buy first carBuying a car for the first time can be an overwhelming experience.

There’s so much to know and how to know what’s important.

With this article, we’ll take some of the mystery away from the car buying process.

We’ll focus on the car itself in this article because we’ve already covered topics such as new versus used, financing, loans, best first cars, and more. Many new car buyers don’t completely understand how things like engine power, miles per gallon, safety equipment, and reliability factor into making decisions about what to buy. Incredibly, some novice buyers put more importance on color as a decision factor than almost everything else.

When buying a car, the old adage that “you get what you pay for” usually applies. A less expensive car will more than likely have lower engine power, fewer safety features, and lower reliability than cars that cost more. But how important are those things?

Engine Power and Performance

Engine power, usually expressed as horsepower, is a function of the number of engine cylinders. Generally, a 4-cylinder engine is less powerful than a 6-cylinder or 8-cylinder engine, but is also less expensive and uses less fuel. As a rule-of-thumb, 4-cylinder engines have up to about 200 horsepower, 6-cylinder engines have up to about 300 horsepower, and 8-cylinder engines produce more than 300 horsepower.

The tradeoff in horsepower is the ability of the engine to power the car sufficiently in those times when additional power is needed — such as when accelerating from a stop, climbing hills, towing a trailer, passing on the highway, or simply merging into fast-moving traffic on the freeway. Some people don’t feel completely safe in a car with a very small engine. Specifications for some cars include a measure of the time required to accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour, which can be in the sub-5 second range for high performance sports cars, which are usually not good cars for inexperienced drivers.

Transmission – Manual or Automatic

Manual transmissions are not as popular now as some years ago. Many car buyers have never learned to drive a manual. It used to be that manual transmissions were less expensive than automatics, and produced better gas mileage. Today, with improved technology, automatics do as well or better and cost is about equal. Many car makers only offer automatic transmissions. Manuals are typically offered on sports cars or “sporty” cars for driving enthusiasts. If you have a choice, a manual might be more fun to drive but can become tiresome in daily stop-and-go traffic.

Front-Wheel Drive versus Rear-Wheel Drive versus All-Wheel Drive

Most cars are front wheel drive (FWD) because it’s simply a convenient way to deliver power from an engine that is already mounted in the front. Many car enthusiasts who are performance-conscious prefer traditional rear-wheel drive (RWD). And folks who live in areas of the country where snow and bad weather are common prefer all-wheel drive (AWD). However, the average driver won’t be able to tell the difference in normal driving conditions, although full-time all-wheel drive may decrease fuel efficiency.

Hybrid versus Non-Hybrid

Many car makers now offer hybrid versions of their vehicles. Hybrids use a combination of electric and gas power to increase fuel economy in certain driving conditions. Those offering the best fuel economy sacrifice power and performance while costing more than their non-hybrid cousins. Often the improvement in fuel cost doesn’t justify the higher vehicle cost. Some hybrids, such as those from Lexus, actually increase performance over their non-hybrid counterparts but don’t greatly improve fuel economy. So called “plug-in hybrids” and all-electric vehicles are becoming more popular as technology improves and prices come down.

Safety Equipment

In general, older and less expensive cars have fewer safety features than newer, more expensive cars. Important safety features such as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control have become standard on later model vehicles but may not exist on older used vehicles. Later cars also have more air bags and additional body structure strengthening. Many newer cars have features such as blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, back-up cameras, and collision warning systems — often offered as options or on the most expensive models.

Reliability and Quality

Vehicles with good reliability and quality will be more dependable, break down less often, have lower repair cost, reduce time in a repair shop, and be more stress-free. Consumer Reports magazine, each year, conducts owner surveys and compiles reliability ratings of all car makes and models. Although American car brands have improved significantly over the last few years, Japanese and Korean brands such as Toyota, Lexus, , Subaru, and Mazda are typically in the top ranked brands. European brands usually occupy the middle and lower ends of the rankings, although Audi, BMW, and Porsche rank higher.

Price and Value

Although we suggested earlier that, in general, you get what you pay for in cars, with some cars you get more than you pay for. Some cars are better values than others. This means you get quality, features, and equipment that would cost extra on other car brands and models. The vehicles offering the best values are from Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and a few Ford and Chevrolet models such as the Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu. Many of these vehicles have luxury features that are otherwise only available on higher-priced luxury brand vehicles. Most luxury brand vehicles have much lower value than many less expensive vehicles. Cars that have high initial purchase value generally also will have high resale or trade values in the future.

Vehicle Size and Capacity

Generally, the smaller the vehicle, the lower the price. Many people buy their vehicles based entirely on price and find later that they don’t have the passenger room or cargo capacity they need. Small cars often are less safe. If you’re going to be driving a vehicle for, say, 5 years, you must think about your future needs as well as your current needs. Will you be getting married and having kids? Will you have a need to haul large items, luggage, or equipment? Do you have large pets? Will you have room for your friends? Will you be comfortable and feel safe in a smaller car, even when traveling alone? Do you need something larger than a sub-compact 2-door coupe? Possibly a mid-size sedan? Maybe a cross-over or small SUV? Or a full-size SUV, minivan, or truck?

New Car versus Used Car

Generally, a new car gets you a car without problems, a full manufacturer’s warranty, lemon-law protection, newer technology and safety equipment, lower loan interest rates, and that nice new-car smell. A used car of the same make/model will be less expensive to buy and less expensive to insure but requires more care when purchasing to avoid hidden problems, especially for older cars with high mileage.


When buying your first car it is important to understand the importance of factors that will determine not only how well your choice will match your needs, but also whether you are spending your money wisely.


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