9 Tips For Choosing The Best Car For You

By Hans | May 29, 2013
9 Tips For Choosing The Best Car For You

The question "Which is the best car to buy?" can be difficult to answer. Our response is always the same, "What are you going to use the car for and what are your needs?"

In today's car market, it would be too simplistic to think that the car market can be demaracated into two zones, good cars and bad cars. A model that suits your friends may not the best option for you. In short, before you can decide on which is the right car for you, you need to first ask yourself some hard questions.

Here are some tips to help you decide better.

1. Make A List Of Your Requirements.

What are your expectations from a car? How are you going to use it? It is not good enough to say you want a car that looks sporty, reliable, drives well and has good resale value. Out of the four attributes  mentioned, you need to decide which is the most important, which is the next most important and so on.

There is no perfect car on the market and contrary to what car companies say in their marketing materials, every car is a compromise.

A sporty performance oriented car packed with the latest technology designed to push the boundaries of performance cannot be expected to be as reliable as a conservative model which uses a less fancy engine and transmission.

The performance oriented model has its internal components set to work within a much tighter tolerance, while the conservative model is conservatively engineered to operate across a broad range of driving conditions and mechanical abuse. Low-tech engines may not be as attractive but it is well understood by many mechanics and are often backed by many years of proven reliability.

Remember also that sporty looking cars tend to polarize buyers (thus limiting their appeal) and may not age or hold their value as well as conservative model that appeals to a much broader crowd.

When it comes to car design, the general rule of thumb is that extreme looking designs that generate a lot of hype tends to age very quickly. Case in point - compare how the sporty looking VW Scirocco is received when it was first launched with its more conservative cousin the Golf. Even after two generations, the earlier Mk V Golf still looks timeless while the Scirocco is starting to look dated.

To find the best car that suits you, first you need to know what is it that you really want and then find a car that best match your set of requirements.

2. Finding The Right Body Style.

A sedan may offer added functionality of a boot, which is useful for carrying fruits back from your uncle's orchard but has a conservative image which may not appeal to the young. A hatchback may be smaller but it is also a lot more practical in urban traffic, not to mention how much easier it is to find parking space for a small hatchback. Younger buyers are also drawn to the more youthful image of a hatchback. However, hatchbacks are less safe in a rear-end collision.

Multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) and sports utility vehicles (SUV) offer a higher driving position which some drivers like. However, MPVs and SUVs are generally larger, heavier and consume more fuel than a similar class sedan or hatchback model.

Crossovers are a breed of vehicles that combine the positive attributes of an SUV and a hatchback, while leaving out most of their drawbacks. These models offer a high driving position of an SUV with compact dimensions, easy manoeuvrability and good fuel economy of a small hatchback. Models like Mitsubishi ASX and Peugeot 3008 are examples of a crossover.

There has also been an increase in interest for pick-up trucks. Most pick-up trucks have utilitarian roots so one needs to have a realistic expectations on cabin comfort and driving refinement, although some recent models like the Ford Ranger, Nissan Navara and Mitsubishi Triton offer very high level of comfort. 

Still, laws of physics dictate that a pick-up truck is less stable than a passenger car, especially with an unloaded rear. Pick-up trucks tend to fish-tail easily under heavy braking and needs to be driven with greater finesse. Pick-up trucks are a cheap alternative to more expensive SUVs.

Despite the cargo hauling image, pick-up trucks are really that not practical, especially for the urban user. Try loading and unloading cargo on a high pick-up truck's deck versus a typical MPV or SUV and you will quickly understand why. Also, you are not going to store your groceries on the back of a pick-up truck aren't you? Even if it is fitted with a deck lid.

Which body style is most suitable for you will depend on how you will be using the car most of the time. If you are going to use the boot once a year, and you usually keep your grocery bags in the back seat rather than the boot, then a hatchback may be a better choice. For the rare occasion when you need to load large cargo, you can always make more space by folding down the rear seat backs.

If your daily commute route involve battling flash flood or poor road conditions many times a year, higher ground clearance MPVs, SUVs, crossovers or even a pick-up trucks may suit you better.

