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Which New Car Model is Right for Me?

Automakers have provided consumers with a mind-boggling array of new cars from which to choose. It is a difficult and often confusing process deciding which car is right for your lifestyle, what you can afford and then comparing all the similar products the manufacturers make. The next piece of the Car Buying puzzle is to make the determination of which car, or kind of car, is appropriate for your lifestyle.

To put this myriad of cars into perspective, we’ve developed a comprehensive list of “Vehicles and Their Categories.” This will introduce to you the cars available in each category and show how they compete with one another in the marketplace. The purpose of the list is to present options. If you know what you can spend, but don’t know what kinds of cars to consider or conversely you know the kind, or even the specific car, you want but need to compare it to other models for price or reliability, this “>list will point the way.

For example, if your heart is set on an BMW 3-Series, but you can’t afford one, a Volkswagon Jetta V6 might be a good alternative. Both are sporty performance cars with comparable qualities, but the BMW is in the “$25,000 to $35,000″ sedan category while the Jetta is listed with those cars priced between “$15,000 to $25,000.”

What Kind of Car-Person are You?

When addressing the female market, automakers are beginning to admit that “women” are not a single, homogeneous market. Until just a few years ago, all women were categorized as “mothers.” Now they are seen as generation X-ers, college students, sports car intenders, 8-5ers, baby boomers, mothers with children, construction worker/load haulers, busy executives, retirees, seniors, and other groupings. Much of the current auto marketing thrust reflects this revelation.

What this means to new car buyers is, that because we are being targeted by more model designs and advertising, we will be aware of a wider array of vehicle options. We’ll have more “types” of cars to consider, but that also means wading through more optoins during the shopping process. This is a good thing. But it also means there will be more research to do.

It makes sense, then, that to intelligently determine which new car model is right for you, the first step is to define exactly “who” you are. But it is not as simple as saying, “I’m retired,” “I’m a soccer mom,” “I’m a CFO.” The smart way to approach your new car decision is to first make a list of the things the car must do for you (i.e. carry camping gear 6 times a year, carry 3 executives daily.) Then identify a vehicle that accurately suits your lifestyle.

A retired women might see herself as a “fun-loving single” and want to consider a roadster or sport coupe — that’s a fine choice at first glance. But secondary considerations may include things such as will it also handle your golf bag and gardening supplies? The mother of an active family may initially opt for a minivan to get the kids to soccer, but on further review, decide that a station wagon could carry the kids just as well, while giving her a sedan-like vehicle that better suits the rest of her life. A minivan, sport utility vehicle or station wagon will undoubtedly be on her list of considerations.

Your lifestyle should have more to do with what you do daily and determining who you are with respect to the type of vehicle you buy, than a generic description like “mother,” “business owner” or “volunteer worker.” A new vehicle costs major dollars these days and is one of the biggest purchases you will ever make, except, of course, for a house, yacht or business.

And remember, this automobile could be serving your vehicular needs for many years, so do an analysis of anticipated life changes too. If you’re planning to start a family soon, for example, opt for a 4-door vehicle. If you’re moving to the desert, mountains or an area with severe winters and want off-road capabilities, be sure the vehicle you choose has 4-Wheel or All-Wheel Drive. On the other hand, if your lifestyle calls for a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), and even your long-term plans do not include taking it any further off-pavement than the grass at the ball park, you can save several thousand dollars by choosing an SUV with only 2-Wheel Drive.

For help with the critical assignment of matching lifestyle to vehicle type, visit “Vehicles and Their Categories.” The 200+ vehicle list offers a full view of what’s out there and gives you an exhaustive list of opportunities to consider.

Performance and Other Considerations

Once you’ve settled on the type of vehicle that best suits your personal requirements, several additional decisions need to be made to accurately define “your car.” One decision has to do with performance. The term “performance” has several different meanings. How the vehicle “performs” during the “>test drive is one definition. Motorheads discussing the latest Shelby car are usually talking about another kind of performance.

A sports car with awesome horsepower is sometimes called a “performance car.” One of the more popular new car categories is the “performance sedan.”

