How to choose a car

If picking your next car from the thousands on BuyaCar seems daunting, take a break to work out what you’re really looking for first

John Evans
Sep 22, 2021

Choosing a car is a very personal process. Some people just need a car that's going to get them from A to B, whether it's comfortable or stylish is not really important to them. Others look for something that's going to impress their friends, while many will want something quiet and comfortable for their morning commute.

Then there is another group of people that want a car that can do all three of those things while also having enough space for going on a family holiday with three kids and a fortnight's worth of luggage. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of the environment and your personal carbon footprint, which in the last couple of years has added another set of conundrums to the list.

At the moment, deciding you want a car that’s green or better for the environment can throw a spanner in the works of a well-considered shortlisting process. It’s perfectly reasonable, for example, to be determined to drive an electric car and eliminate your tailpipe emissions, but in that case your other choices will be severely curtailed. You simply don’t yet have the luxury of that many options, especially when buying used. Deciding you want a hybrid is not quite as limiting, unless you’ve set your heart on a plug-in version, that is… but we’ve addressed those issues in the ‘what fuel?’ section further down the page.

So getting your priorities in order can be tricky, but once you’ve made your mind up about the factors that are critical to you, it makes choosing a car much smoother and stress-free. To help you out when it comes to covering all the options, we've put together a list of questions we think should be at the forefront of everyone's mind when acquiring a new car. Hopefully, once you've answered those questions, all you'll need to do is get your finance application submitted and place your order.

Top of this list of questions has to be price. How much can you afford, either as one lump sum or each month on finance? Say you have a budget of £200 per month. On BuyaCar, for instance, there are currently 23125 cars, but if you focus your search to just those that are less than £200 per month that falls to just 30 cars. And voila, you've already cut down the number of cars to consider dramatically.

Next, you need to work out what you're going to use the car for and whether you're likely to throw a big mountain bike in the boot every weekend, carry a load of six-foot mates around or tackle slippery roads all the time. Will you be driving short distances or a mixture of short and longer trips? If you need lots of space for friends, want to chuck your bike in the boot and live in a hilly area and would value having four-wheel drive, searching for a five-door, four-wheel drive car cuts down your search down to just 4003 cars.

Think about what fuel best suits your needs, whether you want a manual or automatic gearbox and you could suddenly have a far more digestible list. Keep reading and we'll help you to decide what type of car is best for you. Meanwhile, if you're not sure how to pay for the car and are considering finance, check out our Plain English, pizza-themed video below to get a feel for your options and which one works best for you.

How to choose a car: electric, hybrid, petrol or diesel?

Not long ago, you could only choose between petrol and diesel-powered cars, but now there are hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars.

Deciding between them objectively should largely be a question of how many miles you rack up, the type of roads you drive on and the overall running costs of a given model. Of course, there are more subjective reasons for picking so-called alternative powertrains like hybrids and EVs. You may simply enjoy the novelty or the technology, wish to make a green statement, or be genuinely troubled by our current reliance on fossil fuels - all of which are perfectly valid arguments for making significant compromises when picking your new wheels.

The truth is that hybrid models can be more expensive to buy but offer few savings for anyone other than those who solely drive around town or company car drivers looking to reduce their tax. Plug-in hybrid models are pricier still, but offer greater fuel-saving potential, provided you religiously charge them and cover mainly shorter journeys. In fact many plug-in hybrids provide enough pure electric range to cover a short daily commute without using petrol at all, which can save you a packet - even if your mpg may be less impressive on occasional longer journeys. If you do mostly long journeys, a plug-in hybrid is typically not the most economical option unless you’re benefiting from the cheaper company car tax they attract compared to petrol or diesel alternatives.

On that point, since April 2020 electric cars have been impossible to beat as company cars since they won’t attract a benefit-in-kind charge and will be charged at only 1% in the following year, rising by 1% annually thereafter. Private drivers can also reap the major cost benefit of cheap electricity versus pricey fossil fuels, but with our present public charging infrastructure it would be a brave or optimistic soul who bought an electric car without the space or funds to install a dedicated charging wallbox at home or work.

Generally speaking, diesel cars are more expensive to buy new than petrol cars but use less fuel. For this reason, a rule of thumb is that anyone doing more than 15,000 or 20,000 miles per year might find a diesel car makes better financial sense.
With second-hand values for some diesels lower than they used to be, though, it's possible you could find a particularly good price on a used diesel car, compared with petrol alternatives. If that's the case, going diesel could be a wise choice. Just make sure you're aware whether any diesel cars you're considering are Euro 6 models (all diesels registered from 2015 are) or older ones, in which case, they could attract a surcharge should you enter any low-emission zones in the centres of larger cities.

How to choose a car: what's your budget?

Fail to set a budget and you could find yourself facing a list of thousands of potential cars - with monthly payments and cash prices to consider - so establishing how much you’re able or prepared to spend is an obvious first step in narrowing your search.

Before doing this, though, you need to decide whether you want to pay with cash or finance. If you have lots of money to hand, cash is a straightforward option, as you simply pay for the car in one chunk and it's all yours. However, that requires you to have a substantial pile of notes to hand - or at least stashed safely in the bank ready to transfer - and to be sure you can afford to deplete your savings this way.

Even if you have the money, you may choose to use finance as keeping a cash reserve can be a valuable safety net to fall back on - whether your boiler goes on the blink or if your rent suddenly jumps up.

Using finance ensures you can leave your savings intact and this is a good way of budgeting for a car, since you know how much you have to pay every month. Also, by choosing PCP finance compared with a traditional car loan or paying cash, you should be able to afford a newer or more desirable car, as your monthly payments only cover part of the car's value.

