The Car Buyer’s Checklist

Ditch your pre-conceived notions and check the tech to ensure a good buy.

Because I drive a lot of different cars, and review them, people are always asking me car questions. Some of them—like “What’s your favorite?”—are relatively easy to answer and, ultimately, meaningless because, for whatever reason, the asker has his/her own favorite and people are not easily swayed on car choices. Cars, as mechanical and technological as they are, are nevertheless one of the most emotional things in our lives. I have found over the years that people tend to do research on cars before they buy in order only to confirm their own pre-conceived notions; they rarely find in the research a reason to turn their back on their preconceptions. Besides, in the Internet Age it is easy to find a ton of both negative and positive comments/experiences about any car, and all of them are, of course, true.

But the frequent question I can’t answer is “How does the vehicle hold up over time?” When I drive them, they are all new, and I haven’t a clue about what they are like one, two, three years down the road. Well, except for the three old vehicles I own—a 1991 Toyota Previa, a 2004 Olds Alero and a 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee; with them I have a clue. And from time to time I rent a car when I travel, so I have seen first hand what 50,000 miles of tough driving by a salesperson from Poughkeepsie does to a vehicle, and it usually isn’t pretty.

And while there is a ton of information out there—real information from authoritative sources—about vehicle reliability and even exhaustive road test by experts, the average Joe or Jane see themselves as a “Dodge Ram Man” or a “Land Rover Girl,” and the only thing that will dissuade from that point of view is three years behind the wheel. Even then it is difficult to get a straight answer; no one really wants to admit publicly that they made a bad choice with their $40,000 or more purchase. We are, after all, all experts on cars—especially men.

It is, however, time to discuss some of these authoritative sources because in late spring and into summer many people decide it’s time to buy a new car, and I want to at least attempt to overcome the emotional aspect of that buying decision. What with the Colorado economy zipping along quite nicely and auto loans readily available at highly competitive rates, the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association reported this spring that new car sales in Colorado were robust. So before you make an emotional and potentially ill-advised $40k decision, read on.

In February, the respected marketing research firm J.D. Power, known particularly for its work in the automotive world, released its annual 2016 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), and it contained some fascinating information. The survey measures problems reported per 100 cars from 35,560 original owners of 2013 vehicles, so these are the people who have been behind the wheel for some time and, presumably, offered real, unemotional responses. The industry average for problems per 100 vehicles in that time frame was 152, with the five top-rated brands well below that average (including Lexus, Porsche, Buick, Toyota and GMC), and the bottom five brands well above (including Dodge, Ford, Smart, Land Rover and Jeep).

Historically, the