cars in dealership lot

How Do I Choose the Right Car For Me? Detailed Guide and Expert Advice

How do I choose the right car?

It’s a big question on the minds of everyone who goes shopping for a new vehicle. With so many makes and models available today – not to mention the variety of trim levels and abundance of extra features, suites and options – the market can seem overwhelming. Maybe that’s why more than two thirds of car buyers report regretting their purchase afterwards!

Don’t be a statistic: learn how to find a vehicle that will serve you well in your daily life, and that you’ll enjoy driving. Here’s an expert step-by-step guide to choosing a car, plus some tips to keep you on track.

1. Identify your needs

You can’t find what you want unless you know what you want!

Start off on the right foot by clarifying exactly what you’re looking for in a vehicle. With this information, you can effectively evaluate different models and weigh your choices. Even if you don’t settle on a specific model, you can take your list to a dealership and get recommendations.

Once you start working with a dealer, having this list will both give you a head start on the process and protect you from getting sold on an expensive car that doesn’t really fit your needs.

With so many variables on the table, it can be hard to see which qualities are really important in a vehicle. The last thing you want is to get stuck on one feature on your list and pass up on cars which otherwise would be perfect for you.

To avoid this, I recommend organizing your list either with a ranking system – 5 stars for must-have’s and 1 star for “would be nice,” for example – or make a few separate lists.

You can make one list of what the car must have, another for what you want but can live without, and even a third list of cool features that you have your eye on but won’t really influence your decision. You may also want to make a list of dealbreakers.

2. Set your budget

Knowing your price range will instantly narrow the field, making it easier to find the vehicle you actually want to buy.

Looking just at the market price of a car can be both deceptive (taxes and fees add a lot to that alluring advertised number) and impractical. Compare prices for sure, but also figure out how much you can afford to pay every month and translate those big numbers accordingly.

Having your monthly budget in hand will also help you in negotiations.

Be realistic – not optimistic – when you assess how much you can spend per month, and once you have a maximum number then stick to it.

3. Do your research

Spend some quality time with your best friend and partner in car shopping: the internet.

For any car that you’re considering, I guarantee that you can find detailed stats and reviews. If you don’t yet have a specific model in mind, check out “best of” lists for ideas, then dive into the nitty gritty for the ones that sound promising.

I recommend checking both expert reviews, from people who really know what they’re looking at and can parse the fine details of each car’s performance, and customer reviews from people who actually own the vehicles and drive them on a day-to-day basis. This will help give you the most complete picture.

Want to find a vehicle that suits your needs, locate it and set up your own lease deal on the spot? Online car finding tools like Ignite provide a 21st-century alternative to conventional car shopping, with a level of simplicity and transparency that’s often lacking in dealerships.

young couple with new car

4. Find alternatives

Found a car that fits your bill to the letter? Great! Now keep looking.

It’s always good to have some second choices. That way you can shop around, test drive a few different cars and make an informed decision. Maybe you love the sound of a particular vehicle, but with a little research you can find one that’s almost the same but a few thousand dollars cheaper.

Having some backups will also help you avoid getting attached to a certain vehicle and ripped off by sleazy dealers (see below.)

5. Decide whether to lease or buy

Leasing or buying: the question of the age!

Leasing is becoming an ever more popular option, and it has several advantages over buying. Namely, lower monthly payments, less financial risk and an easy way to drive a brand-new car every two or three years.

However, buying still has the benefits of flexibility and actually owning your car at the end of the financing period, which makes it cheaper in the long run than going from lease to lease. Look into the question in detail before you decide which fits your lifestyle better.

The good news is that most cars available to buy can also be leased if you ask, even if they aren’t advertised for it.

6. Test drive

Last but not least, once you’ve found your car take it for a ride.

Sometime a vehicle sounds great on paper, but once you get behind the wheel, it’s just… not quite right. The unique feel of its steering and handling, the angle of the seats, the view lines from your height – all of these and more create the driving experience, and none of them can be really conveyed by reviews and statistics.

The best way to experience different vehicles is to do back-to-back test drives so your impressions are fresh. Take notes at the time so you remember how you felt about each one.

Definitely try at least two cars, but not so many that you can’t keep track of them and get overwhelmed. Three seems to be the magic number for many people.

When you schedule your test drives, make it clear to the sales team that you don’t intend to buy that day. Give yourself the space to take the car through its paces and sit with your different options for a while.

car going down highway

General decision-making principles for car shoppers:

  • Don’t buy on impulse. Spur-of-the-moment, emotional decisions are the active ingredient in buyer’s remorse. If you ever have that feeling like you have to buy that car on the spot, take some time to cool down.
  • Avoid attachment. Related to impulse buying, be careful not to get fixated on one specific car. It may blind you to other options that might suit your needs better. Plus, salespeople can easily manipulate you if they see you drooling over a vehicle. Better to play it cool and be prepared to change directions if needed.
  • Bring a friend. If possible, don’t go alone to deal with salespeople. Bring along a friend for support, someone who can provide a neutral perspective and help you stand your ground in negotiations.
  • Sleep on it. Despite what dealers may say, there’s no hurry to seal the deal on a car. It’s a big investment with a huge impact on your daily life, so never rush the decision. Take your time, check out all your options and never be afraid to just walk away. You can always come back later if you really feel like you’ve found the one for you.
  • Practicality over visuals. Always be realistic and pragmatic, considering your real needs and budget. It’s always tempting to go for a stylish, flashy ride, even if it’s not what best fits your lifestyle. The coolest car on the planet is useless if it doesn’t do the job you need it for. Focus on the car’s performance, features and reliability over aesthetics.