How to choose the right car

These days, it is harder than ever to choose a new car.

Many cars look identical and have mostly the same features.

But the truth is each car is different than others in subtle, but important ways.

A lot of people who lease new cars have buyers remorse…

Because once they start driving their new rides, they are shocked by how different the car is compared to the 40-minute test drive.

That is why I drew up this blog post. This is what I think about every time I go to lease a new car:

Safety

Nowadays, people walk away from the most horrific crashes.

Many car makers have pledged death-free cars by the year 2020. And this is awesome.

As we all know, everyone is distracted. Texting… swiping – even watching movies on their phone while driving is commonplace.

So, I created this list of the most economical, safest cars – sorted by category and price.

To find out how safe any car is, I zoom to the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). And their website rates most new cars here.

Auto start

In the future, almost every car manufacturer will make available auto start at a monthly subscription price. (You heard it here first, folks.)

Since I live in a climate with extreme temperatures (summers in the 90s and winters in the teens), I think it is worth every penny if priced under $10 a month…

Once started, the interior is perfectly heated (or cooled) to perfection in just minutes – no need to rely on a heated steering wheel or heated/cooled seats.

Exception: manual transmission cars cannot be equipped with auto start.

Also, with today’s sophisticated cars idle, they sip less in gas. I find letting the car warm up just 10 minutes hardly puts a dent in our fuel economy.

Climate

If we typically drive in the rain and occasional light snow, two-wheel drive usually works just fine. And since most of the USA is snow free, front-wheel drive is the preferred setup.

For performance cars, rear-wheel drive is preferred, but all-wheel drive, if available, can increase traction.

For the rest of us who live in snowy winter conditions, all-wheel drive is a must.

If I was off-roading as a hobby, I would opt for a vehicle with rear-wheel drive and lots of ground clearance. Keep in mind that both all-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive systems add considerable weight to a vehicle which tends to lower fuel economy.

All-wheel drive usually drives up resale values, too.

Colors

The most popular car colors today are shades of grey: white, black, grey and silver. This amounts to over 70% of the total world car production.

Car manufacturers know this and typically charge a premium on the color white of at least $500.00.

Red, blue and brown/beige cars range between 6% and 9% each, while all other colors amount to less than 5%.

Myth busted: car insurance companies do not determine premiums based on car color.

Cupholders

Cupholders are one of the most overlooked features of getting into a new car…

I never assume cars come with enough cup holders (or good cup holders). Up until recently, Tesla cars (which sell for over $100,000) did not have cupholders in the rear. And the cup holders in the front were terrible.

So:

When test driving a car, I always bring 3 different-sized soda cups (convenience stores will give it to us free). I also bring a coffee mug. And I test ’em out.

Navigation

Navigation is kind of like a swimming pool…

Once we get it, we wonder how we lived without it.

For our family, navigation is a must. We travel a ton. So I would gladly pay up to $2,000 for a good navigation system. It is that worth it.

But:

Apple Car Play, Android Auto and Waze changed everything. Now, I no longer care about built-in navigation. Because our smartphones offer the best navigation. It is free. And it is always updated with the latest places and road information.

I invested about $75 to have my smartphone ride more elegantly in my car – like this:

Apple Maps car mount

First, I bought a Vena magnetic case

Next, I use this amazing portable charger to hide those messy-looking charging wires and keep my phone charged.

Finally, I got this Universal Magnetic Car Cellphone Mount Holder.

Now, anytime I need to use my phone to double as an awesome navigation system, I simply hover my phone towards the mount holder and it snaps together via the magnet system – very cool and handy.

Now, I can choose my phone navigation in a click.

Surprisingly, popular car manufacturers like Toyota insist on offering their own navigation system. It is a reliable system, but dated. And Toyota has no plans to interface with Apple Car Play or Android Auto.

Of course, if I was driving to familiar locations (or mostly local), navigation would be less important.

Warning: most car manufacturers charge an expensive fee for updates. The problem with skipping updates is this – as the car gets older, the data quickly become dated. New businesses or new construction does not show up as the navigation data ages. Of course, Apple Car Play, Android Auto and Waze is always updated – FREE of charge.