At the end of the contract with PCP you can choose to make the large optional final payment to buy the car or hand it back with nothing left to pay (provided you've stuck to the pre-agreed mileage limit and have kept the car in good condition). Alternatively, if you go for Hire Purchase you pay a bit more each month but automatically own the car once you've made the last monthly payment. See our finance guides below for more details.

Running costs: which car should I choose?

Paying for a car is one thing but running it quite another. Any savings you make on its price can be quickly undone by runaway running costs if you choose the wrong car. These include fuel economy, road tax (most cars registered since 1 April 2017 pay a flat rate of £145 a year but those registered before then when CO2 emissions counted for more could easily cost three times that) and insurance.

You can check a car’s fuel economy and CO2 emissions on BuyaCar. Also, by checking the insurance group that the car falls into (also on BuyaCar), you can predict what it will cost to insure, though your address and driving history also play a significant role in the size or your premium.

The main areas to watch out for are fuel economy - be wary of cars with big petrol engines if you plan to mainly drive around town, as they'll burn through lots of fuel at low speeds. It’s often worth giving hybrids a miss too if you only zoom up and down the motorway, as hybrids and plug-in hybrids are less efficient at high speeds and/or when the batteries are depleted. If you only run around town or have a short commute, they tend to make a lot more sense. Similarly, there's no point paying a significant premium for a diesel if you only cover low mileages and are unlikely to recoup the higher initial cost in fuel savings. 

Choosing a car: new or used?

This question forces you to consider what age of car you want to buy since each comes with its own pros and cons. Another option that combines some of the pros and cons of each is pre-registered cars, which offer the look and freel of a brand new car, but at a lower cost.

New - New cars get a bad press for losing money rapidly when purchased (called depreciation) but the flipside is that you get the latest features, a long warranty, plus good value new car finance deals in some cases. If you typically take out a loan when you change your car, you could step up to a new car with PCP finance, which makes monthly payments on a new car more affordable. So don’t dismiss a new car out of hand if you think these benefits may be important to you.

Used - Used cars come in many forms. Ones less than six months old are often called nearly-new cars. They offer great savings, have done few miles and still have most of their warranty remaining. Anything older is simply referred to as a used car but thanks to better build quality, competition between car makers in offering more features and ever tougher safety rules, even four-year old cars can feel fresh and up-to-the-minute in the 2020s.

Pre-registered - A pre-registered car is effectively a new car where the dealer has registered it, helping that car to count towards their sales targets. This means that pre-registered cars look and feel like brand new cars, but are far cheaper as, technically, you're not the first owner. If this doesn't bother you - there's no reason that it should - then a pre-registered car could save you many thousands of pounds.

What do you want the car for?

Yes, we know – to get from A to B. But with the potential of having up to seven, eight or even nine seats, five doors, sliding doors, a metal boot or a hatch, two-wheel or four-wheel drive and a large or small engine, a car can make that journey stress-free or simply impossible.

So you need to consider whether the car is for running around town, commuting over longer distances or hacking up and down the country at weekends. Will you be its sole occupant or will you be carrying a number of passengers? Will you require sliding doors to improve access for them, need a large boot for shopping or one with a hatch to carry camping equipment, four-wheel drive to get up the local hills in winter or a powerful but economical engine because you spend a lot of time on the motorway?

Answering questions like these will force you to consider what type of car you need, as will choosing the shape of car you're after, whether a hatchback, a saloon, an MPV, an SUV, an off-roader, a city car or a sports car.

Manual or automatic gearbox?

You may think this question is simply about convenience and to a great extent it is. After all, automatic cars are easier to drive in city traffic than manual alternatives and can sprint away from traffic more easily.

However, automatic gearboxes are now also increasingly sophisticated with the result that some automatic cars are more economical than manual ones. As a result, the sales of automatics are growing and many cars are now only available with automatic gearboxes - especially larger cars including luxury cars and SUVs.

On the other hand, manual cars are cheaper to buy and many people like the greater control they feel this type of gearbox offers. Due to their greater simplicity and potential need for less maintenance, a manual gearbox could be a wiser choice if you're planning to live with the car for many years to come and covering a high mileage.

Questions to ask yourself, then, are will you be driving mostly in the city, do you want to hand over the responsibility of changing gear to the car and to have the most simple driving experience possible. If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, you probably want an automatic.

What features are important to you?

Did you know some cars can park themselves? Meanwhile, others can apply their brakes automatically if they sense an impending crash. Yet more can warm your passengers but keep you cool. And many can duplicate your phone’s screen on their own media system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay

In the past five years features once associated with luxury cars have found their way into many more affordable, mainstream models. We’ve only touched on a few of the features available but there are many more that make driving more enjoyable or simply take the strain out of driving. So it's worth considering which of these might be useful and potentially mean the difference between just getting from A to B and enjoying the journey.

Spend a bit of time researching and you'll find a vast number of small SUVs, hatchbacks and even superminis will be packed with convenience features and cutting edge tech.

How to choose a car: car brand and image

Some people search for a car that suits their needs and pick the best value option that ticks the boxes. Others choose the car that grabs their heart for being the most desirable, looking just right or offering some other feel-good factor. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as the car covers all the more fundamental bases, too.

As much as cars are functional things, they’re also to be enjoyed. Furthermore, if you are planning to pay for your next car with PCP finance, going for a desirable car could result in lower monthly payments. That's because a car that is likely to be in high demand when you hand it back at the end of the contract should be worth more.

As PCP finance monthly payments cover the difference between the car's initial price and what it's expected to be worth when you hand it back, the more desirable the car is second-hand and the better it retains its value, the less you have to pay each month.


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