Consider me a brand agnostic. I have no real favorites, so I have driven, owned and maintained a fair number of cars for quite a while now. Years in the motoring beat have also given me the privilege to test just about every mainstream vehicle in the market today with a few exotics sprinkled in. Although I have no favorites, I'm obviously a little more partial to the makes and models we currently have in the family because, well, we vote with our wallets, don't we?
Having said that, I have lost count of how many cars, SUVs and trucks I have unofficially "sold" to friends and acquaintances through the years as they all came to me for advice on what vehicle was really "right" for them.
Usually, an inquiry will come from a neighbor who has spotted the test car parked outside the house, or a friend who saw a picture I posted on Instagram or Facebook. "Hey, is that car really good?" he'll ask. "I'm trying to choose between that and Brand X." This is my cue to give the rundown on the car's merits and demerits, and the person will either nod or shake his head, and perhaps his eyes will light up if he hears the things he's actually just waiting for me to say.
In all honesty, most people have already made up their minds on what car they want even before they ask a car guy like myself; the inquiry is just for validation.
Buying a car is part rational and part emotional. Depending on the type of person you are, and especially if you love cars in the first place, the emotional side will always overrule the rational. Let's face it: If you're entirely rational, the best, most ideal car in the world for you is something along the lines of a box with four wheels, the de rigueur airbags, the durability of a prison cell, the fuel efficiency of a hybrid, and the personality of...who cares about personality? Or driving enjoyment, for that matter? Still, there are many people like that in the world, and that's perfectly fine.
Brand loyalty is another thing to consider, and this is a very powerful phenomenon. Anyone can observe with a fair bit of appreciation the decent, if not robust, sales of not a few manufacturers out there with aging models that should, on paper, be already put out to pasture.
But if you're a car guy and really, honestly, want to try out all your options, let me share with you some advice I've tried out myself through the years. Unless you are swimming in a bathtub full of cash, it's safe to say that you have limited resources and, therefore, want to make the most informed decision.
That's Rational You right there. Since you only have so much money to spend, you also want to get the car that you will be happiest with for as long as you own it, and especially if you're looking at several years of payments. That's Emotional You now. "Happiness" for the car guy is hard to quantify. You can't count it like you do the cupholders; you can't measure it like horsepower. It's just something you feel deep inside after spending some time with a car. Heck, it's probably like finding the girl you want to marry, except unlike with wives, you can eventually change cars and collect as many as you want without fear of burning in hell. You might end up deep in debt or just run out of garage space, but that's your lookout, of course.
Here are some proven tips for the car buyer:
1. Make a short list, and test-drive each one of the cars on that list. There are at least two or three good choices in each category. Don't always go for the most popular one, or the cheapest, or the one with the most freebies (although those are all points to consider for Rational You).
2. Make a quick rundown of the features, and move on. This is to placate Rational You. How many airbags? Fuel efficiency? Trunk space? The list goes on. Actually, the difference between comparable models may not really be significant after you move on to the next few steps.
3. Test-drive it like you would your own car. Drive it on the highway and in the city. Get a feel for its stability at speed, how it corners, how it accelerates, and things like that. Do you feel in control? Are you comfortable? Do you feel "one" with the car? Park it, parallel and reverse. Did you have a hard time or did it feel second nature to you? You'll be doing a lot of that with the car that you buy. A car that's right for you will feel like a willing partner, not a mechanical stranger.
4. If you can, park it in front of your house. Imagine how it would look several years later. Does it look "right"? If you can't actually park it at your house, at least imagine how it would look in your mind's eye. Put yourself in the third person's perspective, seeing yourself behind the wheel. Are you really a Honda guy? A Toyota guy? Hyundai? BMW? Porsche? Maserati? (If you've got rich-guy problems, then you're a lucky bastard.)
5. Don't just like the exterior; check the interior, too. The exterior is the eye candy, the interior is your "home" for at least two hours of every driving day in your life for the next three or so years. Do you like the cockpit? You had better. Unlike wheels, which can be replaced with sexier aftermarket rims, there's not much you can do about the interior except change the stereo, perhaps.
6. Ask friends about their ownership experience. Test cars are almost always reasonably fresh units meant to represent the best about the car. Owner-driven cars are more realistic examples. Ask around and go check out your friend's car to see how your choice might look like after racking up several thousand kilometers. Ask your friend how he's doing with the car so far. Does his eye light up describing the ownership experience? Is he more of "ho-hum" or, worse, "What a turd this car is"? Take it from me: When actual owners try to convince you to get a car just like their own, you're onto something real. I mean, it's not like they're getting a commission out of it.
7. After trying out everything, give your thoughts some time to simmer down. Write them down if you must to remember each car's good and bad points. "But won't this kill the thrill of the buying experience?" you might ask. Not at all. After some time, the also-rans on your short list will be just a faded memory. If a car really catches your fancy, it will just grab your heart no matter how long you wait. It may even make you lose sleep, and if it does, then you can't possibly go wrong.