Children

If I had small children, I would get a new minivan. They are specifically designed for families with young ones.

Yes. SUVs and crossovers are the new-age mommy mobiles, but their door swings out. And it is a constant worry about it slamming against another car in a parking lot.

But minivan doors slide against the outside of the car. This is very convenient.

Plus, cars with children in them notoriously get dirty. And minivans are usually easier to clean. Some even offer built-in central vacuum cleaners.

Minivans are roomy and spacious. We never get that boxed in feeling that SUVs give us.

Here is the best news: a minivan will often cost at least $10,000 less than a comparably-equipped, midsize SUV. Yet, they have most of the same bells and whistles.

The best advice is to lease a minivan while toddlers graduate from infant seats, then move into a sportier SUV.

Exception: if I did a lot of off-road traveling, minivans do not have enough ground clearance.

Captain’s chairs

Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to captain’s chairs:

Pros

– Captain’s chairs separate the young ones from fighting over space…
– They easily recline so we can sleep with them after long road trips…
– The empty space in the middle of the 2nd row makes getting to the back easier. It also is a great “seat” for pets as a comfortable place to lay down on the floor.

Cons

– Usually available in only the most expensive trim…
– Second-row seats are less wide and are hard to sleep in after a long road trip…
– The center 2nd-row pathway to the back row eliminates a valuable seat position…
– The seats do not fold over as neatly and out of the way to make a smooth cargo surface.
– Cargo area has a gap when the 2nd-row seats are in the down position…
– Children cannot move to the center seat to look out of the front window.

The good news is more and more SUVs are making bench seating that folds away so it is easier to get in the 3rd row.

It is hard to find any studies on whether captain’s chairs are safer than bench seating… this study shows the difference between SUVs and minivans. As we see, they are similar in safety.

Home

I never forget that most of our car’s time sit idle at home.

And I ask myself:

“Will a bigger car fit in our parking space?”

“If it snows a lot, will a bigger car make it hard to clear the snow?”

‘Will it fit in my garage? Is the garage ceiling low (which might bang into a rear tailgate lifting up while emptying groceries)?”

Heated steering wheel

Ask any woman about their favorite car creature comfort and most love the idea of a heated steering wheel.

Car manufacturers know this. And they often sell it at a supremely premium price.

For example, adding a heated steering wheel to the popular Toyota RAV4 forces us to upgrade beyond their Limited package into their obscenely expensive Platinum package. This adds over $3,000 to the price tag.

Are a heated steering wheel and some minor extras worth thousands and thousands of dollars? Probably not.

Remember, a car with auto start will warm the interior in less than 5 minutes – no heated-steering wheel necessary.

Heated/cooled seats

Once again, auto start eliminates the need to get a separate system to heat or cool our seats.

But:

If climate controlled seats are included in a trim package, then I would not turn it down. (But I sure would not pay extra for this.)

Zoned climate control

My wife always likes it colder than I prefer.

So in our case, dual climate control is a must.

Same for the rear passengers – does the car include climate control for passengers in the back? We ditched plans to lease another Toyota RAV4 Limited, because the car does not offer climate control in the back. And any time the weather gets extreme, the front passengers suffer to make it comfortable in the back.

Packages & Options

There are tons of benefits of leasing vs. owning.

But for me, the biggest benefit is the discount we get on higher-priced trim levels. Since we only pay the depreciated amount of these extras, we typically get them for at least half off – sometimes a lot more.

For example, if the leather-seat option is $1,500 and the car has a residual percent value of 60%, then that option sets us back about $600. And $600 spread out over a typical lease of 36 months is about $11 a month.

Therefore, it is often a no-brainer to get the most expensive options available.

Reliability

Newly-leased cars are guaranteed to be problem free the entire time we drive ’em. The car manufacturer’s warranty covers us for the entire term of the lease. (The exception is a company like Toyota. They have a paltry 36,000-mile warranty. That means when we drive a little more than 1,000 miles a month over 36 months, we can go out of warranty.)

