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Choosing the right car

Buying Advice - Cars
Choosing the Right Car

Clearly, there is no perfect way to choose something as complex as a new car. Everybody has a mix of rational and emotional reasons (there is nothing shameful about choosing a car partly for the way it makes you feel) and it is all about getting the right balance between the two.

This guide will not magically lead you to your perfect model, but it will help you think through the issues and reduce the chances of getting the wrong car.

Vehicle Type

There are two main issues here - how big does it have to be and what body-style is most appropriate? If there are only two of you, a coupe might be fine - but then do you have to fit an ageing relative into the car every weekend? Generally speaking, for cars smaller than a Mondeo, most people now choose a hatchback or an estate - small saloons are out of favour, which will reduce their trade-in value. Conversely, for anything bigger than a Mondeo, hatchbacks are completely out of fashion.

When thinking about vehicle size, think about the most room you will need regularly. If a seven seater MPV is needed once a year, it might be cheaper to buy a smaller car and then hire the MPV when you need it.

As a checklist, here are the common bodystyles:

  • Hatchback: the standard configuration for small cars.
  • Estate: currently growing slightly in popularity - seen increasingly as "lifestyle" vehicles for active people
  • Saloon: the classic bodystyle, but only popular for large saloons (like a Mondeo or Passat) and executive models
  • Coupe: Not as common as they were in the days of the Toyota Celica or Ford Capri
  • Convertible: The new generation of coupe-cabrio with folding metal roofs have, to some extent, taken over from coupes
  • MPV: Nowadays, they come in a huge array of sizes, from the little Citroen C3 Picasso to the traditional seven seater Ford Galaxy. Not all are seven seaters, so do check first.
  • Off Road: Falling back after years of rapid growth. Nowadays, they are become smaller and more economical (e.g. Ford Kuga, VW Tiguan).

Fuel Type

Nowadays the market for new cars is split almost 50:50 between petrol and diesel. Generally speaking, the extra cost of diesel is not worth it for small cars, given that small petrol engines are now so economical. Conversely, off-roaders and big MPVs are almost unsaleable with a petrol engine. The crossover point is the small family car (Ford Focus/VW Golf-sized models). Smaller than that petrol is preferable, larger than that most people choose diesel. However, if you are buying second-hand and you not drive many miles, you may be able to find a big petrol model for massively less money than an equivalent diesel.

Your Priorities

Take a look at our road tests and decide what categories are important to you. We break a car down by:

  • Styling
  • Handling
  • Comfort
  • Quality and Reliability
  • Performance
  • Roominess
  • Running costs
  • Value for Money
  • Stereo & Sat Nav
  • Environment

Thinking about which of these are most important to you will help crystallise your thoughts.

As regards equipment, these are the key items. Remember, unless the car is more than a few years old, it will almost certainly have power steering, ABS, engine immobiliser and a driver airbag as standard. If you are paying more than £2,000, you should expect all those items, unless you are buying a classic car.

  • Air conditioning/climate control
  • Alloy wheels
  • Remote central locking
  • Audio (CD or MP3)
  • Sat Nav
  • Leather seats
  • Electric seats
  • Passenger airbag(s)

In fact, on a high-specification car under two years old, you may have the opposite problem - some people just cannot get on with electronic parking brakes and other modern gadgets. Do ensure that you understand all the features before you drive away in your new car - more than one buyer has been stranded by the mysteries of keyless engine start.


Always remember that paying for the car (even on finance) is the easy bit. After that, there is insurance, road tax (check the CO2-related charge for post 2001 models), fuel and the biggest issue of all, depreciation. If you are buying second-hand, there is often a trade off between fuel economy and depreciation - you might get a thirstier car for much less money, but calculate the extra fuel cost (and the likely further depreciation) of any gas-guzzler.

If you've seen a car you're interested in, get a valuation, so you know how much you should be paying.

next: The Rise of Eco-cars