Consider your real needs
When thinking about our car needs, we often think about our ‘dream’ car or truck. For example, ‘a sporty two-door convertible to ride around on a warm weekend’; or ‘a big SUV that should have 7,000-pounds of towing capacity in case I buy a boat, low-range 4WD if I go off-roading and lots of room for camping trips’. The reality is that you are probably going to need this type of vehicle maybe just once or twice a year, but you will have to drive it every day, spending a lot of money on gas and maintenance. So, think about your real needs for everyday driving. Write down what you need from your car and what you want your car to have and arrange the items in the order of importance. For example:
1. Must be cheap on gas, because I drive a lot.
2. Must be reliable, because I don’t want to spend too much on repairs.
3. It must have good rear seat space to fit a child seat.
4. Must have side airbags and antilock brakes.
5. Must have a cruise control.
6. It’s nice if it will look sporty.
7. I’d love to have an auxiliary input for my iPod.
Now it’s easy; if good gas mileage is your priority, start with fuel economy ratings (see next paragraph) and make a list of cars that you like that are good on gas. Check the Autotrader and see which of these models are available within your price range and scratch those that aren’t. Check reliability ratings of remaining models and scratch off the poorly-rated ones and so on. In the end, you are going to have three or four models left on your list and you are ready to start shopping.
By the way, if one day you really need a big truck to haul something, you can just rent one; it’s not that expensive. And if the weather is nice, you can rent a convertible for a weekend too; just book it in advance. If you really need an auxiliary jack for your iPod and the car doesn’t have one, you can buy an aftermarket iPod adaptor; it’s easy to install.
Compare gas mileage
New or Used
With today’s prices at the pump, gasoline is a major expense for all drivers. Before choosing your next car, check its gas mileage and estimated annual fuel costs.
You can do it at FuelEconomy.gov. You can search by class or by model. Along with the city/highway mpg numbers, you can check the estimated annual cost of fuel and whether the car requires a regular or premium gasoline. Here is an example:
Used Honda Civic and used Chevrolet Silverado. These two vehicles are priced within the same range and either one is often recommended as a first car or truck; one because it’s cheap on gas and the other one because it’s bigger and safer. According to Fueleconomy.gov, the estimated fuel costs for the 2004 Honda Civic is $1,950 per year versus $3,850 per year for the 2004 V6 Chevy Silverado. For three years of driving, you’d pay $5,850 for the Civic versus $11,550 for the Silverado at the pump.
The Fueleconomy.gov website also has Compare Side-by-Side feature where you can compare up to four different cars. Also check our list:
– Top ten used cars/SUVs with good gas mileage »
Research reliability ratings
The reliability is one of the most important factors to consider choosing a used car. Not all cars are built equally well. Some cars are proven to be very reliable; others are known for constant problems. Even within the same make and model, certain model years could have more problems. I did some research and selected a number of resources where you can check reliability ratings of different cars:
Consumer Reports is a one of the best sources for reliability ratings, but to access most of the features on their website, a paid subscription is required. However, you can check a printed copy of the Consumer Reports magazine at your local library.
MSN Autos is also useful when researching used cars. Follow menu ‘Car Research’, select a car you want and you will see the Reliability Rating on the right. Click it to see common problems.
J.D. Power and Associates – they offer new and used car ratings.
However, be aware, even most reliable model car won’t last long if not maintained properly. Check our used car reviews for common problems and reliability issues. Remember, any car or truck is a compromise: if it has a powerful engine, it won’t be good on gas or if it’s rated high for reliability, it won’t be cheap.
Look for a car that will hold its value well
New or Used
Don’t pay too much for a used car because when you decide to trade it in or sell it, it will worth a lot less. A perfect range to spend on a used car is $7,000-$13,000. Look for a vehicle that will hold its value better, so you can get something for it when you trade it in or sell it. Here are three real-life examples:
A while back, a friend of mine bought the 8-year old Toyota Corolla (in the photo) for $6,500. After four years of driving, he sold it for $3,500. This means that over four years, the car has lost only $3,000 in its value or $750 per year.
