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Hit the Books Before the Accelerator

 
Hit the Books Before the Accelerator

Countless car-buying guides describe makes and models, covering everything from cylinders to seat comfort. How much do you really need to know about cars before you buy one? You don't have to be a car genius to buy a car you'll be happy with. Just do some soul-searching and some simple research first.

Consider Your Needs and Wants

When you start the car selection process, simply knowing that you "kind of like little wagons" or want something with "some zip" is fine. But also ask yourself, "What will I use the car for?" and, "What are my priorities?" A small wagon might be a reliable family car, whereas a two-seat sports car might be the ticket for weekend cruising. Use our checklist on Page 69 to review your options.

 

Ask Around

Whether they're highly knowledgeable about cars or not, car owners can tell you about the experiences they've had with their cars. Quiz them to find out what they like and don't like about their cars. Listen to their recommendations, but keep in mind that their reasons for liking a car may differ from yours.

 

Visit the Library

Comparison shop by learning how "the experts" rate cars. "Consumer's Digest Annual Car and Truck Buying Guide" compares models and offers recommendations. The "Consumer Reports Annual Buying Guide," which comes out every April, is also helpful. Other books, such as Jack Gillis' "New Car Book" and his "Used Car Book," talk about cars in plain English.

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention using the Internet for research. If you're familiar with the workings of the World Wide Web, you may be able to access a Web page full of information on the vehicle you're considering. Here are some to get you started click here.  If you don't have Internet access, see if your library does.

Use your resources to narrow your choices down to three or four models. Different manufacturers design cars that are very similar, so learn which cars or trucks are basically the same. Guides often categorize cars in classes so you can easily comparison shop.

 

Compare Costs

If you're like most car buyers, you'll get a loan to pay off a car, so you should determine what you can spare each month. To figure your car costs, remember that the listed car price is only one slice of the financial pie and it's usually negotiable. Insurance, depreciation, license fees, gas and maintenance make up a major part of the cost, but buyers seldom consider them up front. Adding up all these pieces will tell you what you'll really spend monthly and annually over the life of the car. See Chapter 2 for a review of how to calculate your costs.

 

Make a Safe Choice

Manufacturers have discovered that a majority of consumers put safety first. Therefore, manufacturers are putting considerable effort into designing cars that can minimize injuries in an accident.

Every year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issues reports comparing the occupant protection levels of approximately 90 automobiles. The test simulates the impact of two cars meeting head on at 35 miles per hour. Crash-test dummies in the cars show the injuries people would have received if they'd been in the accident. To get the latest crash test results, call NHTSA's Auto Safety Hotline, 1-800-424-9393. If you prefer, check out their Web site at: http://www.nhtsa.gov/

 
 

Don't Hurry Love 

The best way to avoid problems after you buy a car is to know what you need before you buy it and not get swept away by love. Here's what happened to a poor fellow who fell for a car and made a commitment too soon. 

The man was enamored with a little foreign sports car offering a fast ride and some sex appeal. He put down his money and made a long-term financial promise. This man lived in the North Woods 100 miles from the nearest foreign car dealer. He had failed to realize that every time his fast and temperamental phenom broke down, he'd have to have it towed 100 miles! 

Frustrated and fed up, he wanted to return the car, but it was too late. He'd signed the contract to purchase the car and had to live up to his agreement, for better or worse. 

Go into car-buying with your eyes open. Before you buy a car, know what car you want. Know its value. Know if you can afford it. Don't let love turn your head and empty your wallet.

Safety Equipment

For optimal safety, cars should not only hold up well in a crash, but should also include safety equipment. Consider ordering the following for your car if the following aren't already standard equipment:

Air bags for the driver and front passenger seats
Air bags are designed to protect front-seat passengers in 30-mph frontal collisions. They've considerably reduced average injury severity in frontal crashes. A word of caution, however: Wear your seat belt even if you have air bags. Air bags are not meant to replace seat-belts; instead, they enhance their effectiveness. Also, according to the National Highway Safety Administration, children under age 12 should not sit in the front seat if the car is equipped with air bags. And rear-facing car seats carrying infants should never be used in the front seat.

