When Car and Driver editors buy cars, emotion often trumps logic. We love performance, so practicality isn’t a major consideration. But for many buyers, a car is a rational choice; they buy what they need to transport themselves and their loved ones as safely, comfortably, and cheaply as possible. It’s a smarter way to buy, but it isn’t any easier. With more than 400 new cars to choose from, how do you pick the right one?
Start by considering a series of questions, but beware: Once you find the car that fulfills your every need, an emotional connection may well form whether you like it or not.
What Kind of Car Do I Need?
Coupe/Convertible: If you want a car that makes a statement about you, coupes and convertibles are typically the most expressive designs, but restricted access to the back seat (if the car you are considering even has one) seriously limits their practicality.
Sedan: If there are kids in the picture or in the near-future plan, four doors are a likely requirement. Even if children are small enough to ride comfortably in the back seat of a coupe with any regularity, consider the difficulty of constantly climbing into and out of the back seat to tend to a child before committing to just two doors.
Hatchback: If you add another door—bringing the total to five—you’re looking at hatchbacks and station wagons, which offer SUV-like space without the dynamic and fuel-economy compromises of heavier vehicles. These cars are pariahs in the U.S. market, but many buyers are starting to reconsider, as fluctuating fuel prices and increasing environmental awareness may have them thinking twice about crossovers and SUVs. As manufacturers get increasingly creative and design ever more stylish hatchbacks—their roofs are sleeker than wagons’—the market is warming to the segment.
Station Wagon: Station wagons have perhaps the worst reputation of any body style on the market, but we’re fighting to change that. They offer the best attributes of a car without the trade-offs of larger crossovers and SUVs.
SUV/Crossover: Jack up the ground clearance of a hatchback or station wagon, and you have a crossover or an SUV. Do you need that ground clearance? Probably not. When was the last time your road didn’t get regularly plowed or cleared? Sure, it happens—most often to those of us in the northern part of the country, and that’s a few times a winter—but the fuel-economy penalty of opting for a taller and heavier vehicle is something that affects you every time you start the car.
Of course, the higher seating position of a crossover or SUV is something many people enjoy, for its increased visibility and for the ease of entry and exit as the seat is at a more natural height. But keep in mind that height adds weight, and weight diminishes fuel economy and stability.
Those who tow regularly already know they need something with that capability. But if you need a truck only to tow a few times a year, perhaps renting in those instances is a better alternative to living year round with the fuel-economy penalties of a truck.
Minivan: Those with large families—or dreams of such—often resist the practicality of the van, but if you routinely haul five or more people, there is no vehicle short of a school bus that will better accommodate six, seven, or eight passengers. A jumbo SUV like a Chevrolet Suburban or Ford Expedition EL has more cargo space, but passengers will find greater comfort in a minivan. A minivan is the perfect family vehicle but normally does without any semblance of soul. A couple of notable exceptions are the Honda Odyssey and the Chrysler Pacifica, both of which manage to add an element of driving pleasure to the normally bland family-hauler character.
What Size Car Do I Need?
We say start small. And right off the bat, let’s debunk a common myth: Larger vehicles are safer than smaller ones. The safest collision is one you avoid in the first place. Lighter cars are typically more agile and give you a better chance of steering away from a crash rather than gripping the wheel, barreling in, and letting physics punish the other driver.
Before the inevitable “If I’m going to get T-boned by an idiot in a Navigator, I’d rather be in a Silverado than a Mini” response, consider that a shorter stopping distance might allow you to come to a complete stop before either car in that scenario ever enters the intersection. Small cars tend to cost less to buy and consume less fuel, too. Driving a smaller, more frugal car makes you look enlightened—at least in college towns and northern California.
Do I Need All-Wheel Drive?
Probably not. All-wheel drive is seen as a safety feature in wintry climes, but the only difference the average driver will notice with all-wheel drive is the added traction when accelerating. All-wheel drive doesn’t increase a vehicle’s ability to stop or turn. What most buyers don’t realize is just how much difference a set of winter tires can make. And they are cheaper than upgrading to an all-wheel-drive car and won’t have the year-round negative impact on your fuel economy that comes with a car having to drive all four wheels all the time.
While we’re on the subject, weight does not automatically make a better winter vehicle. Heavy cars and trucks do plow through deep snow better and behave more predictably, but hit a patch of ice, and that weight is just extra momentum to try to control. Again, bigger is not necessarily better.
How Much Power Do I Need?
In our road tests, we always cite 0-to-60-mph times, but the fact is that very few people ever actually use full throttle. Around Ann Arbor, we see more drivers who fear full throttle than those who ever use it. Truck buyers who tow and haul heavy loads need lots of power, but the average car buyer doesn’t need any more than is necessary to keep him or her comfortable on a test drive. The buying practice of getting the bigger engine but never using more than half-throttle is like building a four-story house but leaving the top two floors vacant. All else being equal, larger engines use more fuel.
What about Hybrids and Electric Vehicles?
The type of driving you do determines whether or not a hybrid or an electric vehicle makes sense for you. Hybrids tend to use less fuel around town, when low speeds and frequent braking keep them running on battery power longer. Electric vehicles are good for buyers who live in areas where public charging infrastructure is robust. Electric vehicles can be taken on road trips, but as our recent 1000-mile road rally experiment proved, not all EVs are created equal.
Either approach will save you money on fuel, but be aware of the premiums you’ll be paying up front and the distance you’ll have to drive to recoup your costs. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a deterrent if you know you’ll drive a car more than 60,000 or 100,000 miles, or if you buy a fuel miser on principle.
Could You Please Be More Specific?
For our top choices in every segment—the cars we would buy if we were in the market today—see our Editors Choice page. Or check out our annual 10Best list of the 10 outstanding cars across all market segments.
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