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new car buying guide

A long row of unsold cars sits at a dealership in Highlands Ranch, Colo., on June 7, 2020.David Zalubowski/The Associated Press

Unless you’re a masochist or independently wealthy, buying a car can be a stressful experience. Signing on the dotted line may not be as big a commitment as marriage, but a typical buyer will live with the choice they make for a long time.

In fact, Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc. says that Canadians are keeping their vehicles for approximately nine years on average. There’s a lot riding on getting your selection right. If you do, experts say, the buying experience can be pleasant indeed.

“Who doesn’t get a buzz out of buying a new car?” said Robert Karwel, senior manager of the automotive practice in Canada for consumer-research firm J.D. Power.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic hit auto sales hard in 2020, Ipsos research done in January for Canadian Black Book and released in March shows there’s cause for optimism. Fifteen per cent of those surveyed said they intend to buy a car to avoid the use of public transit or ride-sharing services. People in the 18 to 34 age group are the most motivated; 51 per cent of that group say they intend to buy a new vehicle in the next 24 months.

Retail experts say if you do your homework, the car-buying experience can be as stress-free as placing an order at a Tim Hortons drive-through. Double-double thumbs up to that notion.

Narrowing down the choice of a vehicle can feel daunting. More than 35 brands are offered in this country, and they present literally hundreds of models and option-configurations. The road to joyous car-ownership starts with an honest appraisal of yourself and your needs. Understanding that fully will put you on the fast-track to a much more focused range of choices.

You’ll want to start by asking yourself the following questions:

What is it for?

How do you intend to use the vehicle? Is it primarily to commute to work? Do you want to be able to pick up supplies at the lumber store? Do you often take out-of-town trips? Is it a family vehicle or are you often flying solo?

Families with two or more kids and a pet will want a minivan or larger SUV, not a sporty two-seater or economy car. Also, make sure the vehicle is heavy-duty enough; if you are towing a trailer, you’ll need a vehicle with a powerful engine and towing package that includes a transmission cooler. Four-cylinder cars need not apply.

How does the car rate on emissions, safety and reliability?

In the age of climate change, many Canadians want to minimize their carbon footprint. Some buyers may choose to pay more for a gasoline-electric hybrid or even a fully battery-electric vehicle (BEV). Manufacturers publish fuel-economy estimates, or you can consult the Transport Canada fuel consumption guide or the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) website. And don’t forget to check reliability ratings at sites such as J.D Power, Consumer Reports and Repair Pal.

Why are you buying?

Most of us buy cars out of need. The old vehicle is no longer reliable or the family has grown. Yet older, wealthier buyers like to buy “reward” cars – vehicles that declare their status to the world. Not surprisingly, they will focus on prestige luxury brands.

Buy in-person or online?

Many buyers are intimidated by the showroom experience and the fear of high-pressure sales, Karwel says. The emergence of online tools, accelerated by physical-distancing requirements, takes much of that fear away, with a near-contactless sales process and, in some cases, “no-haggle” pricing. Many dealerships will even bring a car to you so that you can test drive it, and offer an estimated value online for your trade-in. For those who still like face-to-face negotiation, most dealerships still offer the traditional sales model, although some now require appointments, and masks and physical-distancing measures apply.

Outright purchase or lease?

Purchasing a car means it’s yours until you sell or trade it, so it’s important to determine its resale value. A model that depreciates quickly will leave you with less equity when it’s time to trade up. Leasing rates are sometimes lower on cars that have high residual values. But leasing comes with its own obligations – you have to make sure the car is serviced on schedule and that any damage is repaired before you return the car. If you can write off a portion of the vehicle’s use as a business expense, then leasing may be an attractive option.

What extras do I really need?

Even bare-bones cars come reasonably well-equipped, unlike the “stripper” models of a few years ago. However, most vehicles offer trim packages that take the glitz, comfort and convenience way up. For example, a 2021 Chrysler Grand Caravan minivan (based on the Pacifica) is listed at $33,246 plus freight and delivery in Canada. The top-of-the-line AWD Pacifica Pinnacle is nearly double that price. The right feature level for most drivers is somewhere in the middle.

Sleep on your choices before you sign, so you can be confident you haven’t bought more features than you can afford. Investing a little extra time in research will ensure you’re happy for years to come.