How to choose the 'right' car

Consider cost of insurance

The cost of insurance varies a lot depending on the make, year, model and even the color of the car, as well as driver's experience and many other factors. Compare insurance quotes for different models before shopping.

Used car or new

New or Used

A new or used is a common first question for many car buyers. A new car is covered by the warranty and for a few years, you don't have to worry about repairs and major maintenance items like tires or brakes. Buying a new car is a fun experience and it's a great pleasure to drive off the dealer's lot in a brand new vehicle. To sway you in their favor, car manufacturers often offer a zero-percent financing and throw some other incentives into the deal. What are the drawbacks of buying a new car then? If you easily can afford one, there are none. The reality is, however, that not everyone is that lucky, so the price is a major factor why many people opt for a 'pre-loved' vehicle instead. Whether a new car is sold with zero-percent financing, cash-back or any other incentives, you still can buy a used car a lot cheaper. Still not sure? Visit any car manufacturer's website and try to build and price a new vehicle, selecting options and packages you need. Once you get the MSRP, add all other fees applicable in your state or province, such as a sales tax, financing charges, etc. Then try to search the Autotrader for a similar 3-4 year old used car - it will be a lot cheaper. A new car loses a lot of its value in the first year. A well-maintained 3-4 year old used car in good condition with good reliability ratings can last without major problems for at least another 3-4 years. If you worry about mechanical problems, you can buy an extended warranty. Of course, It takes some time to find a clean used car in good condition and you obviously need to have it inspected before buying. In addition, there won't be zero-percent financing with a used car. Still, a used car will be cheaper. If it's cheaper, it will be easier to pay it off without having to deal with lengthy contracts. Once you paid it off, if you want to sell it, you can sell it.

Choosing a first car

Of course your considerations may be different, but here is what I'd recommend to take into account when selecting a first car: First of all, a first car is probably going to be banged up a little bit here and there, so I wouldn't recommend buying something expensive. You also probably want to consider something that is not too fast, as the reality is that power and inexperience is not a very good combination; the insurance companies are aware of this too. You probably want something safe, so good crash-test ratings are important. Features like the Antilock Brakes (ABS) and Stability Control can be very helpful in avoiding a crash. If you are thinking about a truck or SUV, the rollover rating should be considered; some older trucks and SUVs, especially those without a stability control system are easier to tip over. Read above where to check safety ratings.
A first car should be easy to drive and have good visibility. It's also desirable that the first car or truck should be more or less reliable and easy to maintain. An example? I'd recommend something like the 2003-2007 Honda Accord with a 4-cylinder engine; it's cheap on gas and for the most part reliable. It's not too small and not too bulky. The 4-cylinder model is not too fast and the Accord has good crash-test ratings. This generation Accord also has the antilock brakes (ABS).

Finding a car for a tall driver

Finding a car for a tall driver is difficult, but not impossible. One way is to visit a large auto mall and try different cars. The other way is to look for the headroom and legroom specifications. The headroom is measured as a vertical distance from the bottom of the seat cushion to the headliner. If you are tall, you need to look for 38-40 inches of headroom. For example, the 2009 Toyota Matrix has 40.5 inches of headroom in the front, which is a lot; the 2008 Subaru Forester front headroom is specified at 39.8 inches, which is also very good. If you need good headroom in the back as well, look for the same range; for example, 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer has only 36.9 inches of headroom in the back, which means a tall person would have to lean down riding in the back of the Lancer. Similarly for the legroom: if you are tall, look for the legroom at closer to 40-inch range. For example, if the rear legroom is specified at only 36 inches, a 6'2" person will probably have knees touching the back of the front seat.

Leather vs cloth seats

Leather seats feel colder in winter, although almost all cars with leather have heated front seats. The same story when you leave your car under the sun on a hot day: the leather will feel very hot to the touch, especially the dark-colored one. Cloth seats are more tolerable in cold or hot temperatures. On the flip side, cloth seats tend to absorb the smell. If you check several few-years old cars, the ones with cloth seats are more likely to have some smell inside. Leather seats are easier to clean, but any rough object can leave a mark or scratch. Beige, gray or any other light-colored leather will not age well, as creases and cracks will be more noticeable; dark leather will look better in an older car.