Another person I know bought a 5-year old Mercedes-Benz E-class for $25,000. After driving it for five years, he sold it for $6,500, which means the car has lost $18,500 of its value over five years, or $3,700 per year.
Another friend of mine bought a new Chrysler SUV for $48,000. After seven years, he traded it in for another vehicle. The dealer appraised his SUV’s trade-in value at $7,000, so his SUV has lost $41,000 of its value over seven years, which is just over $5,800 a year.
How do you find out whether the car will hold its value well or not? One way is to look up the retail or trade-in value of the current four-year old car of the same model. You can find the US trade-in values at NadaGuides. To find trade-in values in Canada, check CanadianBlackBook.com; follow Black Book Value menu.
Examples of cars that hold their value well: Toyota Matrix, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Acura TSX, Subaru Impreza.
Check safety ratings
There is no such thing as a perfectly safe car. However, some cars can protect you and your passengers better in case of a crash. You can check the crash test ratings for different cars at SaferCar.gov; the cars are rated with a five-star system where five stars is the highest rating and one star is the lowest. When looking at frontal crash ratings, only vehicles from the same weight class can be compared. Another important aspect of safety is the technology that can help you to avoid a crash, such as a Vehicle Stability Control or Antilock Braking System. This page at the Safecar.gov website allows you to check which models offer Electronic Stability Control. You can read more about this at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety website: Crash avoidance technology.
Research ownership costs
When you look through used car listings, often you can see used luxury cars like Mercedes-Benz or BMW advertised for the same price as a used Honda Civic or Hyundai Elantra. Is a used Mercedes-Benz or BMW a good deal? The advertised prices might be the same, but ownership costs will be much different. You probably already know that upscale cars like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo, Audi, Volkswagen, Acura and Lexus will cost you more in maintenance, parts and repairs. You will also probably have to pay more for the insurance; cost for fuel may also be different, as some luxury cars require premium gasoline. You can research ownership costs at Edmunds.com although they don’t provide data for older cars.
Car comparison tool
New or Used
If you want to decide between a few new and used vehicles, what can really help is a comparison tool where you can see the current prices, specification, gas mileage and warranty side by side. I found the comparison tool at the NadaGuides.com website to be very convenient. It allows you to compare up to four cars side by side, and what’s good about this tool, it allows you to compare new cars with used ones.
All cars with an internal combustion engine produce some amount of emissions as by-products of burning fuel in the engine, or from evaporation of the fuel itself. Modern cars produce a lot less harmful emissions than those from 60’s or 70’s. However, considering how many cars are on the road today, they are still a major source of air pollution. Different cars have different impacts on the environment; you can compare environmental scores of different cars at EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide.
Consider cost of insurance
The cost of insurance varies a lot depending on the make, year, model and even the color of the car, as well as driver’s experience and many other factors. Compare insurance quotes for different models before shopping.
Used car or new
New or Used
A new or used is a common first question for many car buyers. A new car is covered by the warranty and for a few years, you don’t have to worry about repairs and major maintenance items like tires or brakes. Buying a new car is a fun experience and it’s a great pleasure to drive off the dealer’s lot in a brand new vehicle. To sway you in their favor, car manufacturers often offer a zero-percent financing and throw some other incentives into the deal. What are the drawbacks of buying a new car then? If you easily can afford one, there are none. The reality is, however, that not everyone is that lucky, so the price is a major factor why many people opt for a ‘pre-loved’ vehicle instead. Whether a new car is sold with zero-percent financing, cash-back or any other incentives, you still can buy a used car a lot cheaper. Still not sure? Visit any car manufacturer’s website and try to build and price a new vehicle, selecting options and packages you need. Once you get the MSRP, add all other fees applicable in your state or province, such as a sales tax, financing charges, etc. Then try to search the Autotrader for a similar 3-4 year old used car – it will be a lot cheaper. A new car loses a lot of its value in the first year. A well-maintained 3-4 year old used car in good condition with good reliability ratings can last without major problems for at least another 3-4 years. If you worry about mechanical problems, you can buy an extended warranty. Of course, It takes some time to find a clean used car in good condition and you obviously need to have it inspected before buying. In addition, there won’t be zero-percent financing with a used car. Still, a used car will be cheaper. If it’s cheaper, it will be easier to pay it off without having to deal with lengthy contracts. Once you paid it off, if you want to sell it, you can sell it.
