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Here's how to buy your next car

The most obvious advantage the Canadian International AutoShow brings to new-car shoppers is the opportunity to check out every new car on the market, all under one roof (well, two)
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The most obvious advantage the Canadian International AutoShow brings to new-car shoppers is the opportunity to check out every new car on the market, all under one roof (well, two).

At least you don’t have to go outside to get from the South Building to the North.

You can’t test-drive a car at the show, nor can you actually buy one (though you used to be able to).

But you can do all or most of your static examination of potential candidates there and at least make a connection with a sales rep for follow-up later.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when buying a new car is that you’re really buying with your heart, not your head.

If “lowest cost per kilometre” is your only criterion, you’d buy a four-year old low-mileage Buick — they depreciate fast, so they’re cheap to buy and usually last forever.

So, understand that you better love this thing you’re sinking your hard-earned money into.

That said, you’re also going to have to live with it for a long time. A new car stays with its original owner in Canada for an average of over eight years, according to auto data guru Dennis DesRosiers.

My standard advice to new-car shoppers is to think very carefully about three things:

What do you need; what do you want (usually not the same); what can you afford?

This should get you in the right ballpark — the right segment, the right size, probably a fairly snug price range.

Then, try to narrow the field.

Go to wheels.ca or read your back issues of Wheels (You do save them, don’t you?), ask friends, family members or colleagues who might have similar criteria, and come up with a short list of cars with the size, style, features and price you need (and want and can afford).

If you try to cover more than four or five cars, you’ll be like a friend of ours who spent two years shopping for a new car.

The best news is that no matter what you choose, you probably won’t go too far wrong. There really aren’t any bad cars any more, and the business is so competitive that if one car starts to run away with a segment, other carmakers will crank it up to counter.

It’s natural to try and find the “safest” car.

Don’t worry about it. Statistically speaking, “safety features” and “crash test ratings” are irrelevant.

All new cars must pass minimum crash standards. The difference in the absolute probability of surviving a specific crash (which corresponds closely enough to the crash test protocol to be meaningful) between a four-star and a five-star car is vanishingly small.

Avoiding the crash is much more important.

Virtually all cars today have ABS (anti-lock brakes). As of this September, they all must have ESC (electronic stability control). Don’t be without either. Not much else matters.

What about four-wheel drive? Nice to have, especially if you drive a lot in bad weather.

But while four-wheel drive can get you going faster, it won’t help you stop or corner faster. If you get it, be careful not to overdrive its capabilities.

Four-wheel drive usually costs more to buy and uses more fuel, although probably not enough to matter in the long haul.

And with proper winter tires and modern chassis electronics (traction control, etc.), most people will be fine with front- (or even rear-) wheel drive.

By the way, “all-wheel drive?” Same thing — four wheels, they’re all driven. What matters is when all four wheels are driven; all the time or some of the time and how quickly and easily this is accomplished, either automatically (by the car itself) or by driver intervention.

Airbags? Sure, why not? But understand that airbags don’t add much more safety to a properly belted passenger, although side airbags and/or inflatable side curtains are useful, especially in smaller cars.

Don’t worry much about Transport Canada fuel economy figures either. Cars of similar size and performance aren’t going to be that much different.

Even with gasoline costing $1.20 a litre, do the math — the difference in outlay over the life of the car isn’t likely to be much more than a large double-double versus a cappuccino a day. No big whoop.

Also, your driving style is by far the greatest determinant in fuel consumption.

Ok, so you’re at the show. You’ve got your shortlist. Get a map of the show floor, find out where each of your candidates is located, and plot your course.

Eyeball the car carefully. Do the lines appeal? How’s the fit and finish? Paint quality?

As you’re getting in, examine how the door handle feels. If you’re getting a tallish vehicle and you’re on the shortish side, you may not be able to even open the doors. The diminutive Lady Leadfoot, for whom the WNBA did not come sniffing contract in hand, could barely do that with a Ford F-series 4×4 we had on test a while ago.

Can you get in easily? Some aerodynamic cars with steeply-sloped windshields make it nearly impossible to get in without banging your forehead.

Sporty seats with high side bolsters will hold you in during spirited driving, but can also make ingress and egress tricky, especially for the stiff-jointed and/or heavier among us.

Spend as much time in the car as you can. Sit in it, front and back.

Seat comfort can be tricky, because a soft cushy seat might feel good on first touch, but after an hour or so in the saddle, a softer seat often does not have the support for longer-term comfort.

Do the sun visors cover the important parts of the windshield and side windows when deployed?

Can you reach all the controls, see the instruments and see out of the thing?

If you have young kids, will their car seats fit?

Check out the cargo area. Do the rear seats fold? Is that easy to do?

If you’re the note-taking type, you should jot all this down — you’ll be amazed at how much you forget.

Just as in buying a house, it’s always a good idea to go back a second time and try it again. You’ll also be amazed at what you missed the first time.

Now, no static examination will be enough to make your choice — you will have to take a test-drive. Again, maybe two.

Your time at the auto show should not only be enjoyable in itself, but it could also be very productive in helping you choose the set of wheels that’s just right for you.

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