How to choose the right car

Oct 15, 2013

Don't let your heart rule your head! Follow our advice and choose the right car for you

Choosing a new car is an exciting process, but it can be all too easy to get overwhelmed by the choice on offer or get carried away and spend more than you meant to – or, even worse, spend more than you can afford.

It's important to stay focused on what you need from a car, as opposed to what you want, and to have a realistic budget in mind – and to stick to it. It's also worth creating a shortlist of several cars that you’re interested in before settling on ‘the one’ – here's how to do just that:

Do some research

You probably already have some idea of what type of car you want or need, you may even have a specific model in mind, but it's worth doing some research into some of the alternatives.

For example, if you’re looking for a family hatchback and like the look of the Ford Focus, it's worth checking out some of its rivals, like the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda 3. CarBuyer makes this easy by providing a list of similar cars to the right of every review under the heading “Also consider”.

If you know the type of car you want – a supermini, estate or an SUV, for example – but aren’t sure which models to start researching, check out our series of Best Cars articles. These list the top ten models in each class of car.

Work out what's essential

If the most important thing to you is how a car looks, then you’ll be able to judge for yourself fairly easily which models make your shortlist. But other attributes – such as running costs, space or speed – can require a bit more research. CarBuyer provides the important facts on every model.

If you click on the “Prices & Specs” tab at the top of a car review, it’ll bring up a list of all the different versions of that car. You’ll be able to see the different engines and specification levels available, as well as each version's price, fuel type, economy and 0-62mph time. Click on a specific version and CarBuyer will show you even more detail, such as the CO2 emissions, tax band, insurance group, the size of the boot and the equipment list.

Spend a bit of time investigating each model to find which ones offer the most of what you need. If certain items of equipment are essential for you – such as a built-in sat-nav, air conditioning or parking sensors – then check whether they are included as standard or if you have to pay extra to have them included.

How will you pay?

If you plan on paying for the car up front, then you’ll already know how much you can afford to pay – and picking a car within your price range is as simple as checking the list price and factoring in a bit of haggling.

If you plan to pay on finance, setting a budget is a little more complicated. Take a look at our how to buy a car on finance guide for more information on the type of products available. Most manufacturer websites provide examples of finance plans for each model in their range, so you’ll be able to get an idea of how much it's likely to cost.

If you’re buying a car on finance, you won’t need to pay anywhere near as much money up front, but you will still need to pay a deposit, which is likely to be several thousand pounds, plus monthly payments for the duration of the contract. There may also be an optional final payment to take into account.

New or used?

Buying a brand new car has a lot of benefits – you can pick the exact colour and specification you want, you can be pretty sure that a new vehicle is unlikely to develop any faults in the first few years and that even if it does it’ll be covered by a full warranty, and you get the pleasure of knowing you’re the first owner.

But there is a big downside, too, and that's depreciation. A car's value decreases as it gets older, and the majority of its value is lost in the first three years. Some models can end up being worth a lot less than half their original price after three years.

Buying a second hand car can help you dodge some of the worst effects of depreciation. Many dealers will offer what are known as “ex demonstrators”, which are nearly new cars with just a couple of hundred miles on the clock that have been used by showrooms for test drives. These are typically offered at a big discount.

Buy a car that's one to three-years old and it’ll be even cheaper, meaning you can get more equipment, a bigger model or a faster engine for your money. And you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice peace of mind when buying a used car. Some manufacturers, like Toyota and Hyundai, offer a five-year warranty – meaning you could buy a two-year-old model and still have three years’ of cover, which is the standard length for most new cars. Kia offers a seven-year warranty, meaning you could buy a four-year-old car and still have three years’ of the guarantee left.

Work out the running costs

When calculating your budget, don’t forget to factor in how much it will actually cost to run the car. The most obvious statistic to think about is the car's miles per gallon figure. Estimate your annual mileage and work out how much it will cost in fuel to run the car.

There's also road tax to think about – you can see how much that will cost you each year by looking at the “Prices & Specs” tab for each model and clicking through to a specific variant. And you can check the cost of insurance by running the car's details through an insurance comparison site.

You’ll need to get the car serviced each year, too. Some manufacturers offer service plans with an up front cost that covers you for three years or 30,000 miles – they’re well worth taking advantage of, so check their websites to see if any are available. If not, call a couple of local dealers and ask them how much the first three services will cost for the model you’re interested in.

Finally, if you’re planning on changing the car in three to five years, don’t forget about depreciation. If you’re likely to keep hold of the car for longer than that, then it's not such a big deal, but otherwise you can check depreciation figures at or

Choose a shortlist and take each one for a test drive

Once you’ve picked a shortlist of three or four cars that meet your needs, are priced within budget and won’t break the bank to run, it's time to take each one for a test drive to work out which one you like best.

Make sure you test drive the exact model you want – it needs to have the same engine and gearbox as the car you want to buy so you can accurately judge it. If you consider any equipment to be vital – like a sat-nav or parking sensors – make sure the car has that, too, so you can try it out on the drive.

Call around some dealers before making a visit to check they have the right model available for a test. And don’t accept a test drive in a car that's different to the one you want to buy – an unscrupulous dealer might try to hide the fact that the model you want has a dodgy automatic gearbox by persuading you to take a test drive in a version with a manual gearbox, for example.

Plan your test drive route beforehand and pick one that reflects the kind of driving you’ll be doing. If you’re going to be doing a lot of motorway driving, for example, make sure you try it out on a motorway!

Don’t let the salesperson distract you with small talk – focus on testing the car and making sure you like it. If you have any questions, you can always ask them at the end of the test.

And, finally, if possible, try to test as many cars on the same day – as it will make it easier to compare them and work out which one you like best.

Get haggling

Once you know which car is for you, there is only one thing left to do – start haggling for a great deal. Check out our how to negotiate a car price article for some great tips on how to do beat the price down.


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