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Deciding which car is right for you

How do you know which car is right for you?  As with any major financial purchase, you should think about how much you can afford, and what the most important features are in a new or used vehicle.

If you walk in without an idea of your budget and your needs, you may find yourself believing the salesman when he says a luxury model with heated seats is absolutely essential, when it’s not at all what you need.

Start by asking yourself a lot of questions about why you need a car and what you will be using it for. If you’re driving 100 miles a day to get to and from your job, you might want a very small car with good gas mileage. If you need a car to drive your family, you might choose something very different.

Prioritize what is most important, and use that information to launch a search for the best vehicles for you. Use these questions to help you think through the major vehicle issues:

  • How important is safety? While a safe car is vital for every driver, it plays a greater role if you’re driving with children or buying a car for a newly-licensed driver. Cars with better safety features usually carry lower insurance rates as well. You can find safety ratings on most vehicles while shopping around, but take a look at The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to find safety analyses.
  • How much space do you need? Think of everyday driving situations and how many people would need seats in your car. What kind of special circumstances would require more space and how frequently would that happen? Would you need to regularly haul work supplies, pack the family up for long trips or squeeze in loads of camping gear?
  • How long will you own it? A well-maintained car should last around 200,000 miles, according to Consumer Reports, which has comprehensive ratings of car durability. So if you want to own the car for many years to come, think about where you will be in life five to ten years down the road. Will you have kids? Will your commute change?
  • What are the conditions the car will be in? Do you live in a cold weather climate? Will the car be left outside or do you have a garage for it?
  • How will you use your car? Do you drive frequently on the highway or in the city? Are you driving all day or just running to the store from time to time?
  • How important is fuel economy? With gas prices hitting the $4/gallon mark regularly, a fuel-efficient car can mean steady long-term savings, especially if you plan to put a lot of miles on your car. Hybrids can offer the greatest fuel-efficiency and most don’t need to be plugged in. If you’re looking at electric or a plug-in hybrid, make sure you have the ability to charge it somewhere safe. While this may save you a few hundred dollars a year on gas, if you have to replace the battery on a hybrid or electric vehicle, you could spend thousands of dollars. Be sure to price out hybrid and electric car batteries before agreeing to buy this sort of vehicle.
  • Where are you driving? Do you drive up big hills and gravel roads, or flat, smooth streets? Will you have to battle winter storms or will warm temperatures let you regularly roll your windows down?
  • What kind of features do you need? Do you need a place to plug in your iPod, or will a CD player do just fine? Do you need collapsible seats for quick storage-to-seating? Would automatic doors be a good option on your minivan? Identify which features you would like and how important they are.
  • Where will you park? If you have a garage, will your new car fit? If you rely on street parking, is it difficult to find spots? It will be a lot harder with a big SUV than a compact two-door vehicle.

Find the right car with the right features, and then find a back-up model. Look for something with a similar make, similar driving and crash survival statistics and similar pricing. There’s really not a huge difference between a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Taurus. Having options will give also you an advantage when going to a dealer, because you’re not locking yourself into one specific vehicle.