You want to buy a car, but you have no idea where to start gathering information. (Me neither). Good thing we have a second post by Darius to help us learn these adult things:
You have your criteria set and you are confident you know what you want. Your time is precious and anything you do will have to be on the weekend or after work or sometime in between. That leaves you very little time to find the best fit for you. It can be done, though!! Believe me, I have had many cars in my life. So, here are some resources to help you whittle down where to look (and no…commercials on TV/Radio/Internet are NOT a resource):
Start with objectivity rather than subjectivity. Cars are primarily a subjective purchase. You feel a certain way about a car, which may make you forget the fact that it gets single digit fuel economy or folds up like an accordion in a crash. Start with your objective requirements before you start listening to your feelings.
Safety: This is usually high on anyone’s list of criteria. In order to get the most accurate information on crash results there are two organizations that crash cars specifically to rate and recommend improvements to manufacturers.
–NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Association – Federal Government)
–IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – private insurance companies)
These groups crash vehicles under various conditions, speed, and angles to measure the force of impact on the occupants and also to test the crash avoidance systems on the car that can help prevent a crash. Cars that have low ranks are not necessarily unsafe. Low ratings mean that there is a higher impact on the occupants which may lead to injury. A five star crash rating or Top Safety Pick means you should walk away from an impact and not be too sore afterward. A three star rating means you may bang your knee or hit your elbow on something in that same crash. (Obviously it depends on the crash, but you get the idea).
Quality/Reliability: Quality is thought to be an objective standard but can be manipulated into becoming a subjective standard, which is crazy because reliability is tied to quality. You think I’m wrong?! Next time you are near a VW dealership, jump in one. You look at the driver interface (the dash, steering wheel, and all the little buttons) and your impression is that it is a very high quality car. Truth is, it is one of the worst brands for quality. Would you think that Toyota is a higher quality brand than Lincoln?! You’d be wrong…they are the same.
So, how do you know which one is a good car? Well, there are a few resources out there that can help you. These sources gather reported data from service shops around the country and compile them for use. JD Power & Associates is a great resource to use! Be careful, though…there are two different indices they publish on car quality. There is the Initial Quality Index (assessed after 90 days of ownership) and the Vehicle Dependability Index (4 years of ownership). Being number one in Initial Quality is pretty useless because all cars should still be like new after three months.
Consumer Reports is another [newly] reputable resource. For many years, their car quality research was outsourced to New York Media Group and not internally like they are now. New York Media Group’s primary fleet was Toyota. Hmmm…??!! But this has changed so now Consumer Reports should be reliable.
Remember about all of these quality indices: they are only accurate if owners take their cars in for repair when they are broken. How many times have you seen a car owner drive and drive and drive with their ‘check engine light’ on? If there is a problem with that car, no one will be able to record it until it gets taken to a shop for repair.
Fuel Economy: Who do you believe when it comes to fuel economy? On the sticker of every new car is a number called the ‘real world average’. What does that mean? Well, Americans are lead footed and we tend to drive very aggressively. It takes a lot of energy to drive aggressively and as a result, fuel economy suffers. A car can get 42 mpg but that doesn’t mean it does under real world conditions. The Department of Energy looked at all the factors that impact fuel ratings and created testing procedures to bring you the real world average, which is more accurate than any other number. Also remember, individual results vary. You may drive like you are trying to outrun zombies or like a grandmother on a Sunday jaunt. Here is an example of the DoE’s label.
If you are an electric vehicle (EV) owner, like me, then you will have an equivalent MPG (eMPG) number. My car gets 96 eMPG. Here is the label for an EV.
Price: If you are buying a new car, ask for the invoice when buying. The salesman, manager, and dealer owner will resist you! Be ready. A car dealer is a middle man looking to make a buck. They are not your friends and they are not car experts. They buy cars from an auto maker, mark the price up to whatever they want, and then try to sell it to you. What they say, most times, has been said to make you buy the car. End of story.
Your only reprieve is if you buy direct from an automaker. I believe Tesla Motors is the only company you are currently able to buy directly from.
If you are buying used (which is a great way to buy your first…second…third car(s)) then use these resources for pricing: Kelly Blue Book, and NADA Guide. For many years, I bought used cars from Carmax. Carmax is pretty low pressure, they have really great cars available, and the prices are set on blue book values. Check them out.