Buying a car is a lot like dating. So many pre-conceived notions go into the transaction that it’s hard to know if you’re making a decision with your head or your heart. Probably it’s some combination of the two, but you’d need years of analysis to know how it breaks down. My guess is that, unfortunately, it’s the heart that can lead to bad car-buying choices. So consider these six simple rules for buying a car before signing your life and future earnings away to the local dealer.
This is a good time to buy a leftover, by the way, because there's a bunch of anxious dealers with inventory on the lot. Click here for some good choices, such as the 2012 Honda Accord (which is making way for the all-new '13).
Buy for everyday use. This is the most un-romantic notion possible, but it makes sense. Don’t think of your car as transportation for that once-in-a-lifetime outback vacation (where only four-wheel drive and luck will take you) but as essential gear for that daily slog to the office. Only 10 percent of off-road-capable SUVs ever go off-road, and they’re wasting gas the rest of the time. A hybrid makes sense if you do mostly around-town driving; interstate commuters are better off with a 40-mpg highway econo-box.
Engine bottom lines. These days, hard-working four-cylinder motors with direct injection and, often, turbocharging, deliver exactly the same horsepower and torque as yesterday’s larger-displacement V-6. Even truck buyers are going for fours, without losing hauling or towing power. And the V-8 is headed for museums, despite what the power-crazed car magazines say. Their test cars come full of gas — you have to pay $4 a gallon at the pump. At an Audi event I just heard how they managed to squeeze 75 more horsepower out of the new S8 V-8 compared to the old V-10, and with better fuel economy too.
Picking a package. The game is rigged here. You may want only the upgraded stereo, but Capitalist Motors is going to make you buy the $4,000 King of the Road package, which also adds a bunch of unneeded frills, like rear-view cameras (objects are much closer than they appear on the screen). Now you’re a long way from that attractive price in the ad. This is the updated version of the basic dealer scam, getting you to pay for undercoating and Scotchguard. Cable TV works this way — all I wanted was HBO on Demand, and now I’m paying $100 a month for channels I’ve never once watched. Chances are, buying basic is good enough — you get a stereo and air-conditioning anyway. (Which reminds me, I need to go back to basic cable.)
Forget brand loyalty. Some wax nostalgic for the good ol' days of the confirmed “Ford man” and Chevy die-hard. Screw that. Buy the best car for the job, and that’s going to change year to year. And don’t be afraid to buy a car made in Mexico, Korea or wherever. Today’s cars are truly international, so even a flag-draped Big Three vehicle is going to have lots of foreign parts and/or foreign assembly. If you’ve never considered a Hyundai or Kia, think again. I predict that the car buyer of 2020 will be buying Chinese without a second thought.
Consider a used car. Automakers love the big spender with a new vehicle in the driveway every couple of years, but what a bath that poor sap is taking financially. The typical luxury car drops precipitously in value as soon as it’s out the showroom door. Cars today are good for 200,000 miles — they don’t rust, and they don’t usually need expensive engine rebuilds. In the market for a hybrid or compact car? Now it’s time to buy new, because they hold their value really well. My local Honda dealer keeps calling, trying to buy my 2007 Fit because they’re really in demand. When I do decide to replace it, I’ll buy a new one. But when it came to finding a Jaguar for my stepfather, used was the only way to go.
Buy electric? It depends. Early adopters and true blue greens have already taken the plunge, but what about you? I’d say the ideal buyer for battery electrics such as the Nissan Leaf right now lives in California, drives 20 miles to work where there’s public charging, and has a back-up vehicle for longer trips. That ideal Californian benefits from a $7,500 federal income tax credit, plus a $2,500 state rebate, and gets to use the HOV lanes in congested city driving. For plug-in hybrids with plenty of range, all those same benefits are checked, and there’s a wider spectrum of sensible buyers. The Ford Taurus Limited test car I drove recently cost as much as the Chevy Volt, without an eventual payback.
If you did end up with the wrong car, don't worry too much. Choosing a new vehicle is a lot easier than trading in a husband or wife. For a bit more dealership savvy, here's a video on how car guys get you coming and going on financing the vehicle: