Choosing a Car
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This page details some of the factors to take into account when choosing a new or used car.
What type of car do you need?
Think carefully about what you actually need in a car. Do you need a sedan or would an SUV be sufficient? Will you use a four-wheel drive system? If you're covering long distances, fuel economy will be important. Will it be a statement of your personality? Will you be using it to pick up your kids? Or do you just need a cheap runabout that goes (skip to the last section)? Read on to find out more.
Points to consider
Evaluate these points on a scale of personal preference. In other words, which features are more important for you and which ones matter less?
- What is the volume of the engine, in liters or cubic inches? How many cylinders does the engine have?
- Note the peak horsepower and torque ratings and at what RPM the peaks occur. Note the top speed of the car.
- Does the car have a manual or automatic transmission? Is it a three-, four-, five- or six-speed? A greater number of gears in the transmission mean greater fuel efficiency at high speeds (due to lower RPMs) and faster acceleration times (due to the engine spending more time near its power peak.) Is it a continuously-variable transmission?
- Does the car come with four-wheel disc brakes or front disc and rear drum brakes?
- What safety equipment does the car have? Note the presence of crumple zones, pre-tensioning seatbelts, number and locations of airbags, child safety locks, integrated child seating and so on.
- How well does it score in the Euro NCAP test or the NHTSA crash tests?
- Does the car possess traction control or a stability control systems?
- Does the car come with anti-lock brakes?
- If the intended driver is petite, does it have adjustable pedals to place them a safe distance away from the airbag?
- Is the car well equipped for its price?
- Do you prefer cloth or leather seating surfaces?
- Note the presence of power accessories, such as power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, and power seats.
- Does the car come with air conditioning? Is the climate control system manual or automatic? Are there dual temperature controls?
- Examine the car's audio system. Note presence of AM/FM radio tuner, cassette deck, and/or CD player or changer. Some audio systems may have a line-in jack for external equipment such as an MP3 player. How many speakers does the car have? Is there a subwoofer? What is the wattage rating of the audio system?
- Note the presence of other comfort and convenience features that are important to you. Note their cost if they are available as options.
Quality and aesthetics
- Does the manufacturer have a reputation for building quality vehicles that are not plagued by malfunctions?
- Do you like the design of the automobile? Is the exterior pleasing to the eye? What about the interior?
- Taking into consideration the car's size, class, and feature packages, is the car's price competitive with similar automobiles on the market?
- What kind of warranty does the manufacturer offer? Common warranty periods include 3-year/36,000 mile, 5-year/60,000 mile, and 10-year/100,000 mile. Be sure to note the difference between bumper-to-bumper warranties, which cover all parts in the automobile, and powertrain warranties, which only cover the engine and transmission. The latter will usually have longer warranty periods.
- How expensive will the car be to maintain and service? Are parts easily available?
- Does the car require synthetic oils and/or premium (high-octane) fuel?
- What will be the cost of insuring the car?
- Will the car depreciate significantly over a 3 or 5 year period, or does it hold its resale value well?
- Is the car fuel-efficient? Note its fuel consumption, in miles per gallon, or liters per 100 kilometers. Higher fuel efficiency results in lower fuel costs, but may also require a sacrifice in performance.
- Cars with hybrid engines, such as the Toyota Prius (right) have greater fuel efficiency in city cycles. However, it usually takes several years to recoup the hybrid car's price premium via saved fuel costs.
- Is the car diesel-powered? Modern diesel engines are about 15% more efficient compared to gasoline engines and possess a greater amount of low-end torque, which aids in acceleration and towing. However, they generally have higher particulate emissions, such as soot.
- Consider the amount of emissions, such as carbon dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen, that are produced by the engine. In some countries, including the UK, cars with cleaner engines incur lower road tax charges.
Once you think that a certain car may be right, go to the dealer and ask for a test drive - it shouldn't cost you anything. If possible drive on a range of roads - the motorway, in town, country lanes, and off-road if you're going for an SUV.
During the test drive, pay particular attention to these points:
- Note the car's acceleration. Is it satisfactory for your driving style? Do you feel you can safely merge onto a freeway?
- Evaluate the car's handling characteristics and whether they suit your driving style. Does the car possess understeer or oversteer when turning into corners? Is the car steady at high speeds? Is the steering communicative and on-center or is it vague?
- How well does the car brake? How well does the car perform in panic stops?
Quality and aesthetics
- Observe the exterior of the car. Are the body panels flush with respect to each other? Are the gaps between panels small or large? Does the paint show signs of fading?
- Observe the interior of the car. Are the panels closely fitted? Do the plastic materials feel hard and cheap or are they soft to the touch? Do the controls feel cheap or do they have good tactile response?
- Is the instrumentation well-designed? Are all important controls located at a comfortable arm's reach?
- Do you find the seats comfortable?
- On the road, does the car feel solid or does it rattle over bumps? Observe noise, vibration, and harshness while coasting and accelerating.
Comparing potential choices: an example
One way to make your final choice is this:
- Make a list of three or four possible models within your budget.
- List all the qualities which are important to you, such as safety, equipment, boot / trunk space, and so on.
- Then award 3 points to the car best in each category, 2 to the second best, and 1 to the worst. If there were four cars you would award 4, 3, 2 and 1 point from best to worst.
If certain categories are more important (such as economy) you could award double or triple points , so the winner would get 6 or 9.
Here is an example, based on a choice between a "VW Padro", a "Holden Frisk" and a "Mitsubishi Morning Tea", rated under ten criteria. All the details, like the cars, are entirely fictitious.
|VW Padro||Holden Frisk||Mitsubishi Morning Tea|
|No. of seats||4||5||2|
|Warranty||3 years||3 years||5 years|
- The Padro gets 1+2+1+1+3+3+1+3+2+2=19 points
- The Frisk gets 3+3+3+2+2+3+2+2+1+2=24 points
- The Morning Tea gets 2+1+2+3+1+3+3+1+3+3=22 points
And so in this test, the Frisk is the best buy with 24 points. All three gained 3 points for safety as this was a draw; both the Padro and the Frisk gained 2 points for the warranty because they both offered a 3-year warranty.
Renting a car before buying it
Regardless of your initial opinion of a vehicle, it might be a good idea to rent the same model for a few days before deciding to buy it. This precaution has several advantages:
- No hassle from dealership sales people. Renting allows you to drive the car when you want, how you want, and where you want. You have the freedom to take the time to "learn" the car: it's positives and negatives. You'll be able to determine whether the vehicle will meet your needs. You will also know whether you will have the visibility and the confidence and comfort to drive the vehicle.
- You'll be making a minimal investment in a rental vehicle. You will be making a financial commitment to another vehicle over the next two or three years or even longer (depending on whether you purchase or lease).
- If something should break down while driving the rental vehicle, most rental companies will be able to assist you. At the dealership, all you'll hear will be excuses about why the car broke down.
- You can make an objective evaluation of the vehicle without the pressure from a salesperson. Typically, rentals are a minimum of one day or even for a weekend so you'll have lots of time to determine whether this is the vehicle for you.
Once you've chosen the vehicle you (and your family, if applicable) feel most comfortable with, go to the dealership and test drive the new model to reinforce why you are choosing that particular vehicle. And if it's a used vehicle, be sure to arrange to have your mechanic do an inspection to ensure you aren't buying "someone else's problem(s)".
Cheap and older cars
If you are a student, or are on a limited budget, sometimes the main issue can be the mechanical condition of the car. In this case, you will want a car that will pass safety testing and not break down, while not breaking the bank. Different countries have different safety standards that the cars must pass; It may be a good idea to find a list of things your country tests before allowing a car on the road. This will eliminate any nasty surprises. There are also quite a few things to check, so prioritisation may help. Some of this advice may also apply to motorbikes.
Traps for newbies
The number of kilometers or miles that a vehicle has done does not indicate its condition. A car that has done a lot of city driving with 100,000 km on the clock may be a lot more worn than a car that has done 300,000 km of highway driving. A question you might ask the seller is "how often was the car serviced?", "do you have the receipts to prove it?". If the car has been well looked after, especially if the owner is a car enthusiast the owner may tell you a bit about the history and repairs the car has undergone. Of course this is a big unknown if the seller didn't own it for very long. The world record for the longest number of miles a car has done is 2.6 million miles, accomplished in a Volvo 1800. The owner claims he simply services the car regularly.
It is also a good idea to ask if the car has been in an accident. You may or may not get an honest answer. However, if the owner tells you that the car was in an accident, ask about the extent of the damage, how it was repaired, and if the owner has the estimate or the bill from the company that made the repairs; this will give you a better idea of the extent of the damage. Be cautious if you learn that the car's frame was bent, however slightly, in an accident. A bent frame cannot usually be fully repaired, and it can become worse as the car ages. Be aware that the car you are interested in may have been involved in a major accident or event. Written off by insurance companies as total losses due to salt water damage (Katrina) or rebuilt from salvage using several cars.
Generally there are a couple of things that can go wrong.
- Loss of compression due to burnt valves or very worn piston rings
- Damaged bearings (on the crankshaft)
- Cam belt breaks (yikes!)
Loss of compression will cause the engine to stall if not idled at unusually high revs. This is usually caused by burnt valves or very worn piston rings. Burnt valves are usually not expensive to repair, but may indicate poor maintenance elsewhere. Damaged bearings are caused by the car running low on oil. Ask the owner when the cam or timing belt was last replaced. Cam or timing belts usually last around 80,000 km or 5 years. Check the owners manual for specific belt replacement times. If you are lucky and have "Free running" valves, a broken timing belt will only leave you stranded on the roadside. If you have "Interference" type valves a broken timing belt may can cause the heads of the valves to impact the tops of the piston often resulting in very expensive repairs. It is advisable to check with the dealer or manufacturer to check which type of valve is used. Always change the timing belt on engines with interference valves at the recommended interval.
