There’s no such thing as a perfect vehicle, but the good news is, just about all of them are pretty great at what they do. With hundreds of choices on the market nowadays though, it can be hard to know exactly where to start looking when it comes to choosing the right car. In fact, the car shopping process can be so tricky, many people go into it with an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mindset, and end up buying the same model, time and time again.

While that may work for some people, oftentimes our car needs change as we get older, change careers, start a family, and so on. And sometimes, you might just want to try something different! To help you streamline your next car shopping experience, we’ve compiled a go-to guide for how to properly weigh your needs vs. wants, and pick the right vehicle.

Figure out your budget:

Before buying any big-ticket item like a car or house, you’ll want to sit down and evaluate your budget. What are you willing to pay for a new or new-to-you car? How much can you realistically afford monthly?

The thing is, most car dealerships like to focus on the monthly payment, which can look deceptively affordable if you’re young or inexperienced in the car shopping process. But a lower monthly payment can end up adding thousands of dollars of interest to your overall purchase, and make it harder for you to move into another car.

Instead of focusing on your monthly payment as the main factor, consider the total overall cost first (don’t forget to factor in things like registration, maintenance, and repairs, too!). You can also make use of an online auto loan calculator to help you estimate what your monthly car payments would be depending on the kind of car you want to buy.

Ask yourself – what kind of car do I want?

Alright, on to the fun stuff. It should go without saying, but when you’re in the market for a new car, you should definitely be focusing on what you want. Now of course, not everyone is going to be able to buy their dream car right off the bat, but it’s good to keep a mental list of the key features you want in a new car.

Has it always been your dream to own an electric car? Or do you find yourself craving an off-road capable vehicle? By keeping these wants in mind, it’ll be easier to narrow your choices down – and make it easier to accept possible trade-offs.

What kind of car do you need?

Now that you’ve daydreamed about your perfect car, it’s time to come back down to earth for just a bit. Unless you get lucky, it can be difficult finding a car that perfectly fits into your wants and budget at the same time. That’s why it’s important to consider your absolute must-haves, or features you can’t live without.

For example, if you have a large family, ample seating space is going to be an absolute necessity. If you drive a lot for work, or tend to taxi clients and business peers around, you’ll definitely need a car that looks presentably upscale (if only just in appearance).

Once you’ve developed a list of must-haves, it’ll be easier to narrow down the list of acceptable options within your budget range.

Now onto some of the more technical aspects you’ll want to consider the next time you’re going car shopping.

How much room do you need?

Like we mentioned earlier, the right kind of seating should be high on your priority list. Think about your daily life, or how it might evolve in the next 5 years. A spacious SUV like a Buick Enclave might be a good fit for a growing family.

Even if you’re a solo driver, you’ll likely be driving friends, family, or even a date around from time to time, and you’ll want them to have plenty of room. Something like an Audi TT Coup allows you to carry around a few friends, without sacrificing the style and look of a small sports car.

Safety Features:

Of course, one of the biggest concerns on shoppers’ minds is safety. Luckily, most vehicles on the market today have come far in terms of advanced safety features like autonomous emergency braking, blind spot detection, and lane keep assist.

But while you’re checking out safety features, don’t overlook the headlights. Whether you go for LED, halogen, or xenon bulbs, each pair of headlights should provide sufficient light – without glare.

Automatic versus manual:

Manual transmissions may not be as popular as they once were, but for some people, the fun and challenge of driving a stick shift is hard to give up.

For most drivers, automatic is going to be your best bet (and most makes and models nowadays are automatic by default). But, if you’re going to be driving in mountainous terrain often, or live in an area where stop-and-go traffic is minimal, you might consider looking into a manual option.

What kind of engine?

Unless you’re planning on auditioning for The Fast & The Furious, something economical like a four-cylinder will likely provide just the right mix of performance and fuel-economy.

Want to save even more on fuel? Consider a hybrid or diesel option, which excel in cities and on highways.

Try an online car-finder tool:

Once you’ve got a solid list of all your perfect features and must-haves, it’s a good idea to set aside some time to play with an online car-finder tool. This one in particular lets you filter through things like price, fuel economy, seating, and more to help you narrow down your search. And, once you find a few choice options, you’ll be able to get a free quote as well.

Buying a new car can be an exciting and challenging experience, and one you’ll likely end up making a few compromises on. But at the end of the day, finding the perfect fit often comes down to doing your due diligence when it comes to research.

Claire Biggerstaff
Claire Biggerstaff is a freelance writer and photographer from Charlotte, NC. Her curiosity leads her to write about a wide variety of topics. On her off days, she enjoys reading Polygon articles, and curling up to a good YouTube playlist.

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