Have you ever seen a piece of furniture you really wanted to buy and then realized, dang, that won’t fit in my car? Have you ever stood at the pump watching the numbers go up and wished you had a car that was better on gas? Vehicles have different purposes and strengths — but while it may be an enticing idea to have a different vehicle for every function, few people can afford it, so getting one vehicle that’ll accomplish most of what you need is the goal.
Whether you spend your weekends transporting construction lumber or half a soccer team, or you want a vehicle that’ll haul butt down the road, we list the major vehicle types and their primary objectives, plus the questions you’ll need to ask yourself when looking for a new car.
What car should I buy?
What kind of driver are you?
Prioritizes transporting people over things
Hyundai Sonata, Audi S3
Needs to haul large things
Ford F-150, Toyota Tacoma
Only needs to transport self and one other adult
Honda Civic Coupe, Ford Mustang
Needs room for multiple adults and some stuff
Subaru Outback, Volkswagen Golf
Transports multiple adults and is eco-conscious
Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt
Keeps vehicles for a long time and drives a lot
Land Rover Discovery, BMW 328d
May face bad weather and needs room for five adults
Nissan Rogue, Infiniti QX50
Needs room for five adults and some stuff
Audi Q7, Chevy Tahoe
Transports seven people or large things
Chrysler Town & Country, Nissan Quest
Likes to feel the wind in their hair
Mazda Miata, Fiat 214 Spider
Transports multiple adults
Kia Soul, Honda Fit
Wants sporty looks and performance to match
Acura NSX, Ferrari Portofino
Wants to impress people with a smooth ride
Cadillac Escalade, Porsche Cayenne
Tesla Model 3, Nissan Leaf
Before you choose a car, ask these five questions:
When you step on the car lot and see all those glittering vehicles, you’re probably asking two questions: what looks the coolest and what can I afford? While these are perfectly legitimate questions, you don’t necessarily want to end up with a 12-year-old Maserati; there are other things to take into account.
How do you intend to use the vehicle?
What do you transport — people, pizzas, packages or just your awesome self? If you only need to transport yourself (and maybe some pizza) for short commutes in the suburbs, then a small, zippy car might suit you best. If you help take the whole team to a game or have a bunch of stuff for work, a minivan or truck would work better. But if your job involves impressing clients with your ride’s smoothness, power or price tag, a luxury vehicle might be your style.
Distance. If you travel for work, or even just for pleasure, you may want a larger vehicle with room to stretch. You’ll probably also want a gasoline-powered vehicle, as gas stations don’t always sell diesel and electric vehicle charging stations are relatively sparse. And if you’re planning to travel at high speeds, make sure that the car is well-insulated for sound — especially if you’re looking at a convertible — so you won’t hear the wind and the road.
Passengers. If you need to take five kids to sports practice every other day, a coupe is obviously not going to cut it. But if you don’t anticipate transporting lots of people (or animals) very often, going small could not only be convenient, but also economical — smaller cars generally cost less and usually have better fuel mileage.
Young passengers will need safety seats no matter the type of car; larger cars make it easier to not only install them, but to take the child in and out without gymnastic contortions. And if you’re transporting teenagers, adults or large animals in the backseat, a larger vehicle might be more comfortable for all involved.
Stuff. Real estate agents who need to transport yard signs, contractors who need to transport tools and artists who need to transport supplies may need vehicles to fit not only the amount of stuff they have, but the size and weight of it. A framed painting canvas might not be voluminous, but it may be 6 feet long.
Awe factor. Impressing others can be a legitimate vehicle purpose. You may want to impress (prospective) clients when you pick them up from the airport in a luxury car, or impress (upon) your friends (and frenemies) by leaving them in the dust in a performance car or a jacked-up truck.
What’s the weather?
The type of weather you face should have a large input on the type of vehicle you get. However, it shouldn’t make you overly confident in adverse conditions. Just because you have all-wheel drive, doesn’t mean you should go down an icy freeway without caution.
If you expect slippery roads, consider a vehicle that’s more physically balanced, like a sedan or an SUV. A coupe, which is heavy in the front from the engine and light in the back, could make you more prone to loose steering control on turns or curves and have you fishtailing across the lanes. “Fishtailing” is when your back wheels have little to no traction and the rear of the vehicle swings uncontrollably, either side-to-side or to an extreme on one side. The same thing can happen with a performance car or a pickup (with an empty bed) for the same reasons.
