How To Decide What Car To Buy

Case Studies on "Stuck" Car Buyers From the Car Shopper Therapist

The plea for help came in an email from Barbara, an old friend: "I need a car psychiatrist. I'm stuck and can't decide what to buy." Coincidentally, my brother, Pete, was also shopping for a car, and although he didn't say so, I knew he was stuck, too. And then there was Ruth, a family friend who really wanted a new car but had very specific — and somewhat contradictory — requirements.

Working as a consumer advice editor at, I've run into a lot of car shoppers over the years who couldn't decide what car to buy. In one particularly bad case, a middle-aged engineer remained stuck for five years, maintaining a clipboard of notes and a manila folder filled with prospective cars. Each time I saw him, he was closing in on the perfect car that would optimize price, options and fuel economy. But as far as I know, he never did find it, let alone buy it.

Being stuck isn't always a serious problem. If the shopper's old car is fully paid off and still running well, for example, there's no urgency to force the purchase. But other stuck car shoppers remain undecided because they are simply overwhelmed by all the possibilities, or they are getting conflicting advice from family members and friends. Whatever the reason may be, they just can't find the right car, even though they're ready to buy.

To get these shoppers moving forward again, I often find myself psychoanalyzing them (automotively speaking) before giving any car buying advice. I've also learned that it's best not to make specific recommendations. I just ask questions that help them choose the best car themselves.

Although Barbara, Pete and Ruth were coming from very different places, I managed to help them get unstuck. After many phone calls and emails, they bought new cars. And they were happy with their selections.

Stuck Car Buyer No. 1

Ruth: 60s, retired librarian, single, frequent car camper
Concerns: Fuel economy, cabin space for sleeping
Cars considered: Honda Fit, Honda CR-V, Toyota Prius  
Car purchased: Honda HR-V
Why she was stuck: An unrealistic desire to have both superior fuel economy and SUV versatility.

Ruth is an adventurous traveler who wants to be able to sleep inside her car on long road trips. But she wasn't comfortable testing fully reclined seats at a dealership, so she was relying heavily on the manufacturer's listed interior dimensions. As a former librarian, Ruth is great at doing research: She had pages of notes about the cars she was considering and frequently made judgments based solely on numbers. Unfortunately, stats don't always tell the story.

Another sticking point was fuel economy. While Ruth wanted a roomy vehicle, she also wanted Prius-like efficiency. Even though she doesn't drive many miles per year, low fuel consumption was important to her on principle. Eventually, I had to tell her she was shopping for a car that didn't exist. I pointed her to "The Truth About Fuel Consumption" and told her that by lowering her target to about 30 mpg, she would have a wider range of options and still be doing her part for the environment.

Relaxing her standards just a little, Ruth discovered the Honda HR-V, which is EPA rated at 31 mpg combined. After a test-drive, she was sold on the small SUV. Finding one in blue, which was her top color choice, was a challenge, however. Finally, she found a salesman who kept tabs on incoming inventory and notified her that a blue HR-V was en route to his dealership. Since the car was in short supply and in high demand, she paid sticker price. Rather than taking her trade-in for the dealership, the car salesman made her a side deal: He met her several blocks away and paid her cash for her 2004 Toyota Matrix. Presumably, he planned to "flip" the car himself. All in all, it was a happy outcome for Ruth, enabled by her willingness to be more realistic about her wants and needs.

Stuck Car Buyer No. 2

Barbara: 50s, writer, divorced, one teenager, modest budget
Concerns: Style, fuel economy, interior space, safety
Cars considered: Honda Accord Sedan, Hyundai Elantra, Mini Cooper, Toyota Prius
Car purchased: Honda Accord Coupe
Why she was stuck: Fear of getting a hard sell at the car lot. Too many choices.

When I first consulted with Barbara, she had been car shopping for a long time and was attracted to the Mini. She had reservations about its size, however. "Can a car that small really be safe?" she asked. She also said that she "hates, hates, hates" buying gas and felt she should get a Prius. From early emails it was obvious that Barbara had strong preferences about car design and also felt an obligation to go green.

As we talked more, it became clear that she was all over the place in her tastes and not really in touch with the current car market. She frequently referred to cars she liked from the 1960s and '70s almost as if they were still available. I had to keep reminding her that car design and technology had changed radically since her younger days.