Generally, this definition refers to a vehicle being marketed as a “driver’s car” for the family-person that has seating for five, and four doors to accommodate them.

When evaluating a vehicle, take a close look at the list of specifications (“specs”). “Specs” enumerate all kinds of technical vehicle information, including engine size and the horsepower the engine generates. A comparison of this powerplant information on the vehicles you are considering will give you an idea of the performance level you can expect. The base model Ford Focus LX sedan, for example, has a 2.0-liter, 110-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. The base MSRP on this model is $13,695. For about $3,000 more, you can buy the Ford Focus ZTS sedan and get a 130-horsepower engine. If you’re considering small cars, the Honda Civic is probably on your shopping list. The base model Honda Civic DX is equipped with a 1.7-liter, 115-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, and the base price is $13,470, about the same as the base model Focus. However, it will cost an additional $4,000 to get a 127-horsepower Honda Civic EX. It pays to look carefully at a vehicle’s “specs.” (Another word to the wise small-car shopper. You can add a performance “feel” to even a 115-horsepower car by simply opting for a manual transmission over an automatic.)

A good way to compare the performance between cars is by looking at the engine output. In the most simple terms, this is horsepower. The more horsepower you have, the stronger the engine. Most performance cars will have at least 150-horsepower. Horsepower is the amount of raw energy an engine produces under normal running conditions. There are other important factors that influence performance, such as the weight of the car, the amount of torque the engine produces, and the engine’s structural attributes — like the number of cylinders it has and whether or not it has a turbocharger.

Given the same horsepower, a lighter car will be faster than a heavier one because there is less mass to pull. This is often referred to as the “power to weight ratio. Torque is the amount of pulling power an engine can produce. The more torque the engine produces, the faster the car can run. Most cars come with 4, 6, or 8 cylinders. In a general sense, the more cylinders the engine has, the more horsepower it will have. Also, the more cylinders a car has, the more gas it will use. But, the car with the most horsepower and torque is not necessarily the fastest. There are many other factors involved.

Another term likely to arise when car shopping is cam. Cams operate the intake and exhaust valves. In a single overhead cam (SOHC) engine there is only one cam operating both the intake and exhaust valve movements. In a double (or dual) overhead cam (DOHC) engine there are two separate cams operating the intake and exhaust valves independently. This action provides better timing and a cooler running engine.

A turbocharger is an engine type that generates more horsepower, and is smaller in size thus lighter in weight than the standard combustion engine found in most cars. The advantage of a turbocharged engine is in what it affords to the car in the way of the “power to weight ratio.” These engines maintain a better ratio, but can add several thousand dollars to the price of your car. These engines also run at a higher revolutions (revs), thus they run hotter and may cost more to maintain.

A final important term to be familiar with is liter engine, defined by the New Car Buying Guide glossary as “the total displacement of an engine expressed in liters. This is the total volume within an engine devoted to the combustion which produces power.” In terms of your buying decision, the liter size of the engine is only significant in that it is large enough to generate the power your driving habits demand. The average mid-size car has approximately a 3-liter, V-6 engine and would suffice for most people’s required uses — driving to and from work, vacations, etc., all with the airconditioner running on high.

Adequate performance, however, should be one of your major criterion even if you are only interested in a car for basic transportation. Performance is an important safety feature. It means power for acceleration that gets you safely onto the freeway, or the gumption to successfully pass a long truck on a two-lane road.

More importantly, a responsive gas pedal allows you to accelerate to avoid a hazardous roadway situation, rather than brake. Braking can cause you to lose control of your vehicle and make matters worse. Don’t forget to rate the “performance” factor of each vehicle making it to your “consideration” list.

Comfort and luxury are two other factors to consider as you continue to pare down the list of vehicles that suit your lifestyle. If you drive long distances to work every day, a comfortable driver’s seat is a must. Look for a multi-adjustable seat. A power seat adjustment is best because it gives you a better chance of getting the position “just right.” Some even have a memory setting so more than one driver can always find their “perfect” position instantly. You may also want the driver’s seat to include lumbar support.

