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How to pick your own winning car
It's important to use your head, but you have to trust your gut, too.
February 9, 2005: 1:11 PM EST
By Lawrence Ulrich, MONEY Magazine

NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - When you analyze investments, you generally ought to keep your feelings out of it. When the asset in question is a new car, however, following your heart isn't such a bad idea.

A car is an investment, all right -- today's average set of wheels costs $28,000 to drive off the lot, and the car payment is the second-largest monthly check that most families write.

But while you still need to do your research, you simply can't know whether that money is being well spent without also consulting your gut. Does the car feel fun and rewarding to drive? Do you like its looks? Do you feel comfortable inside? It can be hard to quantify the answers to questions like these. But if you don't ask them, you'll miss some of the key factors that distinguish so-so cars from truly great ones.

Our goal in naming the best car values of 2005 was to help you make precisely that distinction. Year after year, we test-drive every new car and truck model and compare them with their peers in all manner of objective categories-price, power, features, safety, trunk space, cup holders, you name it.

But a car is more than a dry list of specs. While attributes like design, image, craftsmanship and refinement are partly subjective, they have an undeniable impact on the value you get from the car-both while you own it and, crucially, when you trade it in. (See "Why Beauty Counts".) There's a reason that a dealer will pay you nearly $12,000 for a 2002 Honda Accord LX (58 percent of the original sticker price) while an '02 Chrysler Sebring barely fetches $7,000 (an anemic 36 percent). And it has nothing to do with cup holders.

Still, reasonable people can differ about which cars constitute the best value for them. That's why we encourage you to use our winners as benchmarks in your own search -- the ones to measure others against. Confer with your inner critic about a car's aesthetics and performance. Most of all, test-drive as many competing models as you can. And when you've found a car you love, buy it.

What's your competitive set?

We've divided the nearly 400 car and truck models into 15 categories, from family sedans to luxury SUVs. But you can easily reorder the auto universe into smaller clusters by searching auto-shopping sites like Edmunds.com, Cars.com and Autotrader.com for models with the price and features you want.

Even if your present car seems ideal in every way, don't buy another one without first checking out its peers. It's a competitive world. In our own rankings, for example, the BMW 5-Series used to have a lock on best luxury sedan; this year the brilliantly redesigned Audi A6 shot past it. The incumbent is still excellent. The challenger just got better.

Drive, we say

Read the reviews at car-shopping sites, as well as at Car and Driver and Automobile, to help you narrow your field to no more than three contenders. Then give your finalists a test drive that covers everything. ("Secrets of the Test Drive" describes how.)

Even if you consider a car merely a means of getting from point A to point B, don't discount the value of performance. You might think it doesn't matter how quickly a minivan, for example, can scoot through a set of slalom cones. But you might feel differently when you're negotiating a rainy back road at night or are forced to swerve to avoid an accident.

That's why precise handling is one of many reasons we rated the Honda Odyssey as our top minivan. Throw in best-in-class acceleration, fuel economy and interior design (along with the best expected resale value) for a price in line with that of lesser minivans, and you've got the very embodiment of great automotive value.

Pull the trigger

When you've found the car that gives you the most of what you demand for the money you want to spend, don't be talked out of it. If you go into the showroom dead-focused on a particular model, you're less likely to be sidetracked by aggressive dealers or by rebate come-ons for an inferior car. Besides, you're trading a lot of your family's wealth for this vehicle. It ought to be one you love and believe in. The worst mistake a car buyer can make isn't failing to find the perfect car. It's finding the perfect one and then settling for something less.  Top of page

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