After five years without a car, I decided late last fall (2007) that I had to have a vehicle. For various reasons, including a planned move to Toronto in a few months, it has become a necessity to have a car. I also missed not seeing a lot of friends, all of whom are car-less and live in a nearby city. I had to give my outdoor photography sessions and much more. So after so long without, I gave in and got a vehicle shortly after New Year’s Day. If you’re in the position of buying a new car, regardless of your reasons, here are a few tips.
1. Decide on budget beforehand. With all the sexy cars to lust after, it’s easy to get sidetracked. While I love old muscle cars and new sports cars, I’ve never been partial to spending a crapload of money on either. (Though I did spend nearly $600/mth on car payments on each of two Subarus and $600/mth on highway toll fees one year.) I go for form over function. You have to decide what you can afford, and whether it’ll satisfy your needs. When you’re earning the big bucks, you can rethink what you’re driving. (I’m planning my “sports car-driving midlife crisis” for a few years from now.) I’ll admit, I was tempted to go for the 2008 model of the Dodge Caliber SRT-4.
2. Factor in mandatory and incidental costs. It’s easy to forget all the other costs that come as a package when you decide to have a car: monthly car payments, car insurance, driver’s license fees, license plate fees, gasoline, parking, checkups, repairs, emergencies. And with gas prices rising, having a car will be at its most expensive ever in a year or two. (Unless you’re in a high-paying career, fuel efficiency is probably on your mind.)
3. Determine preferred car category. I wanted a hatchback (aka 5-door) because of cargo convenience. I’m planning to move back to Toronto in a few months, and a 5-door will help immensely. I’ve previously had a Mazda hatchback and a Subaru station wagon, but a wagon is more than I need. It’s fact that I would have selected a sexier compact car if I didn’t need the functionality of a hatchback, but I also might have been tempted to spend more money than necessary.
4. Get recommendations. I’ll admit it: I’ve never previously owned a N. American-made car. If I could convince myself that Canadian climate wouldn’t be a factor, I’d get myself a 1969 Mustang. But since it is a factor, I’ve oddly tended towards Japanese models with AWD. (Though I really miss the giant ’72 Chevy Caprice “boat” we once had in the family.)
The fact that I ended up with a Dodge Caliber SXT this time is not only because of an initial recommendation but also subsequent research. My brother, a longtime car enthusiast who sometimes races formula cars at a track northwest of Toronto, recommend Dodge Caliber for a variety of reasons. (Disclaimer: neither of us work for Dodge nor have any monetary connection.) So if you know someone that can give you a recommendation, use that as a starting point for your research.
5. Research online. Car makers and car dealers are all online now (not so when I bought my last car). So even if you use the local newspapers to find special promotions, go do comparisons online as well.
My brother initially recommended the Dodge Caliber SXT, RT, and SRT-4. I researched these online, along with another 14 hatchback models from a total of about 11-13 car markers. I actually created a mindmap complete with vital info about each model, a picture of each car, financing/ leasing details, and whatever other info I collected. Building a comparison list allowed me to quickly produce a short list of about six hatchback models.
6. Shop around for financing. My shortlist was further reduced when I factored in the base cost of cars with AWD. My previous two cars – both Subarus – were very expensive. Subarus have gone down in price since, but with the fiasco I went through when local Subaru dealership went bankrupt and screwed me over royally, I vowed never to buy another. Most carmakers, including GM (who bought a portion of Subaru), charge at least $21,000 base for a 5-door AWD car. Some don’t offer AWD as an option for 5-speeds or even 5-door cars.
Armed with an even shorter list after my research and when considering my budget, I was left with Dodge Caliber and one of the two 5-door Kia models. But Kia offers better financing options than leasing, and I have no desire to own a Kia when the lease is up. Dodge, on the other hand, had better leasing rates and is putting out a lot of great cars. I also lucked out because the dealer I spoke with, Brent, sweetened everything with a lot of free options. (Brent was truly one of the nicest car dealers I’ve interacted with.)
I managed to get a new car for a very affordable monthly rate, with just $2000 down – which was loaned to me by a family member on the condition that I get only a new car.) On top of that, I managed to get a 27-month option, so I’m not committed to it too long. I’ll be in Toronto long before the lease expires, and if I don’t need a car after that, I’m not stuck with a long lease.
7. Do a test drive. I only ever bought one car without a test drive, but that was because it was a Subaru. Both my brother and mother had nothing but good things to say about their Subarus, and I had to make a quick decision. However, since I prefer 5-speed to automatic, I’ve since learned to do a test drive before buying/ leasing. There’s really little reason not to.
What to Check For During Your Test Drive
If you’re taking the time to do a test drive, why not go in there with a list of things to test for? If you’re committing your hard-earned money for a lease or purchase, be sure you know what you’re getting. I was so excited to have a car after so long that I basically only tested the gearshifting.
- Blind spots. This is usually the first thing I check for, but I forgot and find that there are some serious blind spots on the Caliber.
- Dashboard controls. Sounds crazy, but learn where the wiper, defrost, and hazard light controls are before you go out on the road – even before the test drive. (It was snowing heavily when I did the test drive, so I insisted the dealer come along.)
- Ambient sounds. If you get a sunroof and actually use it, you’ll have to deal with the high decibels of air rushing past. But what does it sound like in the driver’s seat when the roof is closed? What about
- Handling. Check for how the car handles in both the city and on the nearest highway, if possible. Since I was getting a 5-speed, I also checked the gearshifting and clutch. My father’s research led him to believe that the Caliber’s clutch was “heavy”. I found it to be no different than with my two 5-speed Subarus and the Suzuki compact I’d had before that.
- Acceleration. I don’t plan to be on the highway a lot, but if you will be, make sure the car you’re getting can cope with traffic along your daily route. Can you accelerate fast enough to merge safely with traffic?
- Leg room. Don’t just check legroom for the driver but also the passengers. A few days ago, I visited friends I hadn’t seen years. After the fact, I realize that my new car is not comfortable when three people including the driver are around or over six feet tall. Of course, I can’t do anything about it now.
- Parkability. Something about the design of the Caliber makes me uncomfortable while parking – and that’s regular parking, not parallel, which I’ve yet to try. Obviously, this is something that I should have checked on the test drive. Again, too late.
When you decide on the car that you’re getting, make sure that you’ve either test-driven that model, or that the car you try handles the same way.