If a long motor trip is the first item on the agenda for your new vehicle, it’s important that everybody making the journey have a comfortable seat. The lumbar support for the driver is particularly welcome on road trips. Simply changing the adjustment slightly can rejuvenate you. It’s a little like stretching. If you’re making an “adults only” trip, consider the poor person in the middle of the car’s back seat.

Bigger is definitely better for long road trips. The list of vehicle “specs” mentioned earlier includes the vehicle’s weight. If the “curb weight” specification is 3,500 pounds or more, you can be sure it’s a big car. (See the “large car” category in “Vehicles and Their Categories.”) The Cadillac DeVille, for example, weighs 3,978 pounds. For a family excursion, a roomier vehicle like a station wagon, minivan, some of the crossovers or sport utility vehicle is probably a better choice. Happy kids are kids with plenty of room. If everybody can’t have a window, maybe they can have their own cupholder, a place to put their stuff, separate climate controls or their own radio (video or DVD player) with headphone jacks.

If a large car appears on your vehicle “consideration” list for whatever reason, be sure the vehicle will fit into your garage. With all the excitement about full-sized sport utility vehicles, it’s easy to forget that garages aren’t necessarily growing as fast as SUVs.

For those climbing the corporate ladder or entrepreneurs needing to impress clients (or anybody else for that matter), luxury (or the uniqueness of a vehicle) can be a serious criterion. Your posh car can be a two-door coupe or a four door sedan. It can be a two-seat roadster or a nine-passenger sport utility vehicle. (See “Vehicles and Their Categories.”) It probably needs power-leather seats, power windows and sun roof, a top-notch stereo system, a powerful engine and climate controls for the driver and passengers. Again, your specific requirements need to define the configuration of your luxury vehicle.

A note to couples caught up in roadster-mania: neither babies nor anyone under 4′ 7″ should EVER ride in the front seat of a vehicle because rapidly inflating passenger-side airbags can kill. So if there’s a child in your future and you still MUST HAVE a two-seater, at least consider how the passenger-side airbag can be temporarily shut off. You don’t want it disconnected; airbags DO save adult lives. Some companies like Mercedes-Benz have developed “smart airbag” systems that shut-off while a specially configured baby seat is in place.

If luxury is important and financial prosperity is still a ways off, consider the new “near-luxury” or “entry level luxury” category developed by makers of luxury automobiles to lure buyers to their brand before they reach the pinnacle of success. These cars are included in the “Vehicles and Their Categories” list. Most are priced between $30,000 and $40,000. Many automakers consider the woman new car buyer an excellent target for these automobiles.

Now that you’ve analyzed your lifestyle relative to vehicle needs and wants, it’s time to make that list we’ve been talking about of all the vehicles suitable to the individual “you.” The long list of “Vehicles and Their Categories” can serve as your worksheet. (And you are welcome to print it out for your own use.)

For example, if you’re a retired, fun-loving single, and have determined that a sporty, two-door car is just what you need to enhance your lifestyle, there are several dozen choices under $25,000 and another couple of dozen priced over $25,000 in the “Coupe/Hatchback” category. If it’s a sport utility vehicle you need, the selection list is broken into “compact,” “mid-szie” and “large” SUVs to help you refine the vehicle best suited to your needs.

Some of the vehicles listed in “Vehicles and Their Categories” look like they are multiple model listings (Chevrolet Cavalier/Pontiac Sunfire, for example). The reason for this is that many automotive marketers produce similar models and sell them under different nameplates. These separate, but similar, vehicles are called “siblings.” It’s all about marketing and not much else. A good example of this tactic is General Motors’s family of minivans: Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana and Oldsmobile Silhouette.

Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile are all divisions of General Motors and all three minivans have the exact same engine, are approximately the same size and share a number of features. Among the qualities they don’t share is cost. As you might expect, the Chevrolet Venture carries the lowest cost of the three; the Oldsmobile Silhouette the highest. What General Motors is really doing here is reacting to brand loyalty by offering a minivan for the customers of each of these divisions in order to keep them in the GM family and not force them to go to another automaker if they want a minivan. So the structure and features are similar and should be compared to one another for value.

