How to Pick a Winner
Do your research, but trust your gut too
(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" on page 102.) There's a reason that a dealer will pay you nearly $12,000 for a 2002 Honda Accord LX (58% of the original sticker price) while an '02 Chrysler Sebring barely fetches $7,000 (an anemic 36%). 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 (caranddriver.com) and Automobile (automobilemag.com), 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," on page 100, 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.
SECRETS OF THE TEST DRIVE
Step on the gas. Slam on the brakes. Crawl all over the seats. Take notes. And don't be bullied by overzealous salespeople
[THE FOLLOWING DESCRIPTIVE TEXT APPEARS WITHIN A DIAGRAM]
PLAN A REAL TEST ROUTE
• VARY THE TERRAIN Cruise curvy, bumpy side roads, not just straight, well-paved freeways.
• TURN, TURN, TURN Find an open parking lot to assess the turning circle. Then simulate an emergency lane change at 30 mph.
• LEAVE THE SALESMAN BEHIND Let him demonstrate features, but when it's time to really drive, ditch him or ask him to zip it.
EXAMINE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
• SLAM THE DOOR, TUG THE SEAT BELTS Run your hands over exterior and interior surfaces, gaps and seams, and don't worry about leaving fingerprints. You'll get an engineer's perspective on how everything fits together. Does it feel cheap or well constructed?
SURVEY ROOMINESS AND COMFORT
• ADJUST THE SEATS Pay special attention to support and movability, your driving position and visibility in all directions.
• CLIMB INTO AND OUT OF THE BACK SEAT And the third row, if there is one. Is moving around easy?
• FOLD AND ERECT THE THIRD-ROW SEATS (in SUVs and minivans). Some are a breeze, others heavy, clumsy or confusing.
STUDY INTERIOR LAYOUT
• SIT WITH THE MOTOR IDLING Tune in to the car's total environment with your eyes, ears, hands and the seat of your pants.
• USE THE CONTROLS Fiddle with every knob, switch, vent, cup holder and cubby. Are audio and climate controls easy to understand and reach? Are gauges and displays readable and well positioned?
ON THE ROAD
• FLOOR IT Find a freeway merge or open road where you can safely step on the gas to test pickup. Speed up under full throttle to at least 60 mph.
• ACCELERATE HARD FROM BOTH 30 MPH AND 50 MPH Pay attention to passing power and shifting smoothness.
• LISTEN TO THE ENGINE Does it beg for more or protest with loud straining noises and jarring shifts?
• WATCH OUT FOR JERKS Automatic transmissions should shift smoothly and with a minimum of hesitation or lurching.
• RESET THE TRIP COMPUTER So you can see what fuel mileage you can expect.
• LET GO OF THE WHEEL (A LITTLE) Make sure the car tracks straight and feels stable with the wheel in the straight-ahead position.
• TAKE CURVES AT A BRISK SPEED Does the car feel steady, easily holding its lane? Or is it tippy and hard to steer?
• SEEK OUT SOME BAD ROAD Hit the broken pavement, potholes, or dirt and gravel you've mapped out. You'll get a real-world sense of the ride quality and be able to pick up on any body rattles or vibrations.
• LISTEN FOR TIRE, ENGINE AND WIND NOISE
THE TRUNK TEST
• POP THE TRUNK Assess overall space and the size of the opening. A neat-looking, well-finished trunk or cargo area—with a lining that's perfectly aligned and fitted, not sloppy—is a sign of a thoroughly detailed car.
• BRAKE HARD Find a safe spot and brake hard to a full stop from at least 50 mph, then do it at least twice more. Do the brakes feel just as powerful the third time?
• NOTICE HOW SMOOTHLY YOU COME TO A HALT The car's nose shouldn't dive too sharply when braking.