How to decide which car to buy

Article James Richardson Hugo Griffiths
Apr 19, 2016

Choosing which car to buy is an involved process. Our top tips help you answer the age-old question of ‘what car is right for me?’

Knowing how to choose a car can be a complex business. With over 50 carmakers vying for your business and hundreds of models on the market, finding the right car for you can sometimes seem like an insurmountable task, made all the more difficult by the amount of money at stake.

Fear not, though. Whether you’re buying new or used, our experts have put their heads together to come up with the definitive guide on how to choose a car.

In fact, helping you find the right car is what we’re all about. With that in mind, you’ll find all sorts of useful links here to more detailed articles on subjects like car insurance, road tax, warranties and more.

New or used?

This is probably the first decision you need to make. Buying a new car is obviously an enticing prospect: you get to be the first owner, plus you can tailor options, colour and engine specification exactly to your tastes. You’ll also get the reassurance implicit in a cast-iron manufacturer's warranty, which should last for a minimum of three years. Main dealers also offer fixed-price servicing packages, and these can make budgeting for car maintenance far easier.

Depreciation is a new car's biggest enemy: as soon as you drive out of the showroom, your car will be considered ‘used’ and lose value; in the very worst cases it could lose almost 80% of its value over three years. Our guide to the slowest depreciating cars on the market should help you avoid this extreme scenario, though.

Because of the value brand new cars lose in depreciation; it is worth at least considering a used car. Many dealers’ ‘approved’ used cars are almost as good as new and – while you’re unlikely to find the exact specification you want – there are significant savings to be made. Unless you’re buying an older second-hand car, you should also expect some kind of warranty, and aftermarket policies can offer extra peace of mind – though be sure to check what is and isn’t covered. Used cars that are between one and three years old can offer serious savings together with some remaining manufacturer's warranty, while pre-registered cars offer something of a halfway house between the new and used market.

Petrol or diesel?

What fuel you want your new car to run on should be the next aspect of your purchase to think about. While some cars are only available as diesels, such as the BMW X3, most manufacturers offer petrol and diesel engines, while hybrid models are becoming increasingly common and can be a good choice, particularly if you do a lot of town driving.

As a rule of thumb, if you cover fewer than 12,000 miles a year, a petrol engine is best. Diesel cars cost more to buy than their petrol counterparts, and you’ll need to cover quite a lot of miles to make up the difference in fuel savings. Do bear in mind that the used-car market values some petrol-engined cars (particularly SUVs) less favourably than their diesel counterparts, as used buyers are often put off by the fuel economy and road tax incurred by larger petrol engines.

You should also consider the type of journeys you’ll be doing in the car. If you mainly do short trips, a diesel is probably not for you, as diesel engines need to be run at speed regularly to burn off soot that collects in the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF). If you don’t give a diesel engine the chance to do this from time to time, you could find yourself with a blocked DPF and a big repair bill.

Decide on a body style

If you were buying a car a two or three decades ago, this choice was simple; if you didn’t cover that many miles you bought a hatchback, an estate was for those who needed to carry large loads regularly, while everyone else drove a saloon.

Today, carmakers often seem to offer cars designed around a ‘lifestyle’, and this is no bad thing: four-wheel-drive cars were once the preserve of farmers and inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands, but crossovers like the Nissan Qashqai and Renault Kadjar have redefined SUVs and hatchbacks simultaneously, and made life easier for hundreds of thousands of people in the process. Models like the Mercedes CLS, meanwhile, blend coupe looks and saloon practicality to great effect, and it's even possible to buy a soft-top SUV in the shape of the Range Rover Evoque Convertible.

We like to keep things simple, and classify each of the cars we review into nine different categories, from tiny micro cars right up to estates and MPV people carriers. Our helpful Car Finder tool will help you narrow your search.

When you’re deciding what car to buy, keep in mind roughly what size and shape car you want, but be prepared to look up and down in terms of size and body style. If you’re after a traditional hatchback like the Volkswagen Golf, for instance, would the extra space available in a similarly priced Skoda Yeti SUV be useful, or is all that extra room just going to go to waste?

It's a similar story with brands: be prepared to consider manufacturers you might once have thought of as too luxurious, as well as brands which might previously have been dismissed for seeming too ‘budget’.

Consider the Volkswagen Jetta saloon, for example. It's a perfectly decent car that's priced similarly to its sister model, the Golf. A well-equipped Jetta, however, is about the same price as an entry-level BMW 3 Series, which is traditionally considered a far more desirable car, and one that's much better to drive.

Similarly, if you’re in the market for a car like the BMW 3 Series, it's worth considering direct rivals like the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class, as well as models from less prestigious manufacturers, such as the Ford Mondeo, Volkswagen Passat and Skoda Superb. These cars may not have the same badge appeal as a BMW, but you’ll get a great car with more equipment and a more powerful engine if it's a compromise you’re willing to make.

Whichever kind of car you’re in the market for, our series of articles detailing the Best Cars you can buy breaks them down according to body style, while also featuring recommendations based on what you’re going to need the car for – be it towing, avoiding the London Congestion Charge, and more. When you’re reading any of our car reviews, be sure to look at the right-hand sidebar, as here you’ll find other cars you may want to consider – including less obvious alternatives – which might just fit the bill perfectly.