With that said, time is money. And if my car is in the shop a lot, that sucks out loud.

Anytime I get into a new car lease, I invest less than 60 seconds at this JD Powers Reliability Score research site.

If I see a “Quality” and/or “Performance/Design” result as “Available Soon” or less than 3 stars, odds are the car is not reliable at all.

Fuel economy

Most cars have been averaging 25 miles per gallon since the beginning of time…

Yep, the Ford Model T ranged between 16 and 25 miles per gallon almost 100 years ago.

So yes, big oil is in cahoots with the car industry.

But some cars get significantly more or less than the average.

This government website does a great job showing the fuel economy of every car offered in the USA.

Insurance costs

There are many myths floating around on what causes our insurance rates to soar…

Myths like the car’s color and the likelihood of theft have little to do with the cost of our auto insurance.

The big factor is safety. So when we get all those annoying nanny protections like frontal crash prevention and blind spot monitoring, we pay a lot less for insurance.

Total Cost of Ownership

To get a good estimate on how much our new car will cost to insurance and fuel, I search Google using the following syntax:

total cost of ownership [make model]

For example, when researching a Volvo XC60, I would search for:

total cost of ownership Volvo XC60

total cost of ownership Volvo XC60

As we see, the average Volvo XC60 owner pays less than $1,000 a year for insurance coverage. This amount is reasonable, because the car is loaded with safety technology.

And the fuel costs average less than $2,000 a year – not too bad for an SUV.

Cost of maintenance

The same total cost of ownership data includes the average cost of maintenance and repairs…

But since we are leasing, everything is covered by the car manufacturer’s warranty.

And maintenance is optional. (Even though the lease agreement is sort of vague on our maintenance responsibilities.)

The truth is an end-of-lease inspection will not look at maintenance items. So I never worry about spending money on maintenance.

Almost everyone I know gets tricked into maintaining their leased car…

With (most) new car leases, we only need to maintain “consumables”… and I detail these here.

Comfort

Of course, we can test-drive a new car and see if it is comfortable for us.

The problem is most rent-a-car companies only carry a limited number of fleet vehicles.

The good news is a growing number of new car dealerships rent out their cars to us. Yep, we can get the car we want to test on a daily basis – just like a rental car company. This way, we can get a much longer test drive before committing to a new-car lease.

How do we find out if a dealership is willing to rent one of their cars?

I call the service department and ask if I can rent one for the day. Their rates are often similar as standard rent-a-car companies.

Cargo capacity

I find many people fail to check out the available room in the “back” or the trunk.

Before I get into leasing a new car, I bring all our luggage… my golf bags – even my beach stuff and see if it all fits.

Acceleration

Many think big, powerful car engines are reserved for the bodybuilder types.

But having a car that accelerates fast during a pass prevents accidents.

Another issue is latency. That is, does the engine pause from accelerating when we floor the gas pedal. I did not lease a $60,000+ sports car simply because it took almost a full second for it to respond to my need for speed.

I always test out the latency and acceleration on a highway during a test drive.

Security

Car alarms do not deter criminals. And they are a public nuisance.

Study after study reveals up to 99% of all alarms are false positives. When car alarms go off, no one even turns their head and looks. No one cares. Everyone knows that it is probably a false alarm.

Instead of spending big bucks on worthless alarms, I apply these cheap, small alarm stickers on my car’s windows. I place my stickers on the driver’s and passenger’s windows in the bottom right corner.

Also, I always keep valuables out of our cars. Keeping a phone in plain sight is just asking for trouble.

Convertibles

Just about everyone I know would love to get into a convertible…

But:

Many people are naive about the downsides…

Let’s start with the good stuff:

Pros of driving a convertible

Visibility
There is better visibility in a convertible when the roof is down. We get to see more around us because there is no roof or door frame. Also, it can be easier to maneuver and park with the wider radius of vision that a top-down convertible offers.

Versatility
Most convertibles can easily be transformed back into a coupe or sedan in the push of a button. This versatility allows us to have the best of both worlds – the wind in our hair, but a roof over our head when the weather changes.