A breakthrough came when I asked Barbara how she liked driving the Mini. "I haven't driven it," she replied. Questioning her further, I realized she hadn't driven any cars on her list yet.

It was time to write her a prescription.

"Make a list of your top three choices," I said. "Then call the Internet managers at three local dealerships. Tell them you are cross-shopping brands and want to make an appointment for a test-drive but you won't be buying on the same day."

Barbara emailed me a few days later. She drove the Prius but felt it was "too snug." This was strange because she is not a big woman and no one else who has driven it has reported this to me. She also test-drove the Mini but felt it was, in fact, too small. She then went to drive the Honda Accord sedan, which she didn't like.

But while still on the lot, she saw a four-cylinder Accord Coupe and "loved, loved, loved it." It seemed to fulfill her need for a stylish car and at a combined EPA rating of 30 mpg, it was also an acceptable choice, environmentally speaking. After a test-drive, she went home, shopped prices via the Internet and wound up leasing one.

For Barbara, the breakthrough was finding a way to take a series of low-pressure test-drives. Using the Internet department helped her get in and out of dealerships without a hassle. She also found the dealerships' Internet departments convenient for negotiating by email and phone.

There was one bump in this otherwise smooth process. When signing contracts, "You have to sit in that blasted finance dude's office and it takes so long," she told me. "It's their method of trying to break you down to buy the extended warranty. I said no originally to the Internet dude and he left me alone about it. Why do they do this?"

My advice: Next time, have the car delivered.

Stuck Car Buyer No. 3

Pete: 50s, engineer, empty-nester, frugal, 60-mile-per-day commuter
Concerns: Environmental impact, fuel economy, interior space, price
Cars considered: Ford C-Max Hybrid, Toyota Matrix, Toyota Prius, Toyota Prius C
Car purchased: Toyota Prius V
Why he was stuck: Little time or interest in car shopping.

When Pete and I talked about his car-choice dilemma, he was driving a 2004 Toyota Matrix (oddly, the same model as Ruth) with 189,000 miles on it. He had already replaced the manual transmission, and now the aging catalytic converter was beginning to trigger the "Check Engine" light. Still, he thought he might eke out another year in Old Faithful. But with winter approaching, he reconsidered.

Pete was very concerned about price and was tempted just to get a newer Matrix since it was "good enough." But I told him the car buying world had changed a lot since he had bought the Matrix. There were many new features available in cars that he might really enjoy. "I don't have time to run around and test-drive a million cars," he replied. I suggested that test-driving three cars would only take an hour or two. It would help him make a choice he would have to live with for many years.

Our consultation briefly broke down at that point. But one day he read a news story on the acceleration of global warming. He called me and said he had decided to buy a hybrid, on the grounds that he wanted "to do whatever I can to help the environment." I was encouraged by his new resolve, but I worried that he wouldn't find a hybrid he considered affordable.

Given Pete's aversion to test-driving, I recommended that he call the Internet manager at his local Toyota dealership and ask to drive just two cars: the Prius C — a small, economical model — and the larger Prius hatchback. When I talked to him next, he said he had driven both, plus the Prius V, which he preferred because the rear visibility was better and the cargo area was bigger. There was only one problem: It was pricey.

I told him to shop for a previous-year Prius V, since dealers were giving great discounts to clear their lots. He did so and got a price below invoice. Before closing the deal, he took a look at the Ford C-Max Hybrid but decided the cargo area wasn't as versatile as in the Prius V. That did it: His mind was made up.

The next day he called the Toyota dealership's Internet manager and accepted the offer on the Prius V. The delivery was smooth, with no hard sell on an extended warranty or other extras.

Lessons Learned

While working on this story, I discussed Barbara's predicament with my editor. "She thinks there's a perfect choice out there that she'll miss, so she's afraid to make any decision," my editor said. Another editor overheard this comment and chimed in, "That's why I never buy a black purse: I want one that will do everything."

The fear of making a less-than-perfect decision when deciding what car to buy keeps many people from making any decision at all. I tell car shoppers to relax and keep in mind that once you narrow the field to a small group of cars, any one of them would be a fine choice. To move forward, you have to let go of the fear that there is only one perfect car for you.

More broadly, stuck car shoppers need to come face to face with just what is keeping them from making a decision. Once they identify the sticking point, they can address it and move on to a successful car purchase.