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10 questions to help choose the car that’s right for you

Advanced Driver Assistance System Photo courtesy Nissan

When you’re thinking about buying a car, the first thing to do is to figure out what model best suits your needs and wants. After all, you don’t want to drive off in your newly purchased vehicle and suddenly realize you forgot to take one or more important decision-making factors into account before you signed the purchase agreement.

But where do you start? After all, there are as many as 400 different models of cars and light trucks available to car buyers in the U.S. That’s a lot of tires to kick. Fortunately, you can simplify the task by first asking certain questions about how a car fits into your life and what you need and want from it.

The following 10 questions can help you pare down your car-buying options and get a better idea of your priorities. After you answer them, you can consider other important criteria, such as body type (pickup or minivan, for example) and powertrain (cars with gasoline engines, electric vehicles, or plug-in hybrids, for example). It can be helpful to write down your answers, assign them a numerical value, or list them in order of importance.

1. How many passengers/how much cargo do I typically carry?

If you’re buying a car for just you or for you and your spouse, and you usually travel light, you might want a sporty car, a small sedan or hatchback, or a compact SUV. If you have a couple of kids or usually carry a lot of stuff in your car, a midsize sedan or SUV would probably work better. For a larger family and even more stuff, think large SUV, minivan, or pickup. And if you need a vehicle for towing a trailer or a boat, you’ll probably need a truck-based SUV or a pickup.

Toyota Corolla SE

Toyota Corolla compact sedan. | Photo courtesy Toyota Motor Sales

2. How many miles do I drive annually?

The more miles you put on your car, the more it pays to have a fuel-efficient and reliable vehicle. is an excellent source for information on fuel economy.

Clicking on “Find & Compare Cars” on the home page will let you compare the fuel efficiency of 15 different categories of vehicles, or you can browse by vehicle model. Other tabs provide information on such topics as how hybrids work, whether driving one can save you money, where to find the cheapest gas in your area, and vehicles with the best and worst fuel economy.

If reliability is a high priority, make sure you know the terms of a vehicle’s standard factory warranty, which can range from 3 years/36,000 miles to 5 years/60,000 miles. In addition, online sources such as J.D. Power and Consumer Reports provide information on vehicle quality and reliability.

3. What kind of driving do I do most of the time?

If you don’t put that many miles on a car or rarely take long trips, you may prefer a smaller car that’s easy to maneuver in town. For long trips, a larger car or SUV will likely be more enjoyable to drive.

4. How much horsepower should my car have?

You need a car that’s powerful enough to safely pass another car or merge onto a freeway, which you can determine in a test drive. Remember, in general, the higher the horsepower, the lower the fuel economy.

5. How important are advanced safety features?

This is a no-brainer: They’re very important—they can help you avoid an accident and they’ve been proven to save lives. For 2022, virtually all new passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. will be equipped with standard automatic emergency braking, a very important feature.

Do some research on which safety features matter most to you, and make sure the vehicle you buy has them. You can find out more about how advanced safety features perform—and their limitations—in Chapter 3 of the 2022 AAA Car Guide, “Advances in Vehicle Safety.”

Also, remember to check the safety ratings published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). These sites make it easy to find vehicles with essential safety features and high levels of crash protection. You can also find out more about their crash-test procedures, too.

infotainment System

Photo by Hero Images/

6. What comfort and convenience features matter most to me?

Don’t pooh-pooh comfort and convenience. They’re important qualities, especially if you plan to keep a car for a while. While you might not need power folding side mirrors, you’ll be sorry if your backside is stiff after a 2-hour drive because the driver’s seat isn’t sufficiently cushioned and supportive.

7. Are the controls and infotainment system easy to understand and operate?

The instrument panels and infotainment systems on today’s cars are more complicated than ever. And because many of them rely more on sequential electronic screens and less on buttons and knobs, they can be maddeningly difficult to operate, sometimes requiring multiple steps to access information or carry out a single procedure, like changing a radio channel.

8. Do I want a car with responsive handling?

Nobody wants to own a car that wallows in turns and generally drives like a land yacht; conversely, a car’s corner-carving abilities and steering feedback might not matter that much to you. Find the place on the handling continuum that suits your tastes.

9. What style of car do I like best?

Here’s where a balance of needs and wants comes into play. You might like the look of a sporty coupe, but you know you need a backseat for your kids. As a compromise, you might consider a stylish hatchback.

Kia K5

Kia K5 midsize sedan. | Photo by Kia America, Inc.

10. Do I want a car that reflects the way I see myself?

Many people want their car to “say something” about them or project a certain image—that they’re successful, up with the latest trends, or environmentally conscious.

A final consideration: Remember that choosing the right vehicle for you isn’t a purely rational decision, a matter of satisfying certain needs. Of course, certain functional considerations—cargo or towing capacity, horsepower, fuel economy, or ride comfort—are important, maybe very important. No less important, however, are what you want in a car, which is based on your feelings.

In short, buying a car should be the right balance of reason and emotion. You don’t want to feel stuck driving a car for the next few years if you don’t feel any connection to it, even if it does perform all the necessary functions well.

In short, it’s a good thing to like the car you own. It improves the experience of owning it. It can make you look forward to what otherwise might be a soul-crushing commute. It can put a smile on your face every time you climb into the driver’s seat.

And liking your car—preferably a lot—doesn’t depend solely on its functional qualities. It can be based on the car’s color, the feel of its leather upholstery, the rakish slope of its hood, the design of its taillights.

And the good news is, even with understocked inventories, if you’re patient and willing to be flexible, you can probably find a car or light truck that meets both your needs and wants.

Excerpted and adapted from the AAA Car Guide, which is also available in hard copy at AAA branches.

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