Work out what's essential

If you’ve got a rough idea of the size and shape of car you’re after, think carefully about what you use it for. If you have small children, a crossover SUV is a good bet, as the raised ride height makes getting kids and their seats into the car much easier. If you’re keen on DIY, carrying capacity may be important – but look out for cars that have easy-to-fold rear seats that lie flat when dropped. This is something we’ll always point out in our reviews.

If you need your car to have certain features, such as sat-nav, parking sensors and leather seats, try to go for a trim level that includes them all together, as this is usually better value than adding items individually as options. Specifying a new car's options car can be a tricky business; use our guide on this subject for some help.

Each of our Carbuyer reviews has a ‘Prices & Specs’ tab, and clicking this brings up all the different versions of a car, including engine choices and trim levels. It also includes technical information such as power and performance figures, as well as fuel economy and CO2 emissions data. We also list useful information about boot space, road tax bands and each trim's standard equipment, so whether you prioritise performance, economy, levels of equipment or a combination of all three, ‘Prices & Specs’ gives you all the information you need at your fingertips.

How are you going to pay?

With over 75% of new cars bought using some form of finance, and dealers encouraged to sell cars via this method, cash is not necessarily king, and you’re as likely to get a discount or deal by buying a car on finance.

We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to buying a car using finance, as well as specific guides to PCP deals, Hire Purchase agreements and Personal Contract Hire. If you’re using one of these methods to pay for a car, keep an eye on the total price as well as the monthly repayments; an optional extra may not seem that expensive on a monthly basis, but it's easy to lose sight of the true cost of options, and you may not get your money back when it's time to sell your car or trade it in.

Also look closely at the final settlement figure involved in a lot of finance deals. This is known as the ‘balloon payment’ because it's much bigger than the monthly payments; if your package involves a balloon payment, you won’t own the car outright until it's made, so make sure you’re happy and able to pay this if you want to take ownership of the car, rather than trade it in, at the end of the deal.

Taking out a GAP insurance policy when buying via finance is also a good idea as, if you’re unlucky enough to write off your car, you could find yourself seriously out of pocket, adding insult to injury.

If you’re trading in an old car as part of the buying process, find out how much it's worth before you go shopping for a new car to be sure the dealer gives you a fair price. Glass's Guide is a great price to do this, as it's where a lot of dealers get their trade-in values.

What are the running costs?

It's tempting to stretch yourself as far as you can when setting a budget for a new car, and monthly repayments can be tantalisingly low – even for upmarket models. Be sure to bear in mind, however, that running costs are easily dismissed at the buying stage, and excessive fuel consumption or insurance premiums could leave you resenting your car.

While changes to how road tax is calculated are looming on the horizon, CO2 emissions will continue to play a part in how much you have to pay each year, and it's worth looking at these closely. If you’re a company car driver, CO2 emissions will also affect how much Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) tax you pay, so be sure to take this into consideration too.

Fuel economy obviously needs to be taken into account. While manufacturers’ official figures are often hard to match in the real world, they serve as a useful yardstick when comparing cars. Keep an eye on the trip computer during any test drive for a more realistic economy figure, and ask the dealer to show you how to access this information if you’re unsure. If economy is important to you, our guide to the most economical cars on sale today is well worth reading.

Don’t forget to get some insurance quotes for any car you’re thinking of buying, as some models can cost significantly more to insure than others. If you’re a young driver, it may be worth looking at a ‘black box’ insurance policy, and be sure to check out our guide to the best first cars.

Make a shortlist of cars and test-drive them

Once you’ve narrowed down your search to two or three models, it's time to pick up the phone and book some test-drives.

If you know what engine and specification you want your car to have, try to test a model that's as similar as possible. This is well worth doing; while it may mean you’ll have to wait for the dealer to get the right car delivered, different engine and gearbox combinations can completely alter the way a car drives, as can options like sports suspension and large alloy wheels. If you’re after sat-nav or in-car tech features like Bluetooth phone connectivity, check how well these work, as some systems are far superior to others.

If you’re buying a car for the family, take your partner and children along with you to see how they like the car. They may spot problems that you hadn’t considered, such as poor interior storage space or uncomfortable rear seats. It's also a good idea to bring along any bulky items – such as children's buggies or golf clubs – that you regularly carry, to see how well these fit in the boot.

On the test drive, be sure to drive along a variety of roads, from dual carriageways to twisty back roads. This will help you make a fuller assessment of the way the car handles. Some dealers may let you borrow a car over the weekend, and this can be helpful – though make sure you don’t become too attached to it, as maintaining a clear, objective approach is key. Our in-depth guide to test drives has more information.

The key focus of any test drive, obviously, is the car itself – so don’t let the salesman distract you with small talk too much – though it pays to be polite if you want to strike a good deal! Speaking of which…

Get haggling

Once you’ve decided on which car to buy, it's time to agree on a price. Some dealers are more open to haggling than others, but do phone round their competitors to see what offers are available elsewhere, and don’t be afraid to share this information with the salesman; they want your business, after all. Our guide on negotiating a great price for your new car has more information.

If the car you’re after is a particularly new or in-demand model, discounts are likely to be rare. You should – at the very least – be able to get a set of car mats and tank of fuel thrown in, though.

Deciding which car to buy is an involved process, and many people try to get behind the wheel as soon as possible. Bear in mind, though, that time invested in finding the right car should pay dividends during the time you own it. Happy hunting!

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