What to look for when choosing your next car

Contrary to popular opinion, buying cars could end up being the biggest series of purchases in your life.Jim Kenzie's advice on what to look for when buying a new or used car.

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Buying a car might not be the ‘second-biggest’ purchase (next to a house) most people will ever make, which every other article on this topic will tell you.

No – because most people buy many more cars than houses in a lifetime, they could well end up spending more on wheels than on walls.

No one article (or newspaper section) can cover off everything you might need to know about this complex process. But here are some things to look for.


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

If we all bought to achieve the ‘lowest cost per kilometre,’ we’d all buy four-year old low-mileage Buicks – they depreciate fast, so they’re cheap to buy and usually last forever.

Yes, buying used means you’ll miss out on the latest and greatest technology. But why not let someone else suffer the growing pains of that?

That said, you’re also going to have to live with this thing for a long time – a new car stays with its original owner in Canada for an average of more than 8 years, according to auto data guru Dennis DesRosiers.

So, start by determining what you need, what you actually want, and what you can afford. Then, narrow the field.

Read your back issues of Wheels or look at to come up with a short list of cars with the size, style, features and price you need (and want, and can afford).

Understand that worrying about ‘safety features’ and ‘crash test ratings’ is, statistically speaking, a waste of time.

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.

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.

Even air bags don’t add that much more safety for a properly belted passenger, although side air bags and/or inflatable side curtains are useful, especially in smaller cars.

If safety is that big a deal for you, take an advanced driver training program. It is way more important than any safety feature the car might have. And it will be with you in every car you ever drive, even rentals.

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 a buck-thirty-five 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. Your driving style is by far the greatest determinant in fuel consumption.

Then fer cryin’ out loud, take a test drive.

Go to the nearest dealership(s) to check out each candidate. The various ‘auto malls’ with several brands in close proximity are especially handy for this phase of the process.

If you’re honest with the sales rep and say this is your first visit and that you aren’t going to buy today, you might get the cold shoulder. But tell him/her that you are serious, that you will be buying within a month or so, and that you’re going to take your time to make sure you get it right. If the rep doesn’t want to deal with you, that might be the first clue to move on to the next store.

Spend as much time in the car as you can. Sit in it in the showroom. Make sure you can reach all the controls, see the instruments, see out of the thing, get in and out without banging your head.

If you have young kids, make sure their car seats will fit.

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

So far, so good?

Try to plan in advance a test-drive route that covers a wide variety of road conditions, like those you will usually encounter in your normal driving.

While zero-to-100 km/h sprint times are a staple of road tests, what matters most is how the car feels on part-throttle acceleration, because that’s what you’ll be doing most of the time.

Does the car move off eagerly when you tap the gas pedal? Will that diesel Chevette beat you across the intersection? (Oh, the humiliation.)

Does the transmission (automatic or, rarely these days, manual) shift smoothly?

Is it reasonably quiet when you accelerate hard? When you’re cruising at your normal speed? Some cars I have tested have resonance points at common highway speeds that make longer trips tiring.

Do the brakes feel strong and reassuring?

Does the car ride and handle the way you expect? Obviously, your expectations will differ if it’s a family bus or a sports car.

But in all cases, you want to ensure that it won’t do something nasty if you encounter an emergency.

It isn’t always easy to test this on public roads. But on an otherwise deserted freeway off-ramp, for example, try hitting the brakes fairly hard. Does the back end get light and feel like it’s going to spin out? Or does the car just slow down straight and true?

And, in homage to my late brother, do you like the sound of the radio? Does the air conditioning work well? (Those constituted his entire criteria list for a car…).

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

Again, if your sales rep gives you a hard time, tell him/her that you understand their position, that they want to make the sale, earn the commission, but they must understand yours too. If they don’t, move on.

Once you’ve made your choice, you have a million more decisions to make:

Buy or lease. Read more about this in John LeBlanc’s article here.

Trim level, options, colour. This can drive you crazy, because of the multiplicity of possibilities. It’s cheaper for the car makers to build as few permutations and combinations as possible. If your tastes differ from the Great Unwashed, you might not find exactly what you want. Decide what’s most important, and live with the rest.

Haggling over price. I’m not sure why we think we have to haggle over car prices. Who haggles over the price of a refrigerator? But it seems to be part of the game. You can shop around, but understand that no dealership is going to be able to give you a price that’s much different than any other. They all get the same deals from their manufacturers, they all know each other (the stores may even be owned by the same person), they do this every day. You’re not going to beat them at their own game.

Is it worth spending hours and dozens of litres of fuel driving all over town trying to save $200 on a $30,000 purchase?


Check Wheels or to get an idea of what cars of the sort you’re interested in are selling for.

Don’t get seduced. There is no perfect car or perfect deal; if this one doesn’t work out, there’s another one right around the corner.

In general, you’ll pay more at a new-car dealership, and run fewer risks because of it. They are under regulation by various government agencies, they have a public face, and they have reputations to protect.

On the other hand, new-car dealers are only interested in selling late-model low-mileage cars – they actually make more profit per unit on these than they do on new cars. Which also means they have more room for you to dicker over price.

If you’re looking for an older, low-buck car, you’ll have to go private.

Some used car sellers are not private sellers at all, but the dreaded ‘curbsiders’ – they buy cars (the ones the dealers don’t want) cheap at auctions, put some lipstick on them, and flog them for a quick profit.

If your seller can’t give you a plausible history on the car, then run, don’t walk, away.

Much of what I said about buying new applies to buying used.

Establish your criteria. Make a short list. Shop around. Test-drive the car.

There are two obvious drawbacks: You can’t guarantee the car will be in decent shape, and you can’t pick-and-choose your trim level, options, or colour.

You can cover the first one off to a degree if, once you’ve found a car you’re interested in, you take it to an independent mechanic for an inspection. It may cost you a hundred bucks, but it’ll be worth it for the peace of mind.

And even if you have to sink a few hundred bucks into a new set of tires or a muffler in a year or so, compare that to the monthly payment for a new one.

To me, the most important thing for a used car is a clean, well-maintained and complete interior. You can fix almost any mechanical problem in a car.

Even (some) body work can be economically repaired – today’s cars are much less rust-prone than they used to be, but steer well clear of cars that look like they’ve been in a collision. If you know anyone in the body shop business, a hundred bucks spent there would be good value too. But if the interior is ratty and tatty, it isn’t likely to ever get any better.

A private seller won’t be able to finance the car, so you’ll have to figure that out on your own.

Obviously, buying used is a riskier prospect than buying new, but in general you’ll save a bundle.

At the risk of repeating myself, with a bit of research, preparation and – yes – luck, you and your used car will have a long and happy life together.

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