Choosing the right car: Top tips

Article James Richardson
Nov 13, 2015

Take your time and don’t let your heart rule your head. Here’s our advice on how to choose your next car.

Choosing your next car – be it used or new – is both an exciting and confusing business. You might get carried away and end up buying a car that you can’t really afford.

Staying focused on what you need – as opposed to what you want – from a car is vital at this stage. And so is setting yourself a realistic budget – and sticking to it. Make a shortlist of cars that fit your requirements and from that, choose the one that suits you the best. Read on to find out more…

Do your research

It may sound obvious, but doing some homework can make the difference between buying exactly the car you want and ending up with a complete duffer. Even if you’ve got a specific car in mind, it's worth researching alternatives, as they may suit your needs better. 

For instance, if you’re after a compact executive saloon and fancy a BMW 3 Series (we certainly wouldn’t blame you for doing so) it's still worth looking at alternatives like the Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class Lexus IS and Jaguar XE

It would also be worth looking at slightly less upmarket rivals such as the Volkswagen Passat, Ford Mondeo, or even the Skoda Superb. Handily, all Carbuyer reviews come with a list of alternatives for each car.

If you know what kind of car you’re after – be it a supermini, family hatchback, estate or SUV for example – but don’t know which model to go for, then it's a good idea to check out our Best Cars articles, which outline our top 10 models in each class.

Work out what's essential

We all have different priorities when it comes to our cars. For example, if styling is more important to you than anything else, then you should be able to decide on a car pretty quickly. If, however, running costs, price and equipment levels are more important, then you may need to do a little more homework. 

Each Carbuyer review has a ‘Prices & Specs’ tab on it and clicking on this will bring up all the different version of a car, including its different engines and trim levels. It also includes technical information such as power, performance, fuel economy and CO2 emissions. You’ll also find useful information such as boot space, road tax bands, standard equipment for each trim level and the car's insurance group. 

Have a look at the standard equipment on all the models you’re interested in and find which ones offer most of what you need. If certain pieces of kit are vital – such as sat nav, air-conditioning or parking sensors – then we’d advise going for the car that has these as standard, rather than on its options list.

How are you going to pay?

There are a variety of ways to pay for your new car. You can either pay for the whole thing up front or, more likely, use finance. If you’re paying up front, then you can be fairly confident of how much you’ll need – the list price, minus a bit for haggling.

If, however, you choose finance, then setting a budget will be more complicated. Check out our ‘how to buy a car on finance’ article for more information on the different packages available. Most manufacturers’ websites give typical examples of the available finance products for each model. This will give you an idea of what to budget for each month.

Using finance means you don’t have to come up with anywhere near as much money up front as paying in one go, but you’ll still probably need to pay a deposit. The larger the amount you put down, the lower your monthly payments are likely to be. 

Don’t forget that you’ll usually be able to use the trade-in value of your current car (if you’ve got one) for at least part of your deposit. You’ll also have to pay a set fee every month, while there may be a final ‘balloon’ payment if you want to take full ownership of the car at the end of the term.

New or used?

This is one of the biggest choices you’ll make when deciding on your next car. Buying new has plenty of advantages. For example, you can choose the exact specification and colour of your car. You can also be more confident of its mechanical condition and, even if it does break down, repair work will be covered by the manufacturer's warranty. 

However, the elephant in the room when it comes to buying a new car is depreciation. This is probably the biggest cost most car buyers face, but it's frequently ignored. It's not uncommon for a car to lose more than half its value in the first three years of its life, so it's vital to take this into consideration.

You’re much less likely to have this issue if you buy used. Plenty of dealers will offer ‘ex-demonstrators’ – cars that have been used for test drives by the public – that have just a couple of hundred miles on the clock and will be in good condition, too. You’ll get a good discount on these, but the choice will be limited. 

Buying a car that's between one and three years old will be cheaper still. You’ll get a bigger, better equipped car for your money than if you bought new, or you can get an older version of the car you were originally after for much less cash. And buying used doesn’t mean sacrificing peace of mind, either. Toyota and Hyundai both offer five-year warranties, while Kia's lasts for seven years, so a used car from one of these brands is likely to have some cover left.

What are the running costs?

It's vital to take into account how much the car will cost to run when you’re setting your budget. This includes things like how fuel-efficient it is and how much it’ll cost in road tax or company car tax each year, which is determined by its CO2 emissions.

You have to get the car serviced every year, too – this is a condition of most manufacturer warranties – and you may be able to buy a service plan that will cover maintenance for a certain period of time or number of miles. If this isn’t possible, call up some local dealers and see how much it’ll cost to get the car you’re interested in serviced for the first three years. 

As mentioned before, it's important to remember depreciation, too – especially with new cars. You can check most cars’ likely value in a few years time with used-car pricing experts such as Glass's Guide ( or CAP (

Make a shortlist and test-drive them

Once you’ve picked your favourite three or four models suited to your needs, take them for a test drive.

It's imperative that you test the exact model you’re after – different engine and gearbox combinations can completely alter the way a car drives. Also try to ensure the car you’re testing has at least some of the equipment you’re after. Things like sat nav can vary hugely from car to car, so it's important to try them out before you buy.

Always try to take the car on a route of your choosing (not the dealer's) that takes in the types of driving you typically do – whether it's urban streets, country roads or the motorway. Also, take along a few things you often carry in the car. If you’re a parent, for example, bring your child seats and buggy to make sure you can get them in and out easily. Also take your kids with you to see how they like it! 

It's also important not to let the salesman distract you with small talk. Concentrate on the car, how it drives and how easy its features are to use. Also, make sure you test-drive all your contenders within a short period of time and in similar conditions – this makes it much easier to draw comparisons.

Get haggling

Finally, once you’ve chosen your favourite car, negotiate with the dealer to get a good deal. For more information on how to do this, check out our ‘how to negotiate a car price’ article. This has loads of great ideas on how to save hundreds on the ‘sticker price’. Happy hunting!


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