10 Simple Questions to Help You Pick the Best Car

Last updated Nov. 10, 2022 | By Laura Bostwick

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Buying a new car can be tricky. And, if you’re like most people, going through the buying process is about as fun as losing your wallet in a crowded mall.

It may seem like you’re being tricked, getting a terrible deal, or worse - overpaying for a vehicle just to get the whole thing over with.

Sure, you can custom order any car you want online these days, but to get the best deals, visiting the dealership is still the way to go. Plus, even if you were to order a car online, you’d still have to pick it up at a dealership and be faced with every “extra” and “add-on” premium in the book.

So while negative feelings towards car shopping are understandable, it’s still something most of us will experience at some point, so it’s good to know how to handle the challenges that may come up during your search - especially with the heavy discounts automakers are handing out right now. 

Personally, I always choose to head straight to the dealership when I’m ready to buy a car. I actually enjoy “the game” of negotiating with car dealerships for the best deal, even though I’m not a car expert.

Why? Because even though I can’t tell the difference between 2.0T, XLE, or SEL, as the buyer, I understand that I have pretty much all the decision-making power and can walk away at any time.

Remember: YOU are the buyer and have the decision-making power. 

Something that also helps? Knowing what you want.

It’s easy to accept a bad deal if you don’t know what you’re looking for, so it’s important to do some research before heading to the dealership. You don’t necessarily have to know the exact type of car you want before you hit the lot, but the more you can narrow it down, the better.

For example, instead of expressing interest in a broad category, say a sedan or a crossover, be more specific by listing out your top choices by make and model. Here’s how my list looked when I was shopping around for a car in 2011:

I was leaning towards getting a hybrid vehicle and narrowed my search to six different cars by three automakers - Hyundai, Toyota, and Ford. I was even specific about the colors I wanted, although they were completely negotiable for the right price.

Before you start your search, consider these 10 questions to help you narrow down your options.

1. What type of driving will you be doing: highway, surface streets, off-road?

Knowing the type of driving you’ll be doing is a big factor when searching for a vehicle.

Will you be taking the highway to work each day? Hauling materials in off-road situations? Just running quick errands on the weekends?

For me, I knew I would be doing a combination of local and highway driving when I started my car search - which was the key element for me choosing to focus on hybrids.

2. What vehicles are you drawn to that fit your lifestyle?

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Chances are, if you’re looking to buy a vehicle, you’ve probably been extra aware of the cars you’ve seen around recently.

Take note of the ones you’ve been drawn to that fit your lifestyle and budget. I like the look of a sportier vehicle but also value good fuel economy, comfortable interior, and having four doors instead of two for when my dogs go places with me, so I knew choosing a sporty-looking sedan would probably be the best option for me.

3. How important is fuel economy to you (perhaps due to a long commute)?

Gas is expensive, so it makes sense to determine how important fuel economy is to you in a vehicle right from the beginning or your search.

Jeep lovers, for instance, may not care as much about fuel economy as they do about the brand. For example, this 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee gets an average of 15 MPG, and yet, it's still one of the most popular SUVs on the road.

For me though, the fuel economy was a pretty big factor given the mix of highway and local driving I would be doing and the annual amount I was hoping to save on gas. By prioritizing it over the brand of the automaker before test-driving my options, it really helped me stay focused on what I was looking for in a car during the search. 

It's amazing how easily the sales people can persuade you to choose something you didn't originally want - that's why it was so helpful to prioritize beforehand!

4. How many passengers do you normally need to carry?

If it’s just you, you’re golden. But, if you regularly drive around with family or friends, it’s good to think about how much room or additional features you may need (car seats for children, for instance).

I often drive around with my husband and sometimes our dogs as well, so I wanted a car that was roomy in the front, but was okay with a backseat that wasn’t as spacious.

5. Do you need all-wheel drive (perhaps due to harsh winter conditions)?

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The type of vehicle you end up buying is completely up to you, but weather conditions can definitely be a factor in your choices.

I was living in Upstate NY at the time, so I knew weather would be an issue - specifically the crazy amount of snow that comes around each year. So while the rest of my friends were buying SUVs and trucks, I still chose to go with a car, but made sure it had a powerful engine and really great tires.

6. What safety features are the most important to you?

It goes without saying that when buying a car, you want to get something that’s safe and reliable. But while some safety features cost extra, like adaptive cruise control and backup cameras, many are standard features. Which are the most important to you?

Standard

  • Airbags 
  • Seat belts
  • Anti-lock brakes (ABS)
  • Traction control
  • Electronic stability control
  • Tire pressure monitors

Optional

  • Head airbags
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Backup camera
  • Parking Assist
  • Lane monitoring
  • Blind-spot monitoring

7. Do you need a lot of room in the cargo area?

Consider the amount of stuff you plan to carry around in your vehicle: will you need room for a massive weekly grocery store trip? A considerable amount of space to store sports equipment? A dedicated area to buckle in your dog’s crate for visits to the dog park?

Truth be told, I wasn’t really sure how much cargo space I would need when I first started looking. I knew I wanted enough room to hold a few bags of groceries and a dog crate but other than that, I was flexible.

8. Are you going to buy new or used?

Deciding whether you plan to buy a new or used vehicle now can save a lot of time when you’re at the dealership. Keep in mind, sometimes used cars can actually offer better value but they should be checked by an expert to make sure repairs were done properly and if the vehicle’s been in an accident.

I was open to the idea of getting a used car at first, but ultimately chose to buy new since there wasn’t a great selection of used hybrids when I was looking to buy.

9. What’s your parking situation look like?

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Will you be parking in a garage, driveway, or shared lot? While it isn’t a factor for all drivers, you may want to consider your everyday parking arrangements when shopping for a car.

For instance, I knew my parking situation would be a combination of parallel parking, shared lot parking, and parking in a garage, and factored that into the cars I put on my shortlist.

10. Make a list (or spreadsheet) that covers all the things that matter to you

Having an organized list of the vehicles you’re interested in will save you time and energy in the long run. You’ll be able to see what the benefits and drawbacks of each vehicle at a quick glance.

Here’s a snippet of the one I made:

Once you’ve narrowed down your list and have a better idea of your needs vs wants, read up on them! I spent a few weeks reading about affordable hybrids, observing them on the road, in parking lots, on TV, etc., and then looked them up on sites like Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds.com to learn more. I really like that they allow you to compare the prices of cars, find reputable dealers in your area, and read reviews from both experts and regular car buyers.

Are you buying a car soon? Share with us in the comments!


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Author Details

Laura Bostwick Laura writes about managing money, entrepreneurship, getting out of debt, and using credit cards responsibly.