The question automotive writers get asked most by car buyers is "What do you drive?" To which I answer, "It doesn't matter." Everyone's needs are different. You will gain little wisdom from the fact that a 22-year-old Mazda Miata is parked in my driveway.
A wise auto journalist never recommends a specific car, because it's too personal of a decision. But we have tools to help people choose. Emulate an automotive writer and you'll pick a better car.
It's easy to overlook the best vehicle for your lifestyle if you don't do your homework. Far too often, people who ask me for information are really only asking for validation. Be smarter than that. Here are some pro guidelines for better buying.
To think like a journalist, you must clear your mind of bias. It's tough. We all have perceptions of who makes the best cars. The reality is, most automotive writers believe that the quality and reliability gap has shrunk significantly between brands.
Buying foreign or domestic has also become complex. "Foreign" companies design and build vehicles in the U.S.; "domestic" brands make vehicles outside our borders.
Start with the big picture
Determine only the type of vehicle (such as sedan or crossover) that you want, and a price limit. Popular sites such as NWautos.com and Cars.com allow you to call up all of the choices available by clicking on a segment. The initial number might be daunting at first, but you'll quickly cull it by eliminating vehicles that are the wrong size, cost too much or drink too much fuel.
Let's say you've narrowed the field to seven vehicles that fit your needs and price range. Next, go to the manufacturers' websites and build each vehicle, including the options you want, as identically to each other as possible.
This gives you an idea of how they truly stack up against each other. Some will offer more equipment for less money. Others may not be available with important features. Sift and eliminate accordingly. Remember, don't judge by brand; be professional.
Then, search the web for reliability ratings and read reviews from a couple different sources (may I suggest my site DrivenCarReviews.com?). You will likely find consistencies across the articles and will begin to understand the positives and negatives of each model. Pay attention to the details you find most important, such as fuel economy, performance, handling, design, road noise, visibility and cargo capacity.
The final three
Your research should lead you to at least three finalists to test drive. Feel free to have four or five, but I highly recommend a minimum of three. Auto writers drive a lot of cars. Don't cheat yourself by being lazy — the average new car costs $30,000 these days.
Leave the checkbook at home. You're not buying on test-drive day. Start early and experience all your choices in one day so they are fresh in your mind. Drive in familiar conditions to understand how they perform.
Pay close attention to road noise, acceleration off the line and straight-line stability, and make sure all drivers can see safely. Take a checklist to be extra methodical. (I do.) Listen to the stereo on the lot, not the drive.
Making the choice
You'll be exhausted after a day of test driving. Get a good night's sleep before making your decision, because at this point you're doing something I don't: handing over your hard-earned cash to purchase a car.
You've been cool and calculating, so now let a little emotion creep into your decision — because you should love the car you're buying. It's the vehicle you'll take care of and drive for a long time. The car I loved has been in my driveway for 22 years. Enough said.