Skip to main content
buying the perfect car

What should I get? What do you recommend? What do you think of the new whiz-bang super car? Is such-and-such car company coming out with something better that old, reliable whatsitsname's new model this year? Should I wait or buy now? What do you think?

We think, no we know, that we hear these questions and others like them every single day. Often many times a day. It is a worrisome yet exciting task, this business of buying a new car. With the average transaction price of a new vehicle coming in at around $30,000, anyone buying a new rig is faced with a big, big decision.

So we always start with the most basic question: How much do you want to spend? Always. One hundred per cent of the time. There is no point in us suggesting an Audi R8 Quattro ($173,000 with the V-10 engine) when your budget sits in Hyundai Accent-land ($13,199 base). None. So the place for any shopper is to fix a realistic budget and stick to it.

That said, for most buyers the budget boils down to an affordable monthly payment. And this brings up a second question: Lease or buy? We say, at least in most cases, buy. Over the long term it will be more expensive to lease a new vehicle than to buy one. Yes, yes, leasing makes sense for some people who need the most affordable monthly payment, or who want the new New Thing every three or four years. But when you lease, you are essentially renting a car for a longer term. And it will cost you more.

Once we've settled on the budget, the third step is to sort out wants and needs. You may want a Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV (sport-utility vehicle at $57,900 base), but what you need and can afford might be something a lot less pricey, say a Subaru Outback ($28,995) or a Ford Explorer ($29,999). That is, a crossover/SUV with all-wheel drive (AWD) and some space for your stuff (hockey bags, skis, etc.) is on your "needs" list, but your finances say $30,000-$35,000 is your limit. Balance your wants with your needs and limitations.

Then we want to know if you're brand loyal. Fewer and fewer are these days, but those who are, really are loyal. We tend to find pickup buyers are loyal to their Fords or Chevys or Rams. Toyota and Honda owners seem to have an almost rabid preoccupation with defending their brands, too. The Mercedes buyer seems to be someone whose father's father drove a Merc and that tradition has carried on through the generations.

Generally speaking, though, brand loyalty is on the wane. This is mostly because the quality gaps between auto makes of 20 or even 10 years ago have narrowed dramatically. It's hard to find a truly junky, unreliable rust-bucket now. Possible, but not easy. The research suggests that whatever you buy today should give you 200,000-300,000 km of reliable service, as long as you do the regular maintenance and take decent care of the thing. Of course some brands and models are better than others, but there are no obvious Ladas for sale today. Not in Canada.

Once we've nailed down your budget and your wants and needs (these also include left-brain issues like safety, ride comfort, performance, fuel economy, technological features and the rest), the fifth and final step we go through is to find out a little about the emotional side of the story. Here, design and ride quality – handling – play big, big roles. People do fall in love with cars for their looks and how they feel from behind the wheel. It's true.

All this leads us to our Top 50 list for this year. You will find that we don't use the traditional or government categories here. Most people don't think of the "official" categories of compact or subcompact car when they go looking for a grocery getter. So we're just calling those cars grocery getters. At the same time, something fast and fun is, well, fast and fun. So why not say so? And let's not be boring about all this.

The truth is, we have not limited ourselves to just the new-for-the-2012 model year vehicles, either. Case in point: the Toyota Highlander. This big crossover wagon has been around essentially unchanged for years. So what? It's still a class leader and remains one of the very best vehicles of its kind. Sure, sure, the new Ford Explorer is interesting and appealing, but the Highlander holds its own, still, and has an amazing track record for quality and safety.

We also have had some fun with how we've described these Top 50. If something is on the list, we like it, of course. The job here, in 100 words or so for each vehicle, is to capture the essence of why we put a particular vehicle here, out of some 400 models for sale in Canada. And not to bore you to tears.

If you're going to spend big bucks on a new vehicle, shouldn't the process and the outcome put a little joy into your life, while also meeting your wants and needs? We think so. Cliché or not, life's short. Have fun with this year's Top 50, then.