A few suggestions for avoiding land mines, tiger traps, quicksand pits, blind sidings, muggings, and the subsequent slough of despond that can accompany buying a new car.
Driving a brand-new car down a reasonably uncrowded road ranks high on many people’s list of pleasures. The chore of buying that car, however, is widely thought to rival root canal work in appeal.
Traditional means—haggling with a salesperson—still is the way most people buy or lease their cars. But all the haggling experience most of us have comes from the occasional garage sale; the knowledge of cars most of us can bring to bear is a comically narrow slice of what’s available. A well-trained, experienced salesperson might appear to be holding the cards.
But the real power is yours if you arm yourself with these three tools before you get to a showroom:
You’re on your own with items two and three. But the range of knowledge you need isn’t dauntingly great and it’s all readily available. Here are some suggestions on what to get and where to get it
Be aware that buying a new car nearly always involves extra costs you hadn’t counted on. In California, for example, registration and taxes will drive the cost up by at least ten percent. Impulse buying of options can add an impressive sum. Insurance for new cars usually costs more than for old. The price of insurance for certain high-risk cars—those statistically most likely to be stolen or crashed—can curl the hair. Check with your insurance agent before buying.
There’s a list of suggested resource material near the end of this article.
One drive per car is not enough: On the first test drive, many people concentrate more on getting an unfamiliar, expensive piece of machinery back to the dealership unscathed than they do on noticing its characteristics.
When you are reasonably comfortable with the car, drive it under conditions you normally encounter; don’t just take it around the block. Is the ride too stiff? Too soft? Back the car up. Try parallel parking. Notice any problems in visibility, safety belt fit, road noise. Are control buttons, knobs, and levers convenient? Can you get into and out of the car easily? Is there enough room in the back seat? Will it tow your trailer? Accommodate your skis? Bottom out getting into your driveway? Fit in your garage?
There may be considerable pressure for you to buy immediately after the test drive. Resist it. Stick to the plan and review all the cars on your list of possibilities before you seriously consider signing anything.
Before you sign anything
Alternatives to tradition
Buying vs. leasing
This is an involved topic. Buying usually is a good choice if you:
Leasing is worth considering if you:
If you buy, the cheapest way is to pay cash. Next best usually is arranging your own bank loan. Most expensive often is a loan arranged through the dealer, but check with the dealer for any rebates or special financing plans that may be available.
The cheapest way to be a motorist generally is to pay cash for a good used car and drive it as long as the car remains serviceable and safe.
If you lease, what was said above about contracts goes double: Get things in writing. Read, understand, and reconfirm all facts and figures before you sign.
There is no shortage of Web sites, magazines, and relatively inexpensive books full of car information. Here are some good ones:
Car and Driver; Road and Track; Motor Trend—These three do many reviews of new models, generally from the viewpoint of someone who really loves cars. Libraries have them.
Consumer Reports—This magazine frequently publishes car reviews. They tend to stress reliability and safety, and articles generally are from the viewpoint of someone less enraptured by cars. Every year, the entire April issue is the "Annual Auto Issue," a fact-crammed magazine devoted to new cars. It’s worth buying.
Popular Mechanics New Cars & Trucks Buyers Guide; Consumer Reports Used Car Buying Guide; AAA Autograph; The Used Car Book by Jack Gillis; Lemon Book: Auto Rights by Ralph Nader and Clarence Ditlow.
Information on used cars can be valuable because many cars change very little from year to year. Knowing the repair frequency of past model-year cars can give an idea of what to expect from a new vehicle of the same model.
"Shopping for a Safer Car"; "Injury, Collision and Theft Losses by Make and Model."
Both of these are published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research organization supported by automobile insurers. Together they provide considerable information on safety features and insurance experience with various models.
For the free brochures, write to the Institute: P.O. Box 1420, Arlington, VA 22210. You can get the same information and a lot more on their Web site .
Web sites: Here are some general sites you might find helpful.
U.S. Department of Transportation  (vehicle safety information):
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety  (vehicle safety information).
This article was first published in March 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.