3. Seating Capacity.

There is little point in buying a seven seater MPV or SUV if you going to fill all that space with air rather than people most of the time. You will have to tolerate the downsides of owning a large MPV or SUV like higher fuel consumption and poorer handling without being able to fully exploit the vehicle's people carrying ability often enough. For those rare occasion when you need a seven seater, consider renting one.

Not all seven seaters are created equal. The Perodua Alza for example, is more of a 5+2 seater, meaning it sits five adults comfortably, while last two seats are better suited for children. Models like the Toyota Avanza, Nissan Grand Livina and Proton Exora are proper seven seaters that can accommodate seven adults.

This does not that detract the appeal of the Perodua Alza. If accommodation for seven adults is a low priority but it is still a feature you occasionally need, an Alza is a good choice. Full-size seven seaters are ideal for large families but these models are also larger, heavier and are likely to cost more to maintain.

Remember to try out the seat folding mechanism at the showroom. Some models like the Proton Exora can fold and tumble the second row seats with just one touch, while others require Herculean effort to pull various straps and pushing the seatback down before you can enter the third row. This is a very important consideration if the rear seats will be used mainly by children or elderly passengers.

4. Four Wheel Drive, All Wheel Drive, Do You Need Them?

Unless this is how you are going to drive, buying a 2WD pick-up truck or SUV may be a better choice.

The term four wheel drive and all wheel drive, although technically refer to two slightly different drivetrain layout, have become a loosely used term by many car manufacturers. Any model that can transfer the engine's driving motion to all four wheels instead of the usual two, irrespective of whether it passes through a centre differential or a transfer case are now commonly referred to as a 4WD.

For the sake of simplicity and ease of reading by regular buyers, we will collectively use the term four wheel drive (4WD) to refer to any car that has the capability of delivering driving motion to all four wheels.

If you spend most of your time in the city, buying a 4WD may not be worthwhile. If the worst condition you will drive through are flash floods and poorly surfaced roads, a 4WD is not necessary. What you need is a vehicle with a high ground clearance and a strong structure that can handle the poor road surface.

For most urbanities, the only off-road driving they will ever encounter is driving over a kerb. Even when driving over untarred dirt roads in villages and estates, a 2WD drivetrain is more than up to the task.

Under these conditions, the heavy 4WD mechanicals serves no practical purpose and add unnecessary weight to the car, which increases fuel consumption.

The reason most manufacturers continue to offer SUV models with 4WD as standard is because consumers demand for it. It's like that city slicker who has never  slept outdoors in a tent buying a G-Shock that can withstand 15G for gravitational force and 200 metres of water. They are buying it for the image rather than to fulfil a genuine need.

In the past, there are safety benefits from driving a 4WD vehicle, which provides better traction in slippery road conditions. However, many 2WD models today are equipped with electronic stability and traction control, which delivers similar level of safety benefits of 4WD vehicles. There are still some situations like driving on snowy roads, where 4WD still have a small advantage when accelerating away, but this is not relevant to Malaysian car buyers.

In the context of urban Malaysia, having a good set of well maintained tyres plays a bigger role in maintaining traction than the vehicle's drivetrain type. 

All pick-up trucks sold in Malaysia are using a part-time 4WD system, meaning that these trucks operate in 2WD mode by default. Driving on 4WD mode on tarmac surface will result in premature tyre wear and transmission damage. If you are buying a pick-up truck and you will be using it in the city most of the time, a cheaper 2WD model may be a better choice.

Some car makers offer 2WD alternatives to their SUV and pick-up truck models to consumers who appreciate the lower running cost. 2WD options in the pick-up truck segment are Nissan Navara Calibre, Ford Ranger XL, Isuzu D-Max and Mitsubishi Triton Lite Turbo. SUV models include Nissan X-Trail, Hyundai Tucson, Mitsubishi ASX, Peugeot 3008 and Mazda CX-5.

5. Safety Features.

Automotive safety features are split into two main categories - active safety, features to help avoid a crash and passive safety, features that minimize injuries. Clearly, active safety is much more important than passive safety.

Examples of active safety features are anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic stability control, autonomous emergency braking, hazard lights that turn on automatically under emergency braking, lane keeping assistance and blind spot warning system.

