Buying Pre-owned Cars

First, you need to determine your needs. If you are buying the car for yourself, are you looking for something used primarily for commuting, or for work? Are you looking for a status symbol? A compact car, sports car or pickup may suit you. Do you have children? For those with an active family, you may consider a station wagon or a minivan. Are you buying the car for your teenager? The safety of a mid-size or full-size car may be what you're looking for. The point of this is that you need to carefully consider who will be driving the vehicle and what it will be used for. Here are some of the vehicle categories with examples of the more current vehicles:


Small cars are usually driven by single adults or childless couples. They feature 2-door and 4-door models, and some offer a hatchback instead of the traditional trunk. In some hatchbacks, the rear seats can fold down for additional cargo space when necessary. The small car usually gets good gas mileage in city and highway driving, however they are not ideal for safety.


Midsize and full size cars are a good choice for most automobile shoppers. The smallest available in the US are the Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Metro, Honda Civic and Ford Focus. Midsize include the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, and Chevrolet Lumina, and the Ford Crown Victoria and Buick LeSabre are considered full size. Marketers have created a new "near-luxury" category, meaning any new sedan priced between $30,000 and $40,000, while the traditional luxury sedan costs over $40,000 when new. Near-luxury sedans are usually midsize, while luxury sedans are usually full size.


Most convertibles are sports cars, meaning two seats, high-performance engines and superior handling. However, GM, Ford, Mitsubishi, and Chrysler offer a few convertibles in regular production with four seats and convertible tops, such as the Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire, Ford Mustang, Dodge Avenger, Chrysler Conquest and Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder. Luxury convertibles are available from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, and Volvo. Convertibles are great when the weather permits, but there are drawbacks, including poor safety and minimal security. Sports cars were originally European two-seaters designed for both daily travel and weekend racing. A few 1950's manufacturers put permanent tops on their roadsters, resulting in the sports coupe. The term sports-sedan is a more recent term to describe a four-door vehicle that handles like a sports coupe or roadster. Recently, luxury cars have been advertised as luxury sports sedans. 1990 marked the return of the affordable sports car when Mazda offered the Miata for under $20,000. It's incredible demand prompted other companies to manufacture their own. BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche all introduced roadsters for under $40,000 in the latter part of the 1990s. Sports cars are cool and fun to drive, though impractical for daily transportation. You'll need a garage to store them in, as well as a screaming IPO to pay for their insurance.


In the rest of the world, station wagons remain the first choice for active families. In the U.S. minivans and SUVs have taken away most of the station wagon's customer base. Many of the minivans today drive and handle much like the wagons they've replaced, though some models may lack the cargo space and power of a station wagon. SUVs, on the other hand, are twice as big as they need to be, seat fewer people than a minivan, get poor gas mileage, and their truck-like ride and handling are rough. In fact, you'll pay more to insure an SUV than a comparable automobile as a direct result of their poor handling. Station wagons offer more stability, better gas mileage, lower insurance rates, and SUV-sized interiors. And Subaru, Volkswagen, Audi, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz offer all-wheel drive on all of their wagons.


If you're constantly driving your kids or cargo, a minivan is a great option. Newer models offer an additional fourth door on the driver's side for easier entry, loading and unloading. Also, they offer comfortable seating for seven. Be aware of the different engines available. Avoid buying a 4-cylinder minivan. They lack the power and ability to haul heavy payloads over distances. Most minivans are only available with front wheel drive, and Chrysler offers an optional all-wheel-drive system on certain models. Minivans are also some of the safest vehicles on the road. In fact, the Ford Windstar, Toyota Sienna, and Honda Odyssey are three of the safest vehicles manufactured today. Minivans drive and handle much like a car and offer better visibility due to a higher center of gravity and an upright driving position.


