Buying a new car - your complete guide

Our top tips for buying a new car from dealers, online brokers, car supermarkets and the questions you should be asking

Big or small, cheap or luxurious, fast or frugal. When it comes to choosing a new car, we’ve never had it so good. There’s an unprecedented range of bodystyles and drivetrains available from an ever-growing number of brands. 

And due to the almost limitless possibilities afforded by platform sharing, those brands have more options than ever before. Including performance, plug-in hybrid and electric variants, BMW currently offers more than 60 models. Audi’s range stands at more than 70. That’s a lot to take in, especially when you add the myriad trims, extra packs, colours and upholstery choices into the mix. According to Bentley, you can spec a Flying Spur Hybrid in 56 billion ways.

Then there’s the simple choice of whether you want to stick with petrol or diesel, or go partly or fully electric. The options, as ever, are nuanced, and will depend almost entirely on your personal circumstances.

That’s where publications such as Auto Express step in, helping you to make sense of the marketplace, and enabling you to buy the right car in the right way.

Buying a new car - the big questions

Dimensions and space are among the key things to measure when picking your next car. Below are some other key questions that you should think about before purchasing your new car in order to help make your decision a little easier.

What size and shape of car? 

Thirty or 40 years ago, the chances are that your choices would be limited to a small or medium-sized hatchback, a medium or large saloon, or an estate. If you wanted something fun, there were coupés or cabriolets, and if you wanted space, you’d go for an MPV or SUV.

Today the MPV market has retracted to a handful of models, while most manufacturers have several different SUVs in their line-up. The SUV has also sounded the death knell for the small and mid-sized estate, and you know that the world is a very different place as we prepare for life without the Ford Mondeo. The choice of city cars isn’t what it once was, either – they’re too difficult to sell profitably, say some manufacturers.

It’s not hard to understand the appeal of the SUV. They wrap much of the MPV’s practical appeal up into an altogether more stylish and fashionable package, and the raised ride height makes it a little easier for the car manufacturers to package bulky batteries low down and out of the way. 

Volkswagen Golf Estate - rear static

SUVs now come in a very wide variety of sizes and shapes, but irrespective of the shape, it’s worth paying attention to the size. Your choice of car was once constrained by the dimensions of a standard garage, but most of us now fill our outbuildings with tools and park our cars outside. More pertinently, it’s worth considering whether your car will actually fit on your driveway, if you have one. If you don’t, think about how easy it will be to park on the street.

And then there’s the practicality it affords. If you have kids, can they get in and out OK, and can you install a car seat easily? It’s remarkable how bulky child seats eat into space, something which is hampered further by small doors or a low and sleek roofline.

How big is your budget?

The size of your budget is the most significant factor when you’re choosing a car. So while the rest of this chart can be approached (as with the car-buying process itself) in a non-linear fashion, the first thing you do should be to work out exactly how much you want to pay.

Should you buy a common or premium model? 

Broadly speaking, the car market is split into ‘volume’ players – brands which are generally positioned as more affordable – and ‘premium’ brands which have a little more kudos, luxury or performance. You might think that you’ll pay handsomely for the latter, and in pure cash terms, you might be right.

The way finance deals often play out means that a car with a posh badge might not bump your monthly payments up much at all. The key here is the sheen and allure that premium brands provide: second-hand buyers want them as much as new-car buyers, and that keeps used values strong.

With a PCP deal, you only pay the car’s depreciation (at the agreed interest rate); with so much of the finance tied up in the car’s predicted value once the agreement ends, it might cost less than you think.

Mercedes

In the extremely simplified examples above, you can see how the impact of residual values plays out; you could be paying £6,000 less over the course of your deal by going for our premium illustration.

It’s not as clear-cut as it seems, though. That’s because you may well get more kit for your money by choosing the volume model. Of course, you can pick and choose from the options list of the more upmarket car, but you’ll need to do your own research.

Should you try before you buy?

Every week, Auto Express uncovers the useful features that can make life with your car that much easier, but there’s nothing better than sampling a car for yourself on a test drive. Of course that means making sure you’re happy with the comfort, handling and performance on offer, but there’s so much more to check than that.

