7 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Car

What to know before you head to a dealership, and what to ask once you’re there

By Keith Barry

Finding the right car and then negotiating the best price can be a whirlwind experience. So what do people who have recently purchased a new car wish they had considered more carefully? We asked CR followers on social media and got a whole host of suggestions, including learning the cost of maintenance, trying out the back seat, and much more. Then we turned to the pros at our Auto Test Center—who, in addition to their expertise, anonymously purchase 40 to 50 vehicles a year for Consumer Reports to test—for the advice they give family and friends.

“It’s more important than ever to do your homework before purchasing a car or truck,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing for CR. “With record prices, people are holding on to their cars longer than ever, so the decision you make should be one you’re going to be happy with.”

Between readers’ experiences and our know-how, we can prepare you for anything that might come your way the next time you want to buy a car. Ready to gain some car-buying superpowers? Read on.

Illustration: Heemin Yang

What to Find Out Before You Go to a Dealership

Which Safety Systems Are Included
Why it’s important: Even though active safety systems prevent crashes, they aren’t always included as standard equipment. Some may be grouped into different option packages. Automakers often give them baffling names, too: Audi calls its automatic emergency braking (AEB) system “pre sense front” and “pre sense city,” while Volvo calls its “City Safety.”

Steps to Take
• Start your research online. Click on the models on CR’s New Cars A-Z page find vehicles that have systems you’re interested in and whether they’re standard or optional. Then go to automaker websites to build and price the option packages and trim levels you’ll need to get the safety features you want.

• Double-check once you find the exact car you want. “Call the dealership and ask a salesperson which features are on the specific car you plan to buy,” says Kelly Funkhouser, manager for vehicle technology at CR. “Then cross-check the window sticker to make sure the features you want are listed.”

• Plan for a safety test drive. Write down a list of the safety-related questions that matter to you so that you remember to get answers once you’re at the showroom. Does the car have automatic emergency braking? How clear is the backup camera image? What kind of alert do you get if you engage the turn signal when a car is in your blind spot? Can you customize the sensitivity of these systems?

Whether Your Next Car Will Be Gas-Only, Hybrid, or Electric

Why it’s important: Though hybrids and EVs cost more up front, “cleaner cars cost a lot less to operate, especially when gas prices are high,” says Chris Harto, senior energy policy analyst at CR. As you budget how much you can afford to pay for a new vehicle, it can help to know what your savings on operating costs might look like.

Key Considerations
Hybrids can earn back their higher cost in as little as two years. “For many Americans, the monthly fuel savings can offset a slightly higher monthly payment, saving money from day one,” Harto says.

• Plug-in hybrids save the most if you take short car trips. That’s because they have an electric-only range that’s usually between 20 and 50 miles. Beyond that, the gas engine­­­­ kicks in. So check the window sticker to see what kind of mpg you’ll be getting when the car is in hybrid mode.

• Electric vehicles offer serious savings. CR’s analysis shows that with gas at $5 per gallon, an electric SUV will save drivers $2,600 per year on fuel and maintenance costs. Also, your EV purchase may be eligible for tax incentives. See our Electric Vehicle Savings Finder to check.

Illustration: Heemin Yang

Whether It Has Essential ‘Extras’

Why it’s important: Some vehicles are specifically designed to do certain tasks, such as towing a camper or driving off-road. You need to know what the car you plan to buy is capable of before you head to the dealership, or you could make an expensive mistake. Paying extra for capabilities you don’t need is a waste of money.

Steps to Take
• Know how much it can tow. Even vehicles that look exactly the same on the outside can have a towing capacity that varies by thousands of pounds, says John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic. Much depends on option packages, trim levels, and engine choices. Calculate how much you need to tow before you buy, and make sure the vehicle you’re choosing will be up to the task. Check the car’s manual and ask a salesperson to help you.

• Think about the road conditions you’ll encounter. Rugged four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs are impressive machines great for taking off the beaten path. But if it’s just inclement weather you’re worried about, you probably don’t need such a robust vehicle—or its added weight and lower gas mileage. An all-wheel-drive system—or even a front- or rear-wheel-drive vehicle with winter tires for cold weather and snow—should do the trick, says Ryan Pszczolkowski, tire program manager at CR.