Passive safety features are airbags, seatbelts with emergency locking retractor and pre-tensioners, whiplash injury lessening headrests and a strong body structure.

Viewed in the context of this hierarchy of importance, it is illogical for a car to be fitted with airbags but not ABS so avoid these models. Market research indicates that consumers rate airbags as more important than anti-lock brakes and this explains why some local models are specified this way. 

Another safety feature to look out for is electronic stability control (ESC), which works to prevent a car from skidding. Research by various automotive organizations including FIA, Euro NCAP and ADAC has shown that ESC is the second most important safety feature after seatbelts. 

Because active safety features like ESC work to prevent an accident, active safety features are far more important than passive safety features like airbags. The photo above shows a Ford Ranger undergoing ESC test by Euro NCAP.

Different manufacturers have a different marketing term for ESC. Toyota calls it VSC while Honda calls it VSA. Some German manufacturers refer to it as ESP while BMW calls it DSC.

ESC is so important that in Australia, USA, Canada and European Union, the feature is now a compulsory fitment for all new cars. The European Union and Australia have gone one step further, mandating ESC fitment on all new light commercial vehicles as well.

Examples of cars priced below the RM 100,000 with ESC feature are Honda City E grade (2012 facelift onwards), Honda Insight, Honda Jazz Hybrid, Toyota Prius c, Ford Fiesta LX sedan (2012 improvement onwards), Ford Fiesta Sport, Kia Rio (all grades), Kia Forte (all grades), Hyundai Elantra 1.6 High Spec and Proton Preve Premium. 

For more tips on choosing a safe car for your family, read our Guide To Choosing A Safe Car To Buy.

6. Maintenance Cost.

There is little point in buying a cheap car that is going to be very expensive to maintain over the course of ownership. Information on vehicle maintenance cost are frequently sought by buyers but are often hard  to come by. The simple reason is because manufacturers are not compelled to make their service and repair cost public.

Some sales people have the information ready, but note that some periodic maintenance jobs like replacement of dampers and air-conditioning servicing are often not included in the list. So it is best for buyers to do some due diligence to verify the information themselves.

Service packages vary from one manufacturer to another. Some manufacturers remove certain jobs like cabin filter replacement from the list, treating it as an option while others include it. Thus, one can't make direct comparisons between service packages from different manufacturers.

The good news is that information on maintenance cost can be easily obtained with a little bit of effort. Just pay a visit to any of the manufacturer's authorized service centre to enquire about the estimated service cost.

Do understand that for some brands, handling enquiries from non-owners are not part of the service advisor's main responsibilities so they may not be very well prepared to answer your query. A polite greeting will also go a long way. You are more likely to get a favourable response from them during off-peak hours, which is usually between 11 AM to 12 PM and 3PM to 4PM. During peak morning and peak evening hours, service advisors have to prioritize assisting customers who are dropping off or picking-up their vehicles.

Perodua and Toyota publish the service package cost for their respective models on a small flipchart on every service advisor's desk. Servicing cost for Honda and Nissan models can be found here and here respectively. 

Remember to find out about the vehicle's service interval. Most cars these days have a longer 10,000 km/6 months service interval (the first three visits usually remain at 1,000 km, 5000 km and 10,000 km). Some brands like VW push it to 15,000 km/12 months while others continue with a 5,000 km/6 months interval.

Servicing cost must be viewed in the context of their service interval. A model that costs RM300 to service but require a visit every 5,000 km/3 months may be more troublesome to maintain than another that costs RM900 every 15,000km/12 months. Remember that you are also paying for the added convenience. Less visits to the service centre also means less hassle.

Some brands also offer free maintenance package as part of their sales promotion. Check the fine print to see if the promotion covers only labour or does it include parts as well. It is important to also find out what are the parts covered.

7. After Sales.

While you are at the service centre to enquire about the maintenance cost, observe the surroundings. Is the customer waiting lounge comfortable? Are there clear processes to handle service appointments? You will visit a car showroom probably two or three times every five years but you are likely to visit a service centre every two or three times every year. A comfortable service centre is far more important than a showroom.

