As the technical director for Car and Driver magazine, Larry Webster’s life is all about car testing to better help you buy a new car. Day in and day out, his job is to play with and test the cars on the market and provide consumers the information they need to make the right purchase. Trained as an engineer, he was hired by the magazine in 1994 and was quickly promoted to technical director. Webster also has a thing for racecars, having participated in a number of racing series. He was the co-host of the Spike TV show “Car and Driver TV.” Here, he explains some of the important features you should look for when buying a new car.
When you go to buy a car, you should be thinking about:
It’s different for everybody, but usually these are the things you’ll want to think about before buying a car.
Figure out what is important to you in a vehicle. That’s different for everybody. Is the functionality most important? Do you need a minivan because you have four kids? Some people have four kids but they wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan. How important is a car to you in general? Instead of looking at it in emotional terms, at the end of a day, to you it may just be a tool. You need to be honest with yourself. You will have the car for a long time, so you want to make the right decision.
A hybrid is a way to get more efficiency out of a car, because it regenerates the braking energy that is normally lost. But, they are expensive. There are a lot of regular cars that get close to the fuel economy of a hybrid but are a lot cheaper. There have always been very fuel-efficient cars, small cars that usually don’t cost a lot. So, it’s a double bonus. One is the Honda Fit. It’s about $16,000, seats five, is comfortable and quiet. There’s loads of room in it and it gets over 30 miles a gallon [highway]. If you need a car that will do it all, that one is pretty close. And there are plenty of those types of cars out there.
You can take your time looking for a car. If you know you’re going to need a car in six months, start shopping now and do it slowly. That way you get a pretty good idea of the market before you step into a dealer’s showroom. It always helps to be better educated so you can separate what the salesman is talking about from the truth. Go to Caranddriver.com and get vehicle reviews and real-time pricing, or even hunt around through Craigslist . Just realize that it’s going to be a process.
The feature that is by far the most effective at making you safer is stability control. If the car starts to slide, be it on a dry or wet surface, this system automatically uses the brakes to [direct] the car where you want it to go. There have been studies that have shown this is really effective at reducing crashes and fatalities. If I’m buying a car, that’s the first thing I look for. I actually just got one for my mom. It’s [a feature] you have to look for. The Ford Escape has it, but the Toyota Rav 4 doesn’t. Be savvy.
Every car will have front airbags, but a lot of cars will have optional side curtain airbags that will protect the front and rear occupants in a side impact. Air bags are helpful, but the biggest thing is to make sure the occupants are properly secured with seatbelts. There is no panacea for accidents.
Some cars have really terrific communications options. Ford has a system called Sync, which is a terrific way to control your phone, iPod or USB music player through the car. It uses voice commands to access all that stuff, and it also has Bluetooth connectivity. So, it’s wireless and easy. You can have all that entertainment but you don’t have to look at a bunch of buttons and screens.
These [multi-media] features used to be available only in high-end cars, but now these features are the reason why people are buying smaller cars. There are benefits to these systems. They include navigation. They let you customize interiors, automatic door locks, adjust seats when you get in. There are all kinds of ways you can use the options. They’re handy, so invest the time to learn about them. Usually your dealer will help teach you. Also, you’ve got to read the manual.
Cars are very emotional [for people]. It’s our outward appearance. It’s like putting on a suit for people. Cars have always been part of our culture. They’re part of our psyche. They’re part of everything for no other reason than they matter to a lot of people who are super-enthusiastic about cars. For those folks, who are using their emotions to guide their decisions, there are a lot of cars designed with alluring exteriors and interiors. To a lot of other folks, cars are tools or appliances. You just have to be honest with yourself and figure out where you sit in these camps.
You should experience nothing but joy in the car-buying process. You’re getting a new car. Sometimes, it feels like a job because of the dealer. You go in and they pull this business asking, “what will it take for you to buy a car today?” Remember that you can always leave. I like to walk in [to a dealership] and say, “I’ve got 10 minutes. I want to test drive this car, I want to hear about it and then I’m leaving.” And have the fortitude to walk.
They get too emotional. They think they need a certain car in red, and it’s the only one there. They don’t realize they can wait and get it somewhere else in the same color. So, stay cool headed and be willing to walk away. Unless you’re looking for something really special like a Ferrari, there’s always another dealer and there’s always another option.
The other thing I think people don’t consider enough is leasing. If you’re someone who doesn’t want a car more than three years, look at leasing. It will cost you more to lease it, but the benefits are obvious. It’s always under warranty. You rarely have to pay for any big maintenance items like tires and shocks. And, you know you’ll always have a new car.
Follow the maintenance in the owner’s manual. Some dealers will tell you to change the oil every 3,000 miles or flush out the fuel system at 10,000 miles. All you need to do is to follow what is in the owner’s manual. Mechanically, cars are awesome. The engines outlast the [car] bodies today. The engines aren’t the delicate things they were 40 years ago. Dealers will want to sell you all this preventative maintenance, but you really don’t need it.
Spend the extra money for name-brand gasoline. If you get some of the cheap stuff at Admiral gas, it doesn’t have some of the stuff that a modern car with a precise fuel-injection system needs.
Check your tire pressure. It’s the only connection you have to the road. Make sure your tires are always properly inflated. Also, tire pressure will change with ambient temperature. Adjust for that. Do it once a month.
Drive safely. There are a few things you can do that will dramatically decrease your chance of a fatal accident. Don’t drive drunk, stay off the road after 10:00 p.m. on weekend nights and use a car with stability control.
Change can be good as well as bad, but it usually is good. That’s what I lean towards.
…it’s not the same old, same old.
Getting married and having kids.
For more information on Larry Webster, visit www.caranddriver.com.