Although they're designed for off-road use, 90% of SUVs never leave the road. Some drivers do purchase the SUV for it's truck-like ride and cargo space, as well as the off-roading option. However, the car-like SUVs -- the BMW X-5, the Lexus RX 300, and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class -- ride and handle significantly better on the road than the rest. SUVs come in three sizes: SMALL or MINI SUV: Chevrolet Tracker, Honda CR-V, Isuzu Amigo, Jeep Wrangler, Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Suzuki Vitara, Toyota RAV4. MIDSIZE SUV: BMW X5, Chevrolet Blazer, Dodge Durango, Ford Escape, Ford Explorer, GMC Envoy, GMC Jimmy, Honda Passport, Infiniti QX4, Isuzu Rodeo, Isuzu Trooper, Isuzu VehiCROSS, Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Land Rover y, Lexus RX 300, Mazda Tribute, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Mercury Mountaineer, Mitsubishi Montero, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Nissan Pathfinder, Nissan Xterra, Oldsmobile Bravada, Pontiac Aztek, Toyota 4Runner. FULL SIZE SUV: AM General Hummer, Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Suburban, Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Excursion, Ford Expedition, GMC Yukon, GMC Yukon Denali, GMC Yukon XL, Land Rover Range Rover, Lexus LX 470, Lincoln Navigator, Toyota Land Cruiser.


More new pickup trucks are sold in this country than any other type of vehicle. The smaller models now offer quad or crew-cab four-door versions, with seating for 5 adults. Full size models offer extended cabs with smaller third and fourth doors giving access to the rear seats. Standard rear-wheel drive versions don't handle well on snow or ice without a substantial amount of weight in the rear of the truck. When equipped with towing packages with 8- or 10-cylinder engines, these rear-wheel drive vehicles can tow large boats and trailers. Full size 2-wheel and 4-wheel drive pickups get about 15 miles per gallon.


If you transport large amounts of cargo or need room for more than seven adults, a van is your best bet. The passenger vans can seat up to 15 adult passengers. Full size cargo vans are available with or without side windows and feature payload capacities of over one ton. Their 8- or 10-cylinder engines will also allow you to tow large boats and trailers.


Hybrids are vehicles that cannot be defined by categories such as car, truck, station wagon or van. Although SUVs are now considered a separate class of vehicle, they are actually a hybrid of a truck and a station wagon. The Mercedes-Benz ML 320 and ML430 are the only true SUVs, as they don't share a platform with any other car or truck. Most SUVs are built on automobile platforms or chassis. For example, the Corolla chassis is the basis for Toyota's RAV4, while the Camry provides the platform for the Lexus RX300. The incredibly successful Dodge Caravan was another hybrid vehicle that eventually carved out its own category, a cross between a small truck and the larger vans of old. Volvo and Subaru manufacturers have created hybrids of their own with the V70 Cross Country and Legacy Outback respectively. While retaining a car-like appearance, the Volvo V70 Cross Country (wagon), and Subaru Outback (sedan & wagon) feature SUV-like body cladding, off-road driving lights, full time all-wheel-drive, and an increased riding height. Four-door pickups have been a staple outside the U.S. for many years, and many consider them to be the next big thing.

How Much Can I Afford?

Make a realistic budget and summarize the hidden costs of ownership.


The best way to buy a used car is to pay cash for it. Not only does it make the transaction easier, it is final. There are no lingering payments to lenders or the seller. Sometimes it can work in your favor in negotiating a price. If a seller is asking for $2400 and you show up with $2000 cash in hand, they may take it.


If you plan to pay cash for a vehicle, establishing a budget is critical. Determine your disposable income. To do this, take your net income and subtract monthly expenses, your bills, rent or mortgage, etc. What's left is money for savings, outside interests and your automotive expenses.


Borrowing money to purchase a vehicle does have it's benefits. Though you pay for it in interest down the road, you can get a newer or better car that you otherwise couldn't afford.


You may or may not be buying someone else's problem. You may be buying a perfectly reliable vehicle that the seller maintained. That said, you should be aware of the fact that the older the car, the sooner you will likely have to put money into it. For instance, you may require tires, struts and brakes sooner than you think. Also, common repairs to your transmission, engine and heating and cooling systems may be around the corner. It is always a good idea to purchase an extended warranty.