Choosing the right carThe huge choice of cars available can be confusing, but once you have decided what you need from a car, and how much you can afford to spend on it, it should be straightforward to choose the right model for you.

Taking a few minutes to jot down the answers to some vital questions can help narrow your choice from hundreds to a handful. Here are some of the most important questions to ask:

What’s my budget?

Don’t forget that the price of the car is only the start of the bills you’ll need to consider. On top of that, you’ll also need to consider all the ongoing costs: fuel, tax, maintenance and so on. Speak to your dealer to find out how much routine servicing costs, and shop around at independent garages to get the best price.

Remember, too, that while you will be able to get some of your money back when you come to sell your car, not all cars retain the same amount of money. For a rough idea of how much value your car will lose over time, take a look at adverts for older versions of the car you’re looking at.

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Can I afford the fuel?

Naturally, a car which uses less fuel is preferable to one that drinks the stuff. The most economical modern cars can cover more than 70 miles per gallon, and although the majority of these have diesel engines, small petrol engines can run them close.

If you want the very best economy, you could consider models like the Volkswagen Golf Bluemotion or Ford Fiesta Econetic, which have been specially tuned to deliver good fuel economy. Alternatively, hybrids like the Toyota Prius (which have two separate power sources – generally a combustion engine and an electric motor) are getting more economical all the time.

However, to keep your costs down, remember that it’s not just a question of picking one of the most economical models in a range. Often these are among the most expensive versions and, unless you do a lot of miles, the savings from their better economy won’t be enough to compensate for their extra cost up front.

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Can I afford the road tax?

Vehicle Excise Duty (as Road tax is properly known) is based on how much carbon dioxide (CO2) a car emits. Every model is grouped into one of 13 tax bands and the higher the emissions of CO2, the more it will cost to tax.

Just to confuse matters, though, there’s a special first-registration tax, which is included in a new car’s ‘On the road’ price. This, too, is based on a car’s CO2 emissions, but is generally higher than the cost of subsequent years’ tax.

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What will the car be used for?

Think very carefully about how you’ll be using the car. If it’s for everyday use, you may want something comfortable and relaxing to drive, with plenty of luxurious features like climate control and a good stereo.

The dealer may try and sell you options like sports suspension and larger alloy wheels – and, to be fair, they may well look good on paper – but they can lead to a firmer, more uncomfortable ride and prove irritating on a daily commute.

What’s more, they may even raise your car’s emissions, pushing it into a higher tax band and costing you more to run. Plus, if you’re considering a vehicle as a company car, remember that any options you have fitted will lead to a higher tax bill.

On the other hand, if the car is just for fun or you want style at all costs, lower suspension, bigger alloys and extra bodykit might be just what you want.
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How Auto Trader can help: Car reviews

How many passengers will I be carrying?

Unused extra space can be a waste, with bigger cars often costing more to buy and run than smaller ones, so think about how many people you’ll have in the car – and how often.

If you’ll only take passengers occasionally, a city car like the Fiat 500 or a supermini like the Ford Fiesta could be just right, whereas a Volkswagen Golf-sized hatchback or a family car like the Ford Mondeo will be fine for four or five.

If you need more space, as well as some extra versatility, consider a small MPV (aka a people-carrier), such as the Ford C-Max or Renault Scenic. These also seat five, but generally have a little more room than a conventional hatchback or saloon; plus, the seats can slide, fold or even be removed to give you a choice of several different arrangements.

If you need still more passenger space, there are plenty of seven-seaters out there, like the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer, Seat Alhambra and Land Rover Discovery. However, remember that not all seven-seaters are equally accommodating: in some, the sixth and seventh seats are for little more than occasional use, whereas in others you can take seven adults comfortably.

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Short trips or long journeys?

If you are buying a car for short journeys, it’s probably best to choose a model with a small petrol engine – they’re generally cheaper to buy than cars with a diesel engine and are increasingly economical. Yes, a diesel-engined car will cost less in fuel, but probably not enough to make up for the extra it costs to buy in the first place.

For frequent long trips and motorway driving, the extra cost of a diesel-engined car makes sense, as the better fuel economy will make up for the additional outlay in the long run.

You may be tempted to choose a supposedly frugal small car even for motorway journeys, but that could be a false economy. Low-powered cars often use more fuel at motorway speeds than bigger, higher-powered cars, as their small engines need to work much harder.

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Do I need a big boot?

Think carefully how much luggage you need to carry in your car. A city car’s boot usually has enough space for a couple of shopping bags, but little more, whereas a large estate car can take you and your passengers on holiday or accommodate a few pets.

If you have any particular things you need to carry ¬– whether it’s kids, pets or your golf clubs – don’t be ashamed of taking them along to try in the car when you test drive it. Boot capacity figures are a good guide to how spacious a car is, but the shape of the boot can be just as important as its sheer size when it comes to loading luggage.

Last, but not least, if you think you’ll occasionally need to carry more luggage, It’s worth finding out the car’s capacity not just with its rear seats in place, but also with them folded down.

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Does it need to perform a specific task, like towing?

If you have something particular you need the car to do, make sure it is up to the job: if you tow a trailer, for example, check the official maximum towing weight; if you’re heading off road, make sure the car has adequate ground clearance and suitable tyres; and, if you have a small garage, check out the car’s measurements.

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An independent view

If you have some particular concerns, you may be able to find independent ratings to help you narrow down your choice. Euro NCAP, for example, has been crash-testing cars since 1997 and you can find the results of every test on its website; and, if security is a concern, look at the website of the Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre, or Thatcham, as it’s more usually known. Here you can find ratings for the security of every new car on sale.

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Are you choosing a company car?

Picking the best company car isn’t a hugely different process to the one we’ve described above, but there are some extra things to bear in mind. First, you may well have a restricted list of cars to choose from – although you may be allowed to make an extra contribution to ‘upgrade’ to a better car.

Most importantly, though, you have to consider company car tax. The amount you will pay depends on the price of the car (plus options) and how much CO2 it emits – the higher the emissions, the more you’ll pay. So, to minimise the effect on your pay, look for a well equipped car with a low price and low emissions.

To compare how much different cars will cost you in tax, you can use an online tax calculator, such as the one on the HMRC website.

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More in-depth buying advice:

How to choose the right car:
Buying a used car | Buying a new car | Setting your budget
Comparing new and used cars | Choosing the right car
Buying an imported car | Buying a classic car

How to buy a car:
Contacting the seller | Inspecting a used car | Test driving a car
Haggling with sellers | Doing the paperwork

How to pay for your car:
Understanding car loans and finance | Checking your credit rating
Returning a car