There are numerous examples of “siblings” in all vehicle categories. Some even appear to cross manufacturer lines, like the Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe crossover vehicles. These model twins are the result of an agreement between the two companies to share manufacturing capabilities (facilities) and costs. Most “siblings,” however, are products of the same corporation and are offered primarily to cover the manufacturer’s entire customer base.

Another fact-of-life in today’s confusing auto world is the continuous decline of “rear-wheel-drive” cars in favor of vehicles with “front-wheel-drive.” These terms simply explain which wheels provide the power to drive the car, and refer to “two-wheel-drive” cars (as opposed to “four-wheel-drive” and “all-wheel-drive,” which we’ll get to in a moment). The terms mostly have to do with “traction,” which generally refers to whether or not the car will go on slippery surfaces, such as snow.

It wasn’t terribly long ago that all cars were “rear-wheel-drive.” But that was when most cars were big and heavy, could go almost anywhere and used lots of gas getting there. When the cost of fuel skyrocketed in the 70s, automakers began to make cars smaller and lighter. By putting the driving power to the front wheels, under the heavy engine power plant, small cars could have as much “traction” as big cars, sometimes more. When compact-sized cars became the norm, so did “front-wheel-drive.”

Two other terms in this venue you should be familiar with are “all-wheel-drive” and “four-wheel-drive.” Both are used heavily today primarily because of the extraordinary interest in sport utility vehicles. In “all-wheel-drive,” power is driven to all four wheels all the time. In “four-wheel-drive,” power is delivered to all four wheels only when you want it. (Remember, the norm in vehicle drive configurations today is still “two-wheel-drive.”) To most people, the term “four-wheel-drive” bespeaks great off-road capabilities and “all-wheel-drive” indicates an ability to safely negotiate bad weather driving conditions; and also enhanced handling capabilities. Choosing the one best for you should depend entirely on your lifestyle demands and where you live.

Safety Features

Choosing features for your vehicle isn’t nearly as hard as deciding which type of vehicle to choose. Safety features are the most important. It’s been said that women are most concerned about avoiding an accident, while men just want to survive the crash. True or not, this generalization points out the two types of safety features: those that help people stay alive and uninjured in a crash (occupant safety features also referred to as “passive” safety features) and those that help drivers avert an accident (crash avoidance features also referred to as “active” safety features.)

Occupant Safety Features

Occupant safety in a collision is strongly influenced by the car’s size, restraint systems and structural integrity.

Big is safer. “Vehicle size and weight are important characteristics that influence crashworthiness,” says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “The laws of physics dictate that, all else being equal, larger and heavier vehicles are safer than smaller and lighter ones. In relation to their numbers on the road, small cars have more than twice as many occupant deaths each year as large cars. Further,” says the IIHS, “size and weight are closely related. Large vehicles typically are heavy, and small ones are light. But these two characteristics don’t influence crashworthiness the same way. Vehicle size can protect you in both single- and two-vehicle collisions because larger vehicles usually have longer crush zones, which help prevent damage to the safety cage and lower the crash forces inside it.”

Safety Belts are mandatory on all vehicles. They are designed to do several things in the event of a crash. They keep you inside the vehicle; they reduce the risk of colliding with the steering wheel, dashboard, or windshield; they spread the shock of a crash over larger and stronger body areas, reducing the shock to safer levels; and they help airbags to do their job by keeping you in a position that allows them to effectively protect you in those crucial micro-seconds of a collision.

Two technological innovations added by automakers to improve seat belt performance are pretensioners, which retract the seat belt to remove excess slack, and energy management features, which allow seat belts to “give” or yield to prevent forces on the shoulder belt (during a severe crash) from concentrating too much energy on your chest.

Another excellent feature of today’s safety belt is the adjuster. It allows for a comfortable seat belt experience for all drivers of the same vehicle, regardless of their height, weight, sex or breast size. Rear compartments in vehicles are getting a good deal of seat belt attention these days, too. While manufacturers are only required to have lap belts in the rear center seat position, some are now providing a three-point belt for the middle person and those riding in 3rd row seats. All of these significant new seat belt features should be on your check list when vehicle shopping.