Choosing a first car
Of course your considerations may be different, but here is what I’d recommend to take into account when selecting a first car: First of all, a first car is probably going to be banged up a little bit here and there, so I wouldn’t recommend buying something expensive. You also probably want to consider something that is not too fast, as the reality is that power and inexperience is not a very good combination; the insurance companies are aware of this too. You probably want something safe, so good crash-test ratings are important. Features like the Antilock Brakes (ABS) and Stability Control can be very helpful in avoiding a crash. If you are thinking about a truck or SUV, the rollover rating should be considered; some older trucks and SUVs, especially those without a stability control system are easier to tip over. Read above where to check safety ratings.
A first car should be easy to drive and have good visibility. It’s also desirable that the first car or truck should be more or less reliable and easy to maintain. An example? I’d recommend something like the 2003-2007 Honda Accord with a 4-cylinder engine; it’s cheap on gas and for the most part reliable. It’s not too small and not too bulky. The 4-cylinder model is not too fast and the Accord has good crash-test ratings. This generation Accord also has the antilock brakes (ABS).
Finding a car for a tall driver
Finding a car for a tall driver is difficult, but not impossible. One way is to visit a large auto mall and try different cars. The other way is to look for the headroom and legroom specifications. The headroom is measured as a vertical distance from the bottom of the seat cushion to the headliner. If you are tall, you need to look for 38-40 inches of headroom. For example, the 2009 Toyota Matrix has 40.5 inches of headroom in the front, which is a lot; the 2008 Subaru Forester front headroom is specified at 39.8 inches, which is also very good. If you need good headroom in the back as well, look for the same range; for example, 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer has only 36.9 inches of headroom in the back, which means a tall person would have to lean down riding in the back of the Lancer. Similarly for the legroom: if you are tall, look for the legroom at closer to 40-inch range. For example, if the rear legroom is specified at only 36 inches, a 6’2″” person will probably have knees touching the back of the front seat.
Leather vs cloth seats
Leather seats feel colder in winter, although almost all cars with leather have heated front seats. The same story when you leave your car under the sun on a hot day: the leather will feel very hot to the touch, especially the dark-colored one. Cloth seats are more tolerable in cold or hot temperatures. On the flip side, cloth seats tend to absorb the smell. If you check several few-years old cars, the ones with cloth seats are more likely to have some smell inside. Leather seats are easier to clean, but any rough object can leave a mark or scratch. Beige, gray or any other light-colored leather will not age well, as creases and cracks will be more noticeable; dark leather will look better in an older car.
Automatic or manual transmission
An automatic transmission is obviously more convenient since it’s doing all the gear shifting for you and you have only two pedals to deal with. If you have to drive through stop-and-go traffic every day, an automatic transmission without questions is a better choice, as it’s exhausting to shift the stick every few seconds. It’s also easier to drive an automatic transmission when you have to start from a stop going up hill (although some newer cars with a manual transmission do have a hill start assist feature). However, an automatic transmission is more complex device than a manual. Although the reliability of automatic transmissions has been improved in recent years, automatic transmission problems are not uncommon and the repairs are expensive.
A manual transmission is more simple and tends to be more reliable. Cars with a manual transmission are usually less expensive and offer better acceleration. A manual transmission allows you to “”feel”” your car better and it’s just more fun to drive. Many (although not all) manual-transmission models offer better fuel economy. A manual transmission gives you more control over gear shifting, so if you want to drive in a more fuel-efficient way, it’s a lot easier to do with a manual transmission.
