What Are Your Priorities When You Car Shop?

This past week a friend asked for advice on car shopping as he’d not done it in a while. Perhaps you will find it useful as well.
In 2002, I gave up on American-branded cars. I’d driven Chevy, Buick, Olds, Saturn, Pontiac, and God knows what else. I bought a 2000 Honda Accord and loved it right up to the point some idjit drove out in front of me and killed it. Figuring I’d like another Accord, I got a 2009. I have been much more disappointed, though it took me a year or more to figure out what I didn’t like–the lines of sight are so bad that I backed into another car, a pole, and a garage door because I was unable to see how close I was. Surprisingly I’ve managed to hang onto it without killing myself. I’m about $3K away from paying off the Accord, and I’ll be glad to stop the paying. If I had steadier employment, I’d try something else–maybe Toyota, maybe Nissan since I’m doing work for them.
Anyhow, if you ask me what my biggest issue is when buying a car, it’s reliability–meaning how often is it between replacing major components. All the American-branded cars I had were just awful. Air conditioning, brakes, steering, wheels, interior: all sorts of major things were breaking down and I was plunking down a lot of money for big-ticket problems at a time when I didn’t have a lot of money. I’d test-driven Toyotas and Hondas and found (in 2002) that Honda Accord was a vehicle I liked. The 2009 model, not so much.
Here are my priorities, more or less in order:
  1. Reliability/mean time between failures
  2. Body type (sedan) and style (something not too boxy)
  3. Color (interior and exterior)
  4. Age/Mileage (I’ve never bought new, so I try for something <2 years old and with <20,000 miles on it–harder to come by in the current economy, but that’s still a good guideline)
  5. Automatic transmission
  6. Field of view through the windshield (one reason I don’t buy Chrysler products, for example, is that while their “cab forward” designs are sleeker than anything, they provide surprisingly minimal visibility)
  7. 4-cylinder engine (fuel economy/consumption)
  8. And if I’m feeling frisky when I buy, I’ll look at options like a sun roof, better stereo, and power seats/windows.
Just noticed that I didn’t include “price.” I guess my price range depends more on how much I have on hand and how much I’m willing to spend on a monthly payment. The only negotiating I’ll do will be to get the monthly payment inside my “window.”
Consumer Reports is worth consulting–Father Dan swears by it. If/when I buy another vehicle, I will probably use the same criteria, with an additional line item for visibility of the vehicle’s front and back ends. Live and learn.
And if there’s one thing I learned after numerous “experiences” with dealerships and private owners, I will from here on stick with Carmax. I just want to buy a car, not negotiate and play games for three hours. I’m a retail kind of guy. If I want a specific car and it matches my needs, I’ll buy it. If it doesn’t, no amount of arm-twisting  or wheel-dealing is going to change my mind.
I hope you find this useful.

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