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Your Car: Choosing a New Car

Options can make a car you like one you love—if you choose with care.

"Cars tend to arrive in the showroom with more and better bells and whistles than they did even a few years ago," says Mark Woods, AAA general manager, Car Care Plus. "Some items, such as air bags and other safety features, are mandated by the government. Others, such as power windows and door locks, air-conditioning, and decent sound systems, used to be options as a rule but now appear in many cars as standard equipment."

Even with so many goodies standard, Woods says, there’s no real lack of opportunity to customize most new vehicles with a long list of tempting extras. Options can raise a vehicle’s price significantly, however. They fall into two general categories: those that improve a car’s drivability and those that increase comfort or convenience. Which options fall into each category depends on the type of vehicle, how you plan to use it, and your own personal requirements.

If you’re considering buying a new vehicle, here are some general suggestions on choosing options.

• Criteria. Woods stresses the importance of "giving top priority to options that actually increase the vehicle’s drivability under the conditions you’ll be driving it." An automatic transmission can be a big plus in hill country. A block heater can save you grief in extreme cold. Cruise control makes long-distance drives easier. On the other hand, items such as bigger wheels or a bigger engine, typical of the options far more often wanted than needed, are unlikely to repay you either while you own the car or when you sell it. In addition to their initial cost, such items often become continuing expenses: Bigger wheels mean more expensive replacement tires. A bigger engine usually means a bigger fuel bill.

Apply the same process to comfort/convenience options: Give priority to those appropriate to your needs. If you do a lot of long-distance driving, a CD changer may be worth its cost. Air-conditioning is a big plus in most of the country.

On the other hand, do you drive in the cold enough to spend, for example, $1,000 on Audi’s "Cold Weather Package" (ski sack, heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel)? Are you so forgetful you need your Boxster’s doorsills embossed with the car’s model insignia for nearly

Consider long-term value. Once you’ve driven a car with such options as power windows and locks or a premium sound system, it can seem a hardship to have a car without them. Convenience and appearance options make driving nicer—and besides, you’re worth it. But you don’t necessarily get the money, or even a decent portion of it, back at resale time. Other features, such as an automatic transmission, can make resale a lot easier.

• Packages. Option packages are manufacturer selected groups of features that are sold as a unit. For example, you might get air-conditioning, sport suspension, spoiler, pinstriping, candy-apple paint, and a horn that plays the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth as a package for several hundred dollars less than those options would cost if bought individually. Option packages can save you money, but only if you actually want and need all, or at least most, of what’s included.

• Aftermarket vs. factory-installed options. Equipment installed by the manufacturer comes with a warranty. Options you add after you buy the car may be less expensive initially; it’s important to buy only from sources with good reputations, companies you are pretty sure will be around
a while.

Most factory options are very reliable. So, while it’s more likely something will go wrong if your car has more equipment, chances are that as the initial buyer you won’t be bothered. It’s probably going to be the second or third owner who’ll be shelling out to get those electric windows to go up or find out why the air-conditioning blows hot.

Dealers like options. Not only are they profitable, the majority of buyers likes a reasonably well equipped car. And the base model with no options, difficult to find new, can be equally difficult to sell as a used car.

But, Woods warns, "Resist the urge to accept options you don’t need or particularly want simply because they’re already on a car sitting on the showroom floor. A car is a very big purchase. Order one equipped exactly as you want it and you’ll be happier in the long run—and maybe even save some money.

This article was first published in January 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.