impacts are standardized. This means that all cars tested, whether a compact or a behemoth SUV, are subject to the same side impact and rated accordingly. There are at least several models of any class of car that do well in the IIHS’s crash tests, thanks to modern safety technology.

A less well-known fact about car safety is that rear-end collisions are the most common types of accidents. Certain cars come with “active head restraints”, which pop the head restraint forwards in a rear-end impact to protect your neck from whiplash. The IIHS does rear-end crash testing on cars as well, so make sure to do your research for models that do well in this area.

Finally, and this is going to be controversial, but I would recommend sticking to midsize cars or larger. First off, studies show that there are more fatalities among crash victims in small cars. This is just a matter of simple physics. Mass times acceleration equals force. If you hit a larger car, you are going to be subject to more force. As a practical matter, the best selling cars in America are the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Both are midsize sedans. Considering the sheer number of these types of cars on the road, I would think you are most likely to be in an accident with a car about the size of a Camry or Accord. I would like to be in a similar sized or larger car myself when this happens.

3. Reliability rules.

Getting a reliable car is very important for the practical car buyer. A reliable car will cost you less to maintain over the life of the car, and will have hold its value better. Also, it is cost efficient to keep your car for as long as possible. A reliable car will obviously last longer and give you more trouble-free mileage.

When looking for reliable vehicles, look at the model, not necessarily the brand. Yes, brands like Honda and Toyota have great track records of reliability throughout their model lineup. But other models from different carmakers, like the Ford Fusion or Hyundai Sonata, have done very well in reliability in recent years. Be sure to give these models a look.

Another good tip is to get the model of a car which has not been subject to a major redesign for a while. First year runs of cars tend to have some issues that need to be worked out. As a concrete example, let’s say you are looking at a 2011 Nissan Altima and a 2011 Hyundai Sonata. From a pure reliability standpoint, I’d be more inclined to go with the Altima. The Altima has solid reliability ratings, plus it was all-new for the 2007 model year. That means there are Altimas of that particular vintage on the road today that are almost four years old. This gives Nissan time to get feedback from consumers and fix any problems that may have arisen early on. Also, there is more reliability data to track as a consumer. You could pick up an issue of Consumer Reports’ annual auto issue and look at the reliability history of the Altima going all the way back to 2007. Conversely, the Sonata is all-new for 2011. There is no track record of reliability for this particular model. Although Hyundai has made great strides in improving quality and the last Sonata proved to be a reliable model, I wouldn’t want to take the risk of getting a brand new redesign with no track record in its first year. Let’s put it this way: Wouldn’t you rather be a buyer of a Toyota Camry in 2010 than 2007?

4. Get the 4-Cylinder

Assuming you have a choice, that is. Depending on your needs, you may need a big SUV with a V-6 or V-8. But if you are like the majority of people who shop for a generic family sedan, opt for the 4-cylinder engine. 4-cylinder engines have improved tremendously over the years. A 4-cylinder in an Accord can produce 190 horsepower. A Sonata’s provides 200. A V-6 entices with amazing horsepower figures, but keep in mind that in everyday driving, even at high speeds, you rarely tap all your car’s available horsepower anyways. Outside of depreciation, fuel costs are the costliest expense in owning a car. You can mitigate this by buying a

4-cylinder car which is easier on the gas. 4-cylinder cars also tend to be a bit cheaper to maintain over time as well.

5. Focus on overall cost of ownership, not initial price

Always remember that the cost of owning a car is not the initial sticker price you pay at the dealership. The cost of owning a car throughout the car’s life includes depreciation, fuel, insurance, maintenance, etc. Keeping these overall costs of ownership low should be a priority for any practical car buyer. Intellichoice and Edmunds provide great cost of ownership calculators on their websites. Because depreciation is the greatest single expense in owing a car, reliable vehicles with proven track records will tend to hold their value better over time.

6. TEST DRIVE!

Even after taking into account all the above tips, you may still be deciding between two or more cars. This is where a visit to the dealership and a test drive will make the difference. Test drive the cars on your list, and see which ones you like driving. Make sure you test the car’s handling and braking. Take a look at the trunk. Sit in the backseat. Heck, kick the tires while you are at it. I would recommend two test drives. Start with a briefer first test drive of the model you are considering. Then if you actually get serious about buying that particular model, I would go back to the dealership, pick out a car you like, and spend some more time test driving that actual vehicle. Do not buy a car without test driving that specific car. Dealerships will sometimes try to entice you with test drives of cars with stronger engines or more optional features. Do not fall for this. Make sure you test drive the exact car you are planning on buying. And don’t let the salesman dictate your test drive. Some dealerships will allow you to test drive without the salesman. And even with the salesman along for the ride, you should be allowed to take the car on the highway, and generally take your time with it. If not, go to a different dealership. Someone will always be willing to earn your business.

So here we are. Hopefully following this path leads you to a car that satisfies the practical in you, and a car your family can enjoy for years to come. Happy shopping!

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