Sunday, October 30, 2011

Which Car Should I Buy?

I was sitting with a friend of mine last night talking about the new cars she's considering buying to replace her 10-year-old Toyota Avalon. She's looking at midsized sedans, so she's already considered the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat, and a few others. I suggested she add a new Korean products - the Kia Optima -- (pictured) to her list, although she wasn't that impressed with it's cousin, the Hyundai Sonata. She's narrowing it down pretty well, having already weeded out several candidates.

Makes you wonder what people really want in a car and how they decide. Here are some things to consider:

Do you need to carry other people? How many?
Be sure you have enough seats so that everybody has a seatbelt. If you need a minivan, get one. They offer all the style, comfort and features of cars now. SUVs and crossovers (tall station wagons) do too, but they may be less fuel efficient, depending on model.

Do you need to haul a lot of stuff ? Any specific oversized objects?
For seriously heavy and dirty stuff, buy a pickup, but many SUVs can handle loads too. If your cargo is, say a large musical instrument, one of today's hatchbacks may surprisingly do the job. I've fit an upright bass in a MINI Cooper and the Honda CR-Z two-seater.

Do you ski or plan on going off road?
You can get all-wheel-drive (it works automatically) in many cars. I especially recommend Audis (luxury) and Subarus (more modestly priced). For serious rock climbing, the Jeep Wrangler is ideal, but for most of us, traction is what it's about. Don't buy a giant SUV if you can do fine with a four-wheel-drive sedan or wagon.

How much do you have to spend?
You can get a new car for 11 or 12 thousand dollars today, but you want to be sure you have what you need in it. Don't suffer with roll-up windows or a crummy stereo if you can afford it. Also, consider a two- or three-year-old low-mileage used car to save some cash. I've found that $18,000 seems to be the place where some nice features come included in a new car. The current crop of economy hatchbacks and sedans are well made, comfortable and plenty powerful out on the highway, including small cars like the all-new Hyundai Accent and Toyota Yaris.

How long do you plan to keep the car?
If you plan to trade in three years, you want to be sure that the resale value of your car remains as high as possible. That indicates sticking to cars that hold value, including most Toyotas and Hondas, for example. Do some research online to find out. Leasing can save you money and offer a lower initial payment in a three-year period. If you want to keep it a long time, buy the car--don't lease and then buy it. That will cost you more and take forever to pay off. If you plan to keep it a long time, be sure you really like the car and that it will accommodate any changes you may expect (babies?)

New or used?
With a new car, you are not inheriting anyone else's problems and you get that "new car smell." That could enhance your pride and pleasure of ownership, but it will usually mean spending more money. I suggest staying away from any used car over three or four years old or with unusually high mileage (25,000 miles a year). In California, certainly, a used car should look new at two or three years old with no snow or road salt to corrode it. Some cars depreciate so little (example: MINIs) that it's almost not worth buying one that's two years old.

Do you care where your car is made?
This can be tricky. Is it the brand that you're concerned about or the factory location? Toyotas are built in Kentucky and Fords are made in Mexico. The American-built Japanese and Korean brand cars seem to be of high quality and are using 80 percent or higher domestic parts now, so they are essentially American. You can check the label in the car, too. I suggest buying what you like, regardless of brand, but you have a choice, and today's American cars, such as the Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion, are now very nice and reliable.

What features do you want?
Be sure you get those heated seats or satellite radio if you want them. The first time you use them you'll be glad you didn't skimp. But you don't need to have everything on the options list. Don't worry about the cold start package if you live in Los Angeles. You can still order a car exactly the way you want if you're willing to wait.

Manual or automatic transmission?
Most cars sold in the U.S. are automatics--we seem to like them better than the Europeans. Fuel economy is no longer an issue--some automatics are actually better, but they may cost more. If you're looking for a manual transmission you may be in for a long search (BMW and Mazda can help you, and some bottom-of-the-market vehicles still offer it--on the entry model).

How many miles do you drive typically in a day? Do you ever need to travel long distances?
This question is especially important if you're considering one of the new electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf. If you drive 75 or fewer miles a day you may find the limited range of an electric car (for now) to be no problem. But if you finish your daily commute and then want to head from San Francisco to Los Angeles, your electric won't be able to do it yet. Regardless of powertrain, if you drive a lot be sure your car's seats have a wide range of adjustment and are absolutely comfortable from the start (and get a good audio system).

Is the highest possible fuel economy your goal? Do you want the lowest possible emissions?
The two-word answer to this question is either Toyota Prius (hybrid) or Nissan Leaf (electric--see above for a caveat). Because the Prius recharges its battery as you drive it, and can run part of the time in electric-only mode, it beats other types of hybrids, such as Honda's, which use the electric motor to supplement the gas engine, which is always running (except at stops). Priuses (Prii?) have top ratings in the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide. Of course, the Leaf uses zero gas, but the electricity it consumes is generated somewhere, and that could be a coal-powered plant. There's no free lunch.

There are more questions, but that's the heart of it. I always encourage people to be sure their new vehicle can do what they need it to do, but otherwise I recommend getting no more car than what they really need, for economical as well as environmental reason.

There's always the emotional side--you can't ignore it. It may very well motivate many, or even most purchases, but you can't let that be the sole determiner of what you drive home or you could end up with a Corvette in the driveways and three kids. I've actually experienced that and it's no fun (for the kids, certainly!).

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