Lap belts in front and back seats
While some people believe it's better to be thrown free from the car in an accident and therefore don't wear their safety belts, the chances of being killed are 25 times greater if you're ejected from the car. About 60 percent of the deaths and injuries in car crashes could have been avoided if the occupants had been wearing safety belts. So buckle up!

Shoulder belts
Your shoulder belt helps your lap belt hold you steady during a crash. But steer clear of shoulder belts mounted on the door because they won't keep you from flying out if the car door opens while your car is moving.

Anti-lock brake systems (ABS)
Anti-lock brakes automatically pump the brakes for you when you slam your foot on them in an emergency. They may help you avoid an accident by slowing or stopping your skid while you try to turn. The down side is that if you try to pump the brakes and end up taking your foot off the brake pedal, the anti-lock feature won't work as it's designed to. You must constantly hold your foot on the brake. Learn to use anti-lock brakes properly if your car has them.

 
 

Is Your Car Giving You the Shakes? 

If you suspect your car has a problem beyond normal wear and tear, call the NHTSA Auto Safety Hotline. The Auto Safety Hotline phone numbers are 1-800-424-9393 and TTY: 1-800-424-9153. (Or visit the NHTSA World Wide Web site at: http://www.nhtsa.gov/) NHTSA can tell you if the model has a manufacturing defect. NHTSA tracks the following: 

* Recall information. NHTSA will let you know if your car was recalled for a defect. When you buy a new or used car, the dealer should check to see if there's been a recall. Also, remind mechanics to check for recalls whenever they service your car. 

* Early warnings on potential defects. Since all reported defects are reviewed by NHTSA, you can find out if NHTSA is investigating a problem with your model of car. If not, your reporting of a defect may open an investigation that could lead to a recall. 

* Crash test information. Find out how vehicles fare in annual crash tests.

Once you've done some background work, narrow your choices to three or four models you'd like to test drive. And choose a seller as carefully as you choose a car. The next chapter tells you where to start shopping for one.

The Test Drive

You've done your research. You've narrowed your choices to a few models. Now it's time to get behind the wheel and take that all-important test drive.

You may wonder, isn't a test drive like any other type of drive? Not quite. Keep in mind what you want to learn. You're about to make a major commitment and you want to make sure it's to the right vehicle. The following should be a part of your test drive:

* Take the car on the road for at least a half hour.

* Drive in city and freeway traffic. See how the car starts, stops, shifts (if it has a manual transmission), speeds up on the freeway and takes corners.

* Ask yourself how comfortable you feel in the driver's seat.

* Let a friend drive so you can see how the car feels from the passenger's seat. Try out the back seat, too, if you're buying a sedan or van.

* If it's raining, great! Find out how the car handles on wet surfaces.

* Don't go easy on the car. Drive like you really plan to drive.  
 

Child Safety Seats 

Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death or serious injury for children, yet nearly 80 percent of children who die in vehicle crashes could have been saved by proper use of child safety seats or safety belts. 

In Texas, children ages 4 and under must ride in federally approved safety seats, as identified on the seat. Infants under 20 pounds must ride in rear-facing safety seats, which must be secured with a seat belt, assuming that the car was originally equipped with seat belts. The fine for failing to properly restrain children is $100. 

When purchasing a child safety seat consider the following: 

* Find out if it's been recalled for defects. Call the NHTSA Auto Safety Hotline. This is especially important when you buy a used car seat. 

* Make sure the seat can be properly installed in your vehicle. 

* For convenience, select a seat that requires fastening only one strap. 

* Make sure a child can move his or her limbs freely, even in bulky winter clothing. A child should be able to sleep in the seat and, if older, see out the window. 

* If the seat has been in a crash, don't use it. Replace it immediately.

Next Chapter: "Where to Buy a Car"

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