Airbags, both fron driver-side and passenger-side, are now standard on nearly all new passenger vehicles. In addition, several automakers now offer side-impact bags which greatly increase occupant protection. Despite some bad press and misinformation, airbags continue to save lives. Manufacturers are presently working to resolve the passenger-side airbag deployment problem, and most of today’s vehicles are equipped with bags that deploy with less force (intensity), but still, it is critical to remember: NEVER PUT A CHILD, OR A SMALL ADULT, IN THE FRONT SEAT OF ANY VEHICLE. It’s also important to know that while airbags markedly reduce chances of serious injury or death in a crash, safety belts are still needed for full protection.

Headrests should be a serious safety feature consideration when choosing your vehicle. Accident statistics indicate that nearly three-fourths of all passenger vehicles have headrests that will not, in fact, protect you from whiplash in a crash. The most effective headrest is one that almost touches the back of the head and is positioned to “catch” the center of the head.

Federal Side-Impact Standard. All passenger cars are required to meet a federal side-impact standard that requires the car’s entire structure, from floor to roof, to be reinforced. Unfortunately, the government still does not categorize “light trucks” — most minivans, pickups, sport utility vehicles — as passenger cars, so this stringent standard won’t apply to these vehicles for years. Fortunately, most makers of “light trucks” and SUVs voluntarily comply with the standard. But it’s an important issue to research, and question to ask, if you’re shopping for one of these vehicles.

Child Safety Seats. Manufacturers were required to equip all forward facing seats with top-tether straps beginning in September 1999. While most of today’s family-oriented vehicles are equipped with top-tether attachments, beginning in the 2001 model year, the government will require this child safety feature in all passenger vehicles. Regulations requiring lower attachment hardware on all vehicles and child safety seats have also been instigated with the advent of the 2003 model year. The system, called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) uses rigid, metal-anchoring points in the space where the rear seat back and cushion meet. The child safety seat is connected directly to the metal anchor points, providing for a secure and easy installation of the child car seat. You’ll find LATCH on a few 2000 through 2002 model passenger vehicles. But all 2003 and later models must have them.

Crash Avoidance Features

Crash avoidance is influenced by design aspects including the brake system, visibility, and speed and acceleration capabilities.

Antilock Braking System (ABS). ABS is another highly effective, but often misunderstood, safety feature. To fully appreciate ABS, you need to understand their purpose and how to make them work correctly. There are two main benefits of ABS:

  1. It stops the car shorter on slippery roads and,
  2. it lets you maintain steering control while braking.

The real key to learning how to use antilock brakes is to UNLEARN your old braking methods. To make ABS work, step firmly on the brake and hold it down. Do not pump the pedal — that neutralizes the system.

Antilock brakes are a standard feature on many of today’s cars. When available as an option, the prices can vary from $500 to $1,500. We highly recommend that you include this important accident avoidance feature on your car and remind you to note this item on the invoice of every vehicle you are considering.

Traction control is standard on more and more of today’s cars. The feature improves traction and directional stability on slippery roads. Even if you have to pay extra for it, it’s a worthwhile accident avoidance feature, especially if you live in a climate where driving in snow or mud is a common occurrence.

Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) are a crash avoidance feature activated by the ignition switch. DRLs allow vehicles to be more conspicuous during daylight hours, making it easier to detect approaching vehicles. Many manufacturers (most notably General Motors) have made the lights standard on their vehicles.

Safety Feature Comparisons

Safety features are discussed in great detail on the NHTSA web site. There’s even an extensive safety feature comparative. Additional crash worthiness information is available on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety website.

When test driving vehicles (read “Test Drives and Dealerships: Evaluating New Cars”), the visibility and acceleration qualities of each vehicle should be carefully noted as they are both important factors in accident avoidance.

Optional Features

Getting an optional feature you want for your car may require you to purchase a package of items such as a “Preferred Equipment Group.” But that’s not always bad, especially if you’re interested in most of the features in the package. A good place to get all the options available on any given model, including a listing of what’s included in any option packaging, is the pricing information on New Car Buying Guide. To reach this click on the box titled “New Car Prices” that appears in the upper right hand corner of every page. Within this section you will find up-to-date information on every vehicle’s packaging and options.