Automatic or manual transmission

An automatic transmission is obviously more convenient since it's doing all the gear shifting for you and you have only two pedals to deal with. If you have to drive through stop-and-go traffic every day, an automatic transmission without questions is a better choice, as it's exhausting to shift the stick every few seconds. It's also easier to drive an automatic transmission when you have to start from a stop going up hill (although some newer cars with a manual transmission do have a hill start assist feature). However, an automatic transmission is more complex device than a manual. Although the reliability of automatic transmissions has been improved in recent years, automatic transmission problems are not uncommon and the repairs are expensive.
A manual transmission is more simple and tends to be more reliable. Cars with a manual transmission are usually less expensive and offer better acceleration. A manual transmission allows you to "feel" your car better and it's just more fun to drive. Many (although not all) manual-transmission models offer better fuel economy. A manual transmission gives you more control over gear shifting, so if you want to drive in a more fuel-efficient way, it's a lot easier to do with a manual transmission.
On one of the long trips in my 5-speed Honda Accord, I tried to shift gears earlier and drive more steadily to see if I can improve my fuel economy. I was easily able to get 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) out of the car that is rated at 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) on a highway.
A manual transmission may seem challenging for a beginner, but it's really not that difficult to learn; many people I know learned to drive a manual quickly. Once you learned it, you will enjoy it. On the down side, the choice of cars with a manual transmission is often limited and it could be more difficult to sell a car with a manual transmission. In addition, a manual transmission has a clutch that may need to be replaced at some point.

4-cylinder versus 6-cylinder engine

A 4-cylinder engine is lighter and smaller and offers better fuel economy. A typical new passenger car with a 4-cylinder engine is less expensive than a V6 model and it costs less to own than a similar car with a V6. Modern 4-cylinder engines are much more reliable than in the old days and with proper maintenance can last very long.
On the other hand, a V6 engine is smoother and quieter. A 6-cylinder engine offers more power and more low-end torque that is important if you are using your vehicle for towing. A front-wheel drive vehicle with a heavier V6 will have slightly better traction on slippery roads than a same 4-cylinder vehicle with the same tires. This is because the added weight of the V6 over the drive wheels improves their traction.
In terms of problems and repairs, most of the 4-cylinder engines have a simple design with just one cylinder head, one intake and one exhaust manifold. A typical 4-cylinder engine has only one catalytic converter with two oxygen sensors.
A V6 engine has two cylinder heads, two exhaust manifolds and more complex intake manifold. A typical V6 engine has two catalytic converters and four oxygen sensors. Problems with oxygen sensors and catalytic converters are not uncommon and a catalytic converter is a very expensive part to replace.
A V6 engine also takes more space under the hood and is more difficult to work on, especially in a front-wheel drive car. For example, you can change the spark plugs in a typical 4-cylinder car in about half an hour, as all the spark plugs are usually easily accessible. In a front-wheel drive car with a V6 engine, it's a lot more difficult job.
Considering all this, a 4-cylinder engine is a better choice for daily driving, unless you really need the extra power or other benefits of a V6. With all the technological advances, today's 4-cylinder engines provide the best combination of fuel economy and power.

Considering a car with a diesel engine

A car with a diesel engine consumes a lot less fuel than the same car with a gasoline engine. For example, the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta with the 2.0L TDI turbo-diesel engine and an automatic DSG transmission is rated at 30/42 mpg city/highway (7.8/5.6 L/100 km), while the 2013 Jetta with the conventional 2.0L non-turbo gasoline engine and an automatic transmission is rated at 23/29 mpg (10.2/8.1 L/100 km). Diesel engines offer better low-end torque and modern technology has come a long way to make today's diesels less noisy and smelly. However, a diesel engine is still not as quiet as a gasoline-powered one. Another issue, newer diesel cars have more complicated emission control systems.

Finding a car with seats high off the road

Answering the question from one of our readers: Is there a specification that measures the height of the front seats above the road? Unfortunately, car manufacturers don't provide this type of specifications. One of the ways to estimate how high off the floor the front seats are is to compare the overall height (without roof rails) and front headroom, which is the distance between the seat cushion and the headliner. For example, the 2013 Honda Civic LX overall height is listed at 56.5 inches and the front headroom at 39 inches without sunroof, while the 2013 Toyota Matrix overall height is measured at 61 inches and the headroom is listed at 40.5 inches. Roughly, the distance between the roof of the car and the headliner is about 1.5 inches without the sunroof or about 2.5 inches with the sunroof. This means that the height off the road of the 2013 Honda Civic is roughly 56.5 - (39 + 1.5) = 16 inches. Calculating the same for the 2013 Toyota Matrix we get 61.0 - (40.5 + 1.5) = 19 inches. These are obviously not the precise numbers, but if you compare Honda Civic with Toyota Matrix, the Matrix front seats are definitely higher off the road.