Find This Out at the Dealership

How Much Maintenance Will Cost
Why it’s important: A lot of new cars come with some complimentary maintenance, including free oil changes and tire rotations. But others don’t, and you’ll need to factor in the cost of keeping your new car on the road.

Steps to Take
• Get it in writing. Find out what—if anything—is free. Are oil changes covered? Tire rotations? Are there limits to how many times you can bring your car in? How long is the coverage?

• Get the recommended maintenance schedule. You can find it in the owner’s manual or on the manufacturer’s website. Gone are the days of needing yearly tuneups and oil changes every 3,000 miles. “Newer cars need these services less often,” Ibbotson says. “But it’s just as or even more important to do these maintenance tasks on time.”

• Find out if you have to get your car serviced at a particular dealership. If complimentary maintenance is provided by the automaker, you can go to any dealership for your brand. If it’s a perk from your specific dealer, you may have to return there.

• Be wary of package deals. If free maintenance isn’t included, some dealerships will try to sell you a basic maintenance package for one up-front price. Do the math based on the service intervals listed in the owner’s manual. You might be better off paying à la carte or going to an independent shop you trust.

Illustration: Heemin Yang

If There’s Enough Seating and Storage

Why it’s important: Automakers love to boast about how many cubic feet of passenger and cargo space a vehicle has. But numbers won’t tell you whether a car’s sloping roofline will cramp rear passengers’ headroom, or if a small trunk opening will make it hard to load your gear.

Step to Take
• Check out the rear seats by sitting in them. See how easy they are to get into and out of, and if there are any obvious problems with head- and legroom. If there’s a third row, find out whether it’s big enough for the passengers you expect to sit back there.

• Try out the trunk. If there’s a specific item you absolutely need to fit—say, a folding wheelchair, an empty pet carrier, or a stroller—take the item to the dealership with you and try it for yourself. Is it easy to lift and load?

• Be smart about car seats. If you have small children, bring your car seats to see how easy they are to install securely. Some second rows can fit three car seats across, but in others, a single car seat might impinge on the neighboring passenger’s space. “All car seats are different, so the best way to find out what fits is to bring your own,” says Emily Thomas, manager for auto safety at CR.

How the Infotainment Tech Works for You

Why it’s important: As cars become more technologically advanced, drivers face a greater learning curve to master various systems. Don’t get stuck with a system that’s frustrating to use. Get familiar with the tech on your test drive.

Steps to Take
• Check the basics. Can you figure out the buttons, menus, and settings? “Systems that are easy to learn in the beginning tend to be less frustrating in the long run,” says Funkhouser at CR.

• Don’t make any assumptions about the technology the car comes with. Many cars have done away with CD players, older-style USB-A charging ports, and even AM radio tuners.

• Double-check the options list on the car you’re buying. Because of the ongoing microchip shortage, some automakers are deleting features that usually come on certain cars, such as satellite radio and parking assistance. “You can’t always rely on a website or brochure to know what will be included anymore,” says Fisher at CR. “If a feature is important to you, confirm that it’s listed on the window sticker.” You may not be able to add it later.

• If you have questions later, will there be someone to help you? Some dealerships will help with pairing your phone and other tech tasks.

Whether to Wait for What You Want

Why it’s important: Do you like the car you test-drove but wish it had different options, more safety features, or a different exterior color? In today’s lean car market, it can be difficult to get exactly what you want, so sometimes it’s better to wait.

Steps to Take
• Shop around. “If you can’t find the exact car you want locally, try expanding your search,” says Gabe Shenhar, who supervises car buying for CR’s auto-testing program. “A dealership in another area may be able to ship it to you.” Have the dealer email you a picture of the window sticker. Scrutinize it to make sure the car has every item you want. “Negotiate the price and complete as much paperwork over the phone or email as you can,” Shenhar says. “Then you only have to arrive at the dealership to take delivery and sign some papers.”

• Put in a custom order. If you have the time, it may be worth ordering a new car exactly the way you want it, especially if you’re looking for a particularly popular model that’s in short supply on dealer lots. Just be aware that the wait could be a few months or longer, depending on the vehicle. So make a plan. For example, if your lease is running out, ask the dealer if you can extend it until your new car is ready.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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