Deciding which optional features to purchase, like other decisions involved in the car buying process, depends largely on your lifestyle needs and pocketbook. If you do a lot of traveling, for example, you will want to add cruise control if it’s not included on the vehicle you select. It can run you anywhere from $200 to $450 as an option. The location of this feature varies from vehicle to vehicle, with some cruise controls much easier to operate than others. Be sure to use the feature during your test drive so you can give it a good evaluation.

Another important feature that should probably be on everyone’s list is air conditioning. It’s standard on most vehicles, but if it isn’t, expect to add from $500 to $2,000 to the cost of your car. On the other hand, a car without air conditioning will have a much lower resale value when the time comes to sell it. Other options you may be interested in include a sun roof, theft-deterrent system and an upgraded audio system. The last two are probably available as factory add-ons, but both also might be purchased more economically from an aftermarket (accessories) store. Assess these options carefully.

There are a few features you should know about and be watching for that generally either come with the car or simply are not available on a particular vehicle. One of these is the adjustable steering column. This wonderful feature lets you position the steering wheel to your own comfort level and many times includes power tilt and telescoping. Some of the larger cars even have a memory feature for the steering column (and other electrically powered features such as the seat adjustments and mirrors) positions to accommodate the various drivers of a car. Power-adjustable seats are another feature seen in luxury and/or large cars, and occasionally as an option on smaller cars. The precise adjustment these multiple-setting seats offer is not only a comfort feature, it helps provide good visibility for every driver of the car. The memory function is often included on this feature in luxury cars.

More and more automakers are making power adjustable foot pedals available. They are generally an add-on feature costing between $150 and $750. These pedals allow you to maintain a safe distance from the steering-wheel mounted airbags while also being able to comfortably reach the pedals. Some automakers are even tying them to the power feature memory system.

While we’re on the subject of luxury cars, a word about leather upholstery. Good leather looks and feels luxurious and is easier to clean than cloth, but if you live in cold place, be sure you opt for seat heaters. Leather is cold in winter. A rear-window defroster may also be a must for those in the northern climes. Sometimes they’re standard equipment, but check it out.

Power windows and mirrors are almost always an optional feature on economy and mid-priced cars. But that added $250 to $350 luxury can make you feel like you’re driving a more expensive car. Power door locks should be a necessity if you’re buying a four-door car. With a power central-locking system, the driver can lock and unlock all the doors on the car from the driver’s door making it much safer if you’re alone. The variations abound for power door locks. You could run into the system that automatically locks all the doors when the car is put in “Drive” or “Reverse” and unlocks all the doors when the car is put in “Park”. Locking the doors automatically is an excellent safety feature. Unlocking the doors when the car is put in “Park” is a safety hazard. Fortunately, this locking peculiarity can easily be disconnected on most cars.

Another new power feature commonly available is a Remote Keyless Entry system. A button on a key fob allows you to unlock the driver and passenger doors and trunk. Some will even open the trunk automatically. A Remote Keyless Entry system comes standard on most entry-level luxury and luxury vehicles. For those that don’t have them standard they can cost between $250 and $750 to add on.

A feature you will need to consider on almost any car you buy is an automatic transmission. Surprisingly, statistics say that women buy more cars with a manual transmission than men do. But that’s really more a matter of economy than a statement of driving preference. You get better gas mileage with a stick and generally an automatic transmission costs an extra $700 to $1,500. Manual transmissions are generally the standard transmission even though they are more popular.

As you peruse the vehicle choices that best suit you, you’ll see other attractive or unnecessary (depending on your needs) optional features. Weigh each against your specific needs.

Remember, you’re an important customer. Automakers and dealers want your business. They’re offering hundreds of choices, making the shopping process potentially overwhelming. Stay in control. Make lists. Read the lists and analyze the models and features you’ve seen. You’ll soon know which model is right for you and make the intelligent choice.