Put your hand on the exhaust. There should be a good pressure build up, or there is a leak/hole in the exhaust somewhere. (Basically your hand should be forced off)
After doing this, sniff your hand (Sniffing the exhaust directly is not recommended!). If there is a smell of petrol, the car is running rich. If it wasn't already, try this again later when the car is warmed up (5-10 minute drive usually does it). If the exhaust still smells you could get better fuel economy by getting it tuned.
If the car is emitting white smoke, this is normal (it is actually steam). If the car is emitting blue tinged smoke, then the car is burning oil. This indicates significant engine wear. Ask the owner how often they have to top up the oil. If it uses all its oil within a couple of thousand kms or miles, the engine may be on its last legs. If you don't use it much and it's a really cheap car it may still be worth it, however.
If the car burns oil continuously, then the piston rings are worn. If you, for example, take your foot off the accelerator while going downhill and then accelerate at the bottom and a puff of smoke comes out the back, then the valve guides are worn. (Get a friend to follow you in another car to confirm the latter.)
Piston rings are expensive to replace, valve guides can usually be ignored. But do ask the owner how often they top up the oil and how much they put in. If they never check the oil, check it yourself! It might be empty or very dirty! (Which could lead to a lot of expensive wear)
There are a lot of normal engine noises. If there is a noise that sounds suspicious (such a loud rattling) use your judgement, or ask a mechanic. A roughly running engine may only require a tune up or it may have expensive damage. If the seller claims it only requires a tune up, ask why they haven't done so, and be very suspicious without a second opinion. Claiming an engine only requires a tune up is a very common excuse for much more serious damage.
A rattling noise can mean the cam chain (if the car doesn't have a cam belt) is loose. It may require adjusting or replacement. If you think of an engine as a rectangular shape, the cam chain is at one of the ends.
A ticking noise can simply mean that the tappets require adjustment. This is usually normal if a car has not been serviced in a long time. Tappet adjustment is not a difficult task if you are into fixing things.
A rumbling noise in the bottom of the engine can indicate worn bearings. This can be expensive to replace.
Knocking noises are hard to distinguish. They indicate a lean fuel mixture or the car running on a lower octane fuel than it was designed. This can lead to burnt valves.
To make sure your springs and dampeners (shock absorbers) are in good condition, push the car down HARD on each of its four corners. If the car acts like a spring, i.e. it bounces up and down, then the shock absorbers are worn. The car should rise back up after pushing down, but bounce very little or not at all.
If the car has been lowered, ask the owner if the springs have been cut. In order to lower a car, a common trick is to cut a section out of the springs. This makes the springs shorter, thus lowering the car. This is very cheap and arguably dangerous, especially if a poor job was done.
If the car has vacuum braking (or 'power' brakes) the brake pedal should depress easily for a bit and then harden up. If the car doesn't have vacuum braking, then the brakes will not be extremely easy to depress for the first bit. If the brake pedal feels soft, kind of spongy, there may be air in the brake lines. You can basically 'pump up' the brakes if this is the case. Try pumping the brakes several times, and they will go from spongy to hard. This is usually easily fixed, take a note to see a mechanic; ask them if the brakes just need bleeding.
If the car squeals when you brake, it could mean the brake pads are worn to the bone so to speak. If the car has disc brakes (most cars do, at least on the two front wheels) you will see a metallic disc behind the wheel with a brick shaped clamp around it. If you take a close look from behind the brick, you will see the disc in the middle, and two plates on either side. If you get a friend to press the brakes, the plates will push onto the middle disc. If the plates have a smaller piece of material sticking out in between them and the disc (looks a bit like solid sandpaper) that's the pads themselves and it means there's some left.
If the car's wheel bearings are worn, there will be a rumbling sound audible from the tire when the car is rolling.
If the car makes a click click noise when you turn with the steering wheel fully locked, it indicates wear of the CV joints. This can be comparatively expensive to fix if the car is cheap. This only applies to front wheel drive or 4 wheel drive vehicles.
This totally depends on the safety test of your country. Generally cars that have noticeable amounts of rust are going to get worse, fast! The exception is if they are garaged which may slow the process. Some specific areas prone to rust that may become safety concerns should be investigated these are: -brake lines especially in locations where salt and sand accumulates. -gas tanks. Look for rust along the top of the tank and any welded seams where salt and sand will sit. Wet areas and the smell of gasoline will indicate seepage. - holes in the body that access the passenger compartment. Lift up carpeting and liners especially in the trunk area and look for signs of road dust. -front and rear suspension towers. These are the large pockets in the car body that house and provide support points for the coil springs and struts. When these become seriously rusted they may collapse. Repair is often expensive or impossible. - areas around the pillars (these hold the roof up)and are difficult to repair - areas of the frame or reinforcing channels on unibody cars exposed to salt and sand.
If in doubt get an expert opinion. If there is a bit of general minor rust you're probably ok, but if there is significant rusting, you may not pass the safety inspection.