It is cool
Most convertible owners love the classic, sporty look of convertibles. Convertibles tend to turn heads.

Roomy
When the top is down, there is unlimited headroom.

If the weather is always nice, tall drivers can exploit a convertible to suit their height.

Cons of driving a convertible

Lack of legroom in the back
Most convertible’s rear seats touch the back of the front seats. Rear seats are more suitable as a luggage tray than as an actual seat.

Visibility
When the top is up, visibility is TERRIBLE. This is especially true if we get a convertible SUV (see below).

Unexpected noises
Without a fixed roof, a car loses a major part of its structural support system, which can lead to what is called “chassis shudder.” Convertibles get undercarriage reinforcements to make up for the loss of the roof. This usually results in a rough ride over bumps in the road.

Price
Convertibles tend to be $5,000 to $9,000 more expensive on average than similar sedans or coupes.

Leaks
Roof materials have improved, but not enough to guarantee that water will stay outside. Whether we drive a hard-top or soft-top convertible, heavy rain and snow can still make us susceptible to leaks.

Compromised security
A quick slash to the top makes it easier to break into than a sheet of reinforced metal.

In fact, convertibles rank as one of the most stolen vehicles. Figure upon adding at least 30% to our premium to ensure a convertible.

Faster aging of the interior
The sun punishes convertible interiors and cloth roofs. Plus, seats, dashboards and other surfaces may become sun damaged and cracked over time.

Not for SUVs
If you love SUVs and crossovers like I do, chances are you cannot get a convertible. Because they are (usually) available only as a coupe.

I only know of 3 convertible SUVs offered here in the good ol‘ USA:

Nissan Murano Crosscabriolet
I am not sure why Nissan advertises the Crosscabriolet as it was discontinued in 2014. And no wonder as it was a TERRIBLE car AND a TERRIBLE convertible:

Range Rover Evoque Convertible

Jeep Wrangler

Better: I suggest getting a panoramic sunroof as a compromise:

panoramic sunroof

It is sort of like having a hardtop convertible without all of the downsides.

Recalls

Recalls are usually car-industry hustles. Recalls are a convenient excuse to get our cars into their dealership’s service department.

They call it “getting under the hood.” Because once a service tech pops open our car’s hood, s/he is probably going to find all sorts of scary things that might need fixing.

On the flip side, the US government heavily leans on car manufacturers who do not voluntarily remedy major issues…

In one recent example, Hyundai and Kia had massive, major recalls on their new cars. Their engines were found to be defective, because debris leftover from the manufacturing process could seize and cause the vehicle to stall. Yikes… not good.

So:

Whenever I look into getting a new car, I always scan the car’s recall history and see if anything major crops up…

Safercar.gov publicly makes available a list of all major vehicle recalls here.

This recall site needs our Vehicle Identification Number (a.k.a. VIN) to check its recall history. Of course, since we are shopping for new cars, we do not have one just yet. What I do is visit a car dealership’s site, search for a matching car, and borrow its VIN.

If you want to see an example of a major recall, search the site using this VIN:

5XXGN4A70CG048880

Average passenger count

I use the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) to determine the number of seats I need in my typical drive. That is, how is my car configured 80% of the time?

Do I regularly drive 2 adults and 2 teens (or just me alone)?

Is my wife the always driving tons of children to soccer games (or riding solo to work)?

If I am driving the car by myself most of the time, do I really need to worry about leg room in the rear?

Or, if we always take our family of four on a road trip, do the rear seats have climate control?

Door size

We would think the length of a door would not be such a big deal…

But it is.

This is especially true with 2-door vehicles. Because their two doors are designed much longer.

Long door sizes make it harder to open when in tight spots (e.g. in a parking lot).

Even worse, if we travel with children, they are going to accidentally bang a long door into another car.

Ride height

If I am always driving on paved roads, the empty space between the road and the floor of our car is not a concern…

But:

If we ever drive in piles of snow or go off-roading, we are going to need a car that has high ground clearance.

Generally speaking, crossovers and SUVs naturally ride higher than coupes and sedans.