Snow and ice
Colder climates probably mean your car will be exposed to snow, ice and all of the downsides that come with them — slippery and bumpier roads due to expanding and contracting pavement creating potholes. You might consider a vehicle with all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD).
- Four-wheel drive (4WD): This is also called 4×4 and is usually offered on SUVs, trucks and wagons. It is the best type of drivetrain to handle the worst conditions, on- and off-road through deep snow, water or mud. The Jeeps you may see in videos climbing near vertical cliffs have 4WD, although we don’t recommend you getting one and trying it out immediately. The driver usually turns the 4WD on and off, according to road conditions.
- All-wheel drive (AWD): This is usually found on crossovers and luxury vehicles. It is designed to help the vehicle keep traction in light to moderate conditions without the driver turning it off and on.
In addition, consider getting a car that’s not white or gray, especially if you have to park on the street at home or for work instead of in a driveway or parking lot. The color might make your car blend into the wintery environment, so it’s harder for other drivers, including snowplow drivers, to see it. The ice from the salty roads will also be harder for you to see on your vehicle. And if you can’t see it, you might be less inclined to wash your vehicle as often, leaving the salt to eat away at the car’s clear coat and paint.
Hot and cold
If the summer heat is considerable in your area, look at cars with colors that reflect heat (mostly light colors) instead of absorb it (mostly dark colors).
But it doesn’t necessarily have to snow and ice for it to be cold where you live — if temperatures often drop, you might not want a cloth-top convertible or select trims of Jeep Wranglers, as they may not be well insulated to keep you warm in the winter.
What’s the geography?
Where will you use the vehicle? The type of landscape in your town can help determine the type of vehicle you want. Whether you live in the mountains, the jungle or even just a concrete jungle, you’ll want a vehicle that can best handle the terrain you face daily.
City. If you often drive in a city, you may want a compact sedan, a coupe, a Mini or a small electric vehicle — you’ll be better able to squeeze into parking spots, navigate sharp city corners and save on gas with all of the stop-and-go driving you’ll probably do. Most cities manage their urban roads with infrastructure to handle rain and snow, so you might not need a large AWD or 4WD vehicle to help you plow through the weather.
Country. If you have to go long distances to get anywhere, you probably want to be able to take all of your stuff with you, and the roads you face may be less well maintained. A larger vehicle with AWD or 4WD might be the most useful.
Mountains. A lot of cars can handle going up, down and around mountain roads. However, it especially takes a toll on electric vehicles. Using power to climb a mountain, to brake descending a mountain and to brake and accelerate on twists and turns drains a battery, greatly reducing your expected driving range.
What is most important to you?
People value different things depending on their lifestyle. Maybe you just totaled your car and you’re really interested in safety features for your next one; perhaps you go on long trips and a cushy seat and top-notch sound system are important. We broke out some categories to help guide you when you’re asking yourself what you care about in a vehicle.
Safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests vehicles each year to see which brands are the safest. Kia had the most 2018 award winners with nine models — 32 models were named as “top picks” over the last five years. Volvo and Lexus do well in the luxury categories, having won 23 and 20 top picks, respectively, over the past five years.
Luxury. If you want your car to feel like a 5-star hotel room on wheels, you’ve got plenty of choices, from BMW to Rolls Royce. Many luxury cars also cross into other categories with extremely good safety ratings (Volvo), performance (Porsche) and off-roading (Land Rover).
Speed. Enzo Ferrari once said that he designed engines; the rest of the car just happened to be attached. If you like to do autocross on the weekends to get your blood pumping, or you just like to know you’ve got the ability to go faster than anyone and everyone on the street, performance cars will cost you a pretty penny, but some people believe they’re worth every cent.
Off-roading. If the thrill of crashing through brush in the backwoods, carefully gunning up a sheer cliff face or getting neck-deep in muddy water interests you, off-roading might be your thing. Serious off-roading requires 4WD (not just AWD) and some vehicles have special off-road designations. Jeep has Trailhawk trims and “trail rated” badges, and some Land Rover models have specific settings for sand, mud, rocks, gravel, snow/ice and wading through water.