On one of the long trips in my 5-speed Honda Accord, I tried to shift gears earlier and drive more steadily to see if I can improve my fuel economy. I was easily able to get 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) out of the car that is rated at 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) on a highway.
A manual transmission may seem challenging for a beginner, but it’s really not that difficult to learn; many people I know learned to drive a manual quickly. Once you learned it, you will enjoy it. On the down side, the choice of cars with a manual transmission is often limited and it could be more difficult to sell a car with a manual transmission. In addition, a manual transmission has a clutch that may need to be replaced at some point.
4-cylinder versus 6-cylinder engine
A 4-cylinder engine is lighter and smaller and offers better fuel economy. A typical new passenger car with a 4-cylinder engine is less expensive than a V6 model and it costs less to own than a similar car with a V6. Modern 4-cylinder engines are much more reliable than in the old days and with proper maintenance can last very long.
On the other hand, a V6 engine is smoother and quieter. A 6-cylinder engine offers more power and more low-end torque that is important if you are using your vehicle for towing. A front-wheel drive vehicle with a heavier V6 will have slightly better traction on slippery roads than a same 4-cylinder vehicle with the same tires. This is because the added weight of the V6 over the drive wheels improves their traction.
In terms of problems and repairs, most of the 4-cylinder engines have a simple design with just one cylinder head, one intake and one exhaust manifold. A typical 4-cylinder engine has only one catalytic converter with two oxygen sensors.
A V6 engine has two cylinder heads, two exhaust manifolds and more complex intake manifold. A typical V6 engine has two catalytic converters and four oxygen sensors. Problems with oxygen sensors and catalytic converters are not uncommon and a catalytic converter is a very expensive part to replace.
A V6 engine also takes more space under the hood and is more difficult to work on, especially in a front-wheel drive car. For example, you can change the spark plugs in a typical 4-cylinder car in about half an hour, as all the spark plugs are usually easily accessible. In a front-wheel drive car with a V6 engine, it’s a lot more difficult job.
Considering all this, a 4-cylinder engine is a better choice for daily driving, unless you really need the extra power or other benefits of a V6. With all the technological advances, today’s 4-cylinder engines provide the best combination of fuel economy and power.
Considering a car with a diesel engine
A car with a diesel engine consumes a lot less fuel than the same car with a gasoline engine. For example, the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta with the 2.0L TDI turbo-diesel engine and an automatic DSG transmission is rated at 30/42 mpg city/highway (7.8/5.6 L/100 km), while the 2013 Jetta with the conventional 2.0L non-turbo gasoline engine and an automatic transmission is rated at 23/29 mpg (10.2/8.1 L/100 km). Diesel engines offer better low-end torque and modern technology has come a long way to make today’s diesels less noisy and smelly. However, a diesel engine is still not as quiet as a gasoline-powered one. Another issue, newer diesel cars have more complicated emission control systems.
Finding a car with seats high off the road
Answering the question from one of our readers: Is there a specification that measures the height of the front seats above the road? Unfortunately, car manufacturers don’t provide this type of specifications. One of the ways to estimate how high off the floor the front seats are is to compare the overall height (without roof rails) and front headroom, which is the distance between the seat cushion and the headliner. For example, the 2013 Honda Civic LX overall height is listed at 56.5 inches and the front headroom at 39 inches without sunroof, while the 2013 Toyota Matrix overall height is measured at 61 inches and the headroom is listed at 40.5 inches. Roughly, the distance between the roof of the car and the headliner is about 1.5 inches without the sunroof or about 2.5 inches with the sunroof. This means that the height off the road of the 2013 Honda Civic is roughly 56.5 – (39 + 1.5) = 16 inches. Calculating the same for the 2013 Toyota Matrix we get 61.0 – (40.5 + 1.5) = 19 inches. These are obviously not the precise numbers, but if you compare Honda Civic with Toyota Matrix, the Matrix front seats are definitely higher off the road.