A Car Buying Story – Part One – Why and What?

My recent decision to buy a car was not really a voluntary one. I had a small accident in which my almost 20 years old Honda Accord was promptly written off. With such an old car even a small bend and broken headlight is already too expensive to repair, so the insurance decided they better give me $1,500, which was actually a good deal. But it left me without a car.

So shopping for car was in order. This was certainly an undertaking given that I haven’t been following up on cars at all for about 8 years since I bought Honda Accord. I like driving, and do like good cars, I even like fixing the cars to some extent, but I’m no real enthusiast. I don’t read articles on cars; I don’t buy auto magazines or go to auto shows. I also usually do not start a conversation about latest models and features. Similar to a presidential candidate who is seriously “on top of things” only during the campaign — once elected, the interests and priorities change a bit.

Anyhow, I knew I had to do some extensive research in order to be happy about what I’m about to buy. So I did that, and the amount of new information I’ve gathered was even larger than I expected. You know, today’s cars are completely different things than those from 15 or more years ago. Features that did not even exist before became my main focus and motivation.

I spent several days online, just reading whatever I could find. And good thing is that all the car makers have very comprehensive websites where you can find all the information you need including the prices. It actually turned out that the prices I got off of these websites matched perfectly what I got in the dealerships — and that is with all the additions like taxes, AC fee, delivery fee, pre-delivery inspection fee (PDI) and such.

I also read other sources, mostly looking for experience of other people. There are a lot of good resources on the Internet, just do a search and you’ll find whatever you’re looking for — there is so much out there. Some of them I found useful are:

Car Buying Tips:  An excellent website with the world of information about every aspect of car buying process. It will save you some headaches too.

Edmunds:  Sort of a “traditional” auto portal. Also covers all aspects of the topic — from prices to safety. And, I’ve heard dealers refer to this site.

MSN Autos:  Another general auto portal. I used it a lot when I was comparing specific features of different models — it has a handy comparison little tool.

Automotive. Automobile: These two are also general portals, and I used them mostly to find specifications of older models including my Accord ’89 for comparison with the new models.

After a few days I arrived to a set of features that I’d like to have:

New car

Or almost a new car. Before I had time to maintain and work on a car myself, but now, with the family and two small kids, I don’t even have the time to think about the car, let alone do some work. And even having a good mechanic is not sufficient. With an old car, there is no mechanic that can guarantee anything — you have to simply accept that you’ll have unexpected problems. Before I was able to take that responsibility, but now, with a family and no time, I can’t. So I needed not only a problem-free car, but also a concern-free car.

Make

I drove domestic, Japanese and German cars before, and thought I’m going to go with Japanese once more. I thought that would give me better probability of a hassle-free car for a good price. I did question this decision during the research, but in the end I stuck to it.

Safety

With the recent car accident I wanted safety above all. Even in a small accident like the one I had, you get to experience very strongly how utterly unprotected we all are on the road. You absolutely don’t need a lot to get killed or injured. And nobody really has to make any mistake, let alone big mistake. One small, almost negligible thing happens, and there you are in a blaze of events ending with a crash.

The guy in front of me stopped short and I was fraction of a moment late to react and kicked him a bit. Not too much — his car didn’t suffer almost any damage except some scratches and dirt on the bumper. But then I started thinking “what if…” thoughts. It was fairly steep downhill, and if it were raining…! If there was a motorcycle in front of me instead of a mini van… If I was going faster and for some reason in a spur of the moment decided to avoid him by switching to other lane (full of cars)… If all of those things happened together… Even now when I think of those things, my stomach aches.

And then later while researching crash tests scores I watched official crash tests videos on the internet. Boy, I would recommend everyone to see at least one or two of those videos — you’ll get much more realistic picture about driving in a car. There are two organizations that perform crash tests and on their websites you’ll find the safety information for many models:

National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA):

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS):

The information on these websites is very educative and complete. It contains the descriptions of the tests, the results for many models and the video clips. You can also find a lot of general info accumulated in the years of research in this area. For example — what is the impact in front, side or rear crashes, how does impact differ for front and rear passengers, how to protect your children, the implications of increasing number of large vehicles (SUVs in particular) on the road (you better buy a bigger car yourself), etc.

The tests videos can also be found (even more of them) by doing a search on the web. A lot of them are posted on YouTube.

So I figured I wanted air bags — not only front ones, but also side and particularly curtain ones that protect rear seat passengers. The side and curtain airbags are not mandatory and they are not standard equipment. Some of the models do not have them even as an option.

ABS (Anti-lock Brake System) was also a must — I hate sudden stops, and if it’s raining or snowing, ABS can help a lot.

Other safety features like active stability control, traction control, active head restraints, car body designed to absorb the impact were also very desirable.

In the end AWD (All Wheel Drive) was something to consider as well.

Space

This was a tricky one. I had controversial requirements. Most of the time we need a small city car — going to work, driving small kids to school, shopping, etc. Only sometimes we’ll go for a longer vacation trip when we need larger trunk. Only sometimes we’ll have parents, relatives or friends visiting when we need at least enough space in the back for two car seats and one or more adults. Only sometimes I’ll need to carry a piece of smaller furniture or such. So should I buy a minivan if 95% of the time it will practically be empty? Or should I buy a small car and not be able even to go for a picnic? This question is actually even now, after I bought the car, still unresolved. Time will show how well I did on this.

Convenience

I did not need or even want things like sun roof, leather seats, body coloured and heated mirrors, spoilers and such. Even power this or that wasn’t important to me although I’ve learned that these days a number of even basic models include power options to a good extent. So I figured, I’ll accept it if I have to, what can I do.

Fuel Economy

Very important. Gas prices are going up and the oil wars are going on — need say no more. And over the years that you own a car it adds up. It is actually an excellent idea to calculate the total cost of the car over a number of years (including gas, insurance and other maintenance costs) and use that figure when making the decision. So I wanted the best fuel economy possible — another controversial requirement.

I was actually hoping I’ll find a good diesel car, but in Canada there aren’t many of those since we have pretty high emissions standards so some of the good diesel cars do not qualify. And that is too bad. I rented small VW Polo a few months ago in Europe, and drove 900 km with 1.5 tanks!! By specs it spends 4L/100km!! That’s a money saver. And it actually produces such a nice feeling of independence — you drive and drive and drive, and then drive some more, and the tank is still full. So sweet!!

With all these requirements I set off to dealerships one nice weekend. I figured I’ll just go to an auto mall, and browse. I figured later this was really not the best way to approach things. After a whole day of looking at cars and test driving them, you get pretty tired and they all look the same at the end of the day. And after doing that for two whole days I got sick of cars and didn’t want to buy one at all! But on the other hand I did collect a lot of information, and got the first impressions about driving them. Then I let that settle for a while and in the meantime explored options of buying a used car, buying one down-south in US, or in a dealership far away from the city where I could get a better price. Then, of course, I also needed to figure out the best way to pay for the car. Boy, this all takes time. It’s a full-time project. But in the end I had my options laid out and made a decision.