You will be surprised to see some of the flagship service centres owned by Japanese brands offer a much higher quality of service than some German luxury brands. One Japanese brand not only equips its service centre with the usual Wi-Fi and Astro service, but has a tea lady serving drinks to customers waiting and technicians make it a point to park cars ready for collection facing the direction of exit. While others will merely pass you the car keys and leave it to you to find where your car is parked, this brand's service advisors will walk you to your car and explain to you the jobs completed.

Check the brand's website to find out if they have any body and paint (B&P) centres, which are a separate facility to handle accident repairs. The tools and skills required to handle accident repair work are very different from regular maintenance jobs.

Many big brands have invested heavily in setting up B&P centres' to ensure accident damaged cars are restored to original factory specifications before they are put back on the road. Unlike many independent repairers, these B&P centres are supervised to restore the vehicles according to the manufacturer's specifications and are neatly structured into separate areas for staging, repair work and quality inspection. 

You may be paying more to buy a car from a well established brand but for these brands, you are not only buying the car but also the support that comes along with it. 

8. Preserving Resale Value.

If you intend to sell off your car in the near to mid-term, here are some things you can do to preserve your car's resale value.

Aside from the obvious tip of choosing a popular model, the vehicle's exterior colour also plays a role in preserving residual values. Black, silver, and grey are safe colours and will appeal to a wide range of buyers. All else being equal, cars painted in these colours are able to fetch a slightly higher price. Of late, white is starting to become mainstream and can also be considered as a safe choice. Loud colours like yellow or bright green will limit the circle of potential buyers to only a small group of young drivers who don't mind the colour, thus limiting your car's value.

Avoid modifying your vehicle, this includes after-market body kits that may be offered to you by the sales person. It doesn't matter if that fancy body kit is from a reputable brand. Most buyers don't care and are not willing to pay extra for a used car that comes with after-market components installed.

Far from adding value, installing after-market components will accelerate the devaluation of your car. Modified cars give the impression that the car belongs to a boy racer who is likely to have abused or even crashed the car.

The only exception to the rule are original manufacturer approved accessories. These items are covered by the vehicle's warranty and tend to be less extreme and therefore still acceptable by most buyers. Note that installing unapproved after market accessories will void the vehicle warranty.

Besides original manufacturer approved accessories, a dealer may at his own initiative, offer you an option to upgrade the vehicle's audio system or body kit with third party brands. He is also likely to give you his word that he will back the warranty but keep in mind such unofficial arrangements are not recognized by the either manufacturing principal or authorized distributor (the local agent or importer appointed to represent the brand in the country). Any related disputes that may arise from this will be between yourself and the dealer. The manufacturer or authorized distributor cannot do much and this is why established brands work hard to clamp down against dealers offering third party accessories to customers.

If you have to customize your car, make sure you keep the original components and that the car can still be reverted to its original factory specifications.

Keeping a detailed service record of your car also helps preserve resale value

9. Warranty

More and more manufacturers now offer extended warranties. While extended warranties are attractive, it should not cloud your judgement. When evaluating a vehicle's reliability, it must first have a proven reputation before considering its warranty period. Remember that the best warranties are those that you don't need to use.

Warranty claims are always a hassle and even if your vehicle's repair cost are covered by warranty, you are still looking at a downtime of around one to two weeks.

Some extended warranties are covered by a third party insurer appointed by the manufacturer or local distributor. A common arrangement is for the first three years of the warranty to be covered by the factory while the insurer picks up the tab for the later two years. Do check the terms and conditions as the coverage may differ and make sure you receive the proper warranty certificates.

Some brands see no need to make any distinction between the coverage of the factory warranty and the third party warranty as the terms and conditions and scope of the coverage will remain the same throughout the five-years. As far as the vehicle owner is concerned, there is no change in the warranty coverage and claims processes throughout the five years.

With these nine tips, hopefully you will be better informed to make the right purchase.

As someone who appreciates cars not just for their horsepower value but also for their cultural significance, he is interested in the art of manufacturing and selling cars just as much as driving them. Prior to swapping spreadsheets for a wordprocessor, he spent his previous life in product planning and market research.

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