Firstly, if you, your family or regular passengers have limited mobility, check that they’re able to climb in and out comfortably. Low-slung cars are more fun, but dropping into the seats, then hauling yourself out certainly isn’t. Similarly, high-riding SUVs may require you to step up into the car. And once you’re strapped in, make sure you and your passengers can get comfortable – the height of the seat can influence how much you’re able to stretch out.

Then comes the issue of practicality. If you regularly carry large or bulky luggage, take it along with you to ensure it’ll fit. Boot capacity figures are a helpful guide, but only tell you part of the story. If you carry heavy luggage, make sure there’s a low boot lip, and storage for the parcel shelf or luggage cover is extremely useful.

Don’t forget storage space in the cabin, either. Honda’s Magic Seats are exceptionally useful for carrying awkward-shaped loads, for example, while cars that have front passenger seats that fold all the way forward can create a vast space for long items. By considering features such as these, you’re opening yourself up to a wide range of new options that could mean you might not need to spend a lot more on a larger model.

Plenty of other areas seem trivial on first inspection, but after several years could really grate: voice recognition that doesn’t understand your accent, wireless charging pads or shelves that don’t properly hold your smartphone, while a lack of rear cup-holders or an interior light in the back can really frustrate families.

Finally, have a play around with the car’s infotainment. There’s plenty to love and loathe about some systems, so see how intuitive the system in front of you is. Pair your phone, input some destinations in the sat-nav, and if a touchscreen controls the air-conditioning, have a play to see if you get on with it.

What about sustainability?

Sustainability is big news, but it stretches beyond the obvious. An increasing number of car makers are offering vegan trim options alongside traditional leather finishes, and it’s no longer the preserve of high-end brands, either. Ford will swap the Fiesta’s leather steering wheel for a non-leather option upon request, for example.

Some manufacturers offer artificial leather, so look for Artico-equipped Mercedes, and Sensitec from BMW, while Polestar has flipped the convention on its head by fitting vegan-friendly interiors as standard, with leather firmly on the options list – and in doing so has won an award from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

But perhaps the biggest talking point within sustainability regards fuel. Going electric, for many, requires little more than a shift in mindset and some slightly deeper pockets. But for some the issues around the production of cobalt and other rare-earth metals is problematic, despite a 2018 Auto Express investigation discovering that car manufactures say they’re committed to ensuring they use only ethically sourced materials.

That aside, there’s much to recommend a switch to electric cars, particularly when charged using electricity on a renewable energy tariff. But EVs aren’t the only choice in town, and whether you choose full electric, a plug-in or full hybrid, petrol or diesel should be determined by the kind of driving you do. Travel locally and charge at home, then range anxiety and any concerns about the UK’s charging infrastructure start to fade away.

As with petrol and diesel, the cost of electricity has been steadily climbing, and following the Government’s energy price cap announcement, it could increase by 54 per cent from April, with a further rise expected in October. That, coupled with new restrictions on the Government’s home charging grant, will make owning an EV more expensive, but it’s still likely to be substantially cheaper than the alternatives.

The current electricity price cap is set at 21p/kWh; at this price a 40kWh Nissan Leaf would costs around 5p per mile to run. According to Ofgem, the typical customer paying by direct debit could be facing a 28p/kWh charge by April. That could potentially see another £2.60 added to the cost of a full charge, representing an additional 1.7p per mile.

How big is your family?

Hopefully an easy question to answer, but it’s worth thinking about the physical size and shape of your family members, too. Households with young children should keep an eye on how much space a rear-facing child seat may rob from the front compartment, while parents should take their tall teenagers along on any test drive in order to ensure there’s enough rear head and legroom for their offspring.

How big does the cabin need to be?

A small car may have a surprisingly spacious cabin, while some larger vehicles resemble a reverse Tardis in their packaging – so don’t assume you have to limit yourself to a specific class. When taking cabin size into account, be sure to have a good poke around to see how much interior storage is on offer, and how many useful features (such as removable bins or shopping-bag hooks) are present. It’s a good idea to get children to give a verdict on the view out from the rear seats, too, particularly if they’re prone to travel sickness. And if you’re keen on a panoramic sunroof, bear in mind that these can eat into headroom.

