7 essential things to think about when buying a car

ByConsumer Reports WABC logo
Friday, March 25, 2016
(Kristie Gonzales/WABC)
Kristie Gonzales/WABC-WABC

Consumer Reports compiled some information you need to know when you're buying a car. Below are 7 things to think about:

1. Have a clear idea of what you need in a car. What this means is if you're not driving car pools filled with kids or coworkers on a daily basis, you probably don't need a hulking three-row SUV. If you only tow a trailer once or twice a year, you don't need an enormous truck. In other words, be honest with exactly HOW you use a car and don't buy more than you need. And keep in mind good fuel economy - the relatively affordable gas we have now isn't going to last forever.

2. Take a thorough test drive. The more time you spend test driving a car, the better it will fit you...literally. Make sure the seat is comfortable and fully adjustable to your needs - some people like to sit up high; some people have long torsos and short legs (or vice versa), etc. Make sure you can see out of it - look over your shoulder, straight back, and over the hood and pass on any car with restricted sightlines. Make sure you can reach and operate all the controls, and insist on a thorough tutorial from your salesperson when it comes to paring your phone, adjusting the climate system, operating the audio system, etc.

3. Buy the most safety you can afford. Cars these days are safer than ever, but not all makes and models come with the best safety equipment. Once you zero in on a few finalists, ask your salesperson to pinpoint the trim lines that offer forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, a backup camera, rear cross traffic alert, and blind-spot monitoring. This is especially important if you have a teenager driver in the house that also may be sharing the car.

4. Know which options are essential and which ones you can live without. Consumer Reports tests about 70 cars a year, and we have a good idea of which features are worth buying. For example, along with getting all the safety equipment available, we'd also spring for power-adjustable seats (to get the best driving position); Bluetooth connectivity and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (lets your smartphone better interact with your car); voice controls (keeps your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road...but even the best systems take some practice); heated seats and steering wheel (if you live anywhere that gets cold, you'll love these...trust us).

5. Do some research and find the brands with the best reliability. Consumer Reports tabulates the overall score, road-test score, and predicted reliability results for each tested model of a brand. We then average those scores at the brand level. This average overall score is used to rank the car brands as an indicator of who makes the best cars. CR's reliability data are based on more than 740,000 responses to our 2015 Annual Auto Survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Consumer Reports subscribers reported on any serious problems they had with their vehicles during the past 12 months that they considered serious because of cost, failure, safety, or downtime.

6. Be realistic about your budget and how much you can spend. Never start the negotiations with disclosing "I can swing a $200 monthly payment." A crafty salesperson might sell you a car you can't afford and you wind up taking six years to pay off a loan. Many people are better off buying a good 2-3 year-old used car, since they've already taken their biggest depreciation hit and still have lots of useful life left. Finding a good performing and reliable used car is the best bet.

7. Set up your loan in advance. Compare interest rates and get pre-approved for a loan before you go to the car dealer. Go to websites such as BankRate.com, ELoan.com, or LendingTree.com, to see what typical interest rates are in your area. Then check with your bank or credit union (if applicable), as well as other local banks and lending institutions to compare rates. Sometimes dealers advertise ultra-low rates, but they may only apply to certain models or buyers with high credit scores.