The downside of a higher riding car is there is less visibility. And higher riding cars have a higher center of gravity – making them more likely to tip or roll over in an emergency.

Low ground clearance cars are usually more aerodynamic which (usually) makes it more fuel efficient. On the flip side… lower-riding cars seem to bang into parking curbs more often.

Towing

Sure, if we are towing a boat to the lake, high-towing capacity is a must.

But if we are taking our bikes to the trail, we can get away with a towing and tongue weight capacity of just 1,500 pounds.

Run-flat tires

One of the biggest car industry hustles going these days is run-flat tires.

Run-flat tires run out of tread in half the time than normal tires. And they often cost twice as much as regular tires. Even worse, simple fixes (like a nail in the tire) cannot be repaired, but rather need to be replaced. And the worst part is run-flat tires must be replaced in pairs.

Oh, and run-flat tires do not age well – here is a picture of one I snapped:

run flat tires dated

If I was offered the option of getting run flats, I would decline real fast.

Now:

Car manufacturers know that run-flat tires have a bad reputation. So they are coy about whether their new cars use ’em.

How do we know if a car we are looking to lease comes with run-flat tires?

Usually, cars without spare tires rely on run-flat tires.

To know for sure, we can look for the the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) symbol imprinted on the tire itself. It looks sort of like a snail:

run flat tires snail

Or:

The sidewall will have the acronym “RFT” imprinted on the tire’s sidewall – like this:

run flat tires RFT imprint

Or, we can search the internet with this search syntax:

[make/model] run flats

For example:

Mini Cooper run flats

If there are discussions about it, odds are the car comes with run flat tires.

Mileage allotment

For those who lease and drive more miles than the average Joe or Jane, mileage is a big issue. Because the leasing industry significantly marks up the cost of over-the-mileage penalties. I have seen these penalties range from 15 cents to a full dollar per mile.

But:

I would lease a car no matter how many miles I drive.

Because:

If I was significantly over the allotted mileage at lease end, I would flip it and buy out the lease instead. When we buy out a lease, all penalties disappear.

On the open market, each mile over the allotted mileage value of our leased car costs us about 9 cent loss in market value… just as a financed car would be worth about 9 cents less, too.

In the end, a mile costs about the same no matter how we finance our car.

Proximity to a dealer

Sure, Ford and Chrysler and even Hyundai have plenty of dealerships nearby in case we need to service our car. But what about Jaguar or Porsche – even Buick? These dealerships are often hundreds of miles away from us.

This is a factor I consider when getting into a new car lease.

Assembly

Yes. I am reverse stereotyping here…

Because, whenever I look to get into a new car, I check to see where a car is assembled.

I look to have my car assembled anywhere in Asia – especially Japan.

On the flip side, a car assembled here in the USA or Mexico is most likely going to have more problems.

We can look at the 11th number on the 17-digit VIN to see where it was assembled:

A – H means Africa
J – R (except O and Q) means Asia
S – Z means Europe
1 – 5 means North America
6 or 7 means New Zealand or Australia
8 or 9 am for South America

By the way: the first character in a VIN tells us the geographic area of origin – not where it was assembled.

Residual (depreciation)

There is a lot of bad information floating around out there about low-cost leasing and depreciation.

A lot of “lease hackers” have been convinced that a higher residual percentage always lowers our monthly payments. This is just not true…

It is the manufacturer-to-dealer incentives that make a big difference. Every $1,000 incentive essentially lowers our monthly price by about $30.00.

Always get $0 cash down leases

Many people make the mistake of putting down money on their new car lease.

And if we are in an accident that totals our car, we lose that down payment. (We also lose it if the car is stolen).

Even worse, putting down thousands of dollars is a horrible use of cash. The cost to borrow money these days is at record lows. Instead, we can keep this cash and use it in better ways (like investments or paying down high-interest debts).

With car leasing, we can “roll a down payment” into a lease without penalty. As a result, we drive away the car without putting a penny down.

My KTL USA At-Home Leasing System is my DIY video training series that shows how I always get into a new car lease with $0 cash down.