Do you need seven seats?

If the answer is ‘yes’, you’ll almost certainly be looking at an MPV or SUV – although the Tesla Model S is available with rear-facing jump seats. Either way, selecting a vehicle with a third row typically adds cost and involves choosing a long car, but some parents wouldn’t settle for anything less – if nothing else but for the option of ferrying their children’s friends. Bear in mind that boot space tends to be greatly reduced when all the seats are in place.

How big does the boot need to be?

Boot sizes tend to increase as you move further up the automotive food chain but, just as with cabin space, not all load areas are created equal.

Infiniti QX30 boot

And while the capacity in litres is a good yardstick when assessing how much luggage room is on offer, be sure to inspect the shape of the boot and its aperture, as well as whether there is a lip over which you will have to load baggage. If you’re a regular golfer or use a child’s buggy, don’t be afraid to take these items with you to the dealership to see whether they fit inside a potential purchase.

How high is your annual mileage?

It used to be the case that motorists covering high mileages would automatically choose a diesel saloon. However, the petrol/diesel binary is not as simple as it once was, while the arrival of new body styles has also added greater choice. An SUV, for example, may prove highly capable over long distances, but the strong aerodynamic benefits of a four-door coupé will make the latter a quieter option at speed. Meanwhile, those spending a lot of time behind the wheel should pay close attention to seat comfort, as well as thinking carefully about whether they opt for an automatic or manual gearbox.

What kind of miles do you cover?

The mileage equation also involves the type of roads on which you generally drive. Those spending a lot of time on A and B-roads may seek strong handling, while motorway drivers often prioritise refinement. And then there are urban motorists, who typically value manoeuvrability – although most cars offer a blend of these facets. 

How big should your engine be?

The higher your annual mileage, the bigger your engine should be, right? Not necessarily; modern turbo tech means a 1.0-litre unit can produce as much as 138bhp – more than enough for most needs. Nonetheless, frequent motorway travellers may wish to seek out a larger engine and the implicit extra torque that brings, while sports car buyers might take the mindset that bigger is nearly always better.

As a rule of thumb, an engine with a single turbo will produce 20 to 35 per cent more power than a naturally aspirated unit of the same size, depending on the state of tune. Variable and sequential turbos all but eliminate lag, twin and even quad turbos can be fitted to performance cars, while a model with a standard single turbo can be kept ‘off boost’ if its driver has a light foot, resulting in better economy.

Do you really need a car?

Perhaps the most controversial question of all is whether you need a car in the first place. It’s certainly a route that many motorists have chosen. 

Broadly speaking, there are two options available: firms such as Zipcar, which enable motorists to rent a car by the hour, or there are peer-to-peer operations, where owners can rent out their own car, or share a ride to an agreed destination.

Arguably car-sharing schemes work better in a city, where you’re likely to have more alternatives to driving. But for those who travel little more than on the occasional trip to see a relative or journey to the shops, it could be a cost-effective solution.

Generally speaking, you’ll need to hand over your driving licence details and pay an up-front fee to take advantage of these schemes. You book and pay for cars through an app, and depending on the operator, you may have to drop the car off at a predetermined location. 

Another relatively recent phenomenon is the car subscription service. Drivers can choose from manufacturer-specific offerings or third-party providers with multiple brands available, plus there are EV-only schemes, too. 

These subscription plans all work in broadly the same way, in that you pay a monthly membership fee and you are able to choose a car that is right for you. However, unlike other finance deals, you have the option to change your car every so often.

While none of these options are likely to appeal to enthusiast readers, there’s no escaping the fact that our favourite car brands are increasingly focusing on a future as ‘mobility providers’, in the expectation that individual car ownership will ultimately decline. Perhaps that means there’s all the more reason to enjoy that ‘new car feeling’ while we still can.

If you're after more car buying advice check out our guide to finding the best car finance deal.

Where to buy to buy a new car

The different options for buying a new car each have their own positive and negative points, so we've put together this straightforward guide to help you choose the best way for you to buy a new car. Click the links below or on the left to jump to the buying option that most appeals to you. Visit our sister site Buyacar for all the latest used car finance deals...

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