Technology. You can still get a brand new Kia Rio with windows you have to roll up and down by hand, but you could also get a Tesla that can largely drive itself and has a touchscreen that takes up the whole center of the dashboard — most people, though, get something in between. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration takes particular interest in crash avoidance technology, such as automatic braking and blind spot sensor warnings, and says this type of technology may offer significant promise for increasing safety.
Reliability and value. Kelley Blue Book, Consumer Reports, J.D. Power and Edmunds are some of the top industry experts on the subject. Spoiler alert: Toyota consistently ranks at or near the top of the rankings across these four sites.
How much can you afford?
When comparing cars to your budget, the easiest thing to look at is the price of the car. But don’t forget that taxes will add to that monthly payment, plus you’ll also be paying for fuel, insurance and maintenance, and parking if you live in a big city.
Figure out your budget before looking at cars. Most people know how much they make each month, but fewer know how much they spend. Do not head straight to a dealership — you don’t want to fall in love with a car that’s way out of your budget and then become disappointed, or worse, find out after the purchase that you can only really afford it if you lived under a bridge.
Look at how much you spend versus how much you make. Do this to figure out how much you can afford. If you spend everything except that $5 needed to keep your bank account open, then you’re going to have to take a closer look at your spending. You’ll have to decide if getting a car is worth giving up something, such as going out for food and drinks often. If you don’t spend everything, how much do you have left over? And out of that amount, how much do you want to spend each month on everything that a car costs?
Determine how much of your car budget will go to the car. So now you’ve got your monthly budget amount of what you can spend on having a car — but how much of that is for the car versus the car insurance versus taxes and everything else? Admittedly, this is trickier to answer. However, here’s a handy rule of thumb: the more expensive the car, the more expensive everything else will be, taking a bigger the bite out of your budget and leaving less for the car payment itself. The reverse is generally true, too: the cheaper the car, the cheaper everything else will be.
- See what car insurance will cost. If you’ve never had car insurance before — or if you have a long history of speeding — your insurance will be more expensive. Ask the insurance company for quotes on different cars to get an idea if auto insurance will cost you $50 a month, or $200, so you can plan accordingly.
- Think about taxes and fees. Depending on your state and the dealership you go to, taxes and fees can vary. According to Nicolas Ortiz, a San Antonio-based insurance professional who formerly worked as a dealership finance manager, the total of most taxes and fees for almost every state range between 8% and 10% of the car’s price tag.
- Maintenance and gas cost. Be aware gas prices are on the rise and you’ll need to change your car’s oil about every four months, which can cost $20 (regular oil for a low-mileage, mass market car) to $300 (top synthetic oil for a luxury car). 4WD vehicles also require extra maintenance.
- APR loan cost. The APR on a loan is how much it costs you to borrow money. If you would have to take out a payday loan with 200% APR in order to get a car, don’t do it. That means you’ll pay double the price of the car. Most states limit car loan APRs to below 25% — and that’s still considered high. To see what type of APR you qualify for, you could fill out an online form at LendingTree and potentially get up to five auto loan preapprovals, including APR offers.
What’s left over is the amount of your budget that can go toward paying for the car itself. For an example, let’s say you have a total of $340 to spend on a car each month. You did your research and found out auto insurance will be about $80 a month, taxes are 9%, maintenance/gas costs average out to $30 a month and you have an auto loan preapproval with 5% APR. That means you’ll probably spend about $140 to pay for the things you need for the car, which leaves about $200 for your monthly car payment.
How to get a total price based on monthly budget. This is the easy part! There are tons of auto loan calculators that help you figure this out. This LendingTree auto affordability calculator lets you put in your monthly payment, APR and how long the loan is, and tells you the car price you can afford. This will be the car price tag you should be seeking.
If you want to learn more about budgeting for the car that suits you best, you can check out other MagnifyMoney stories: How Much Car Can I Afford, The 20/4/10 Rule and The Best Auto Loans: 2018 New & Used Car Loan Rates.
Disclaimer: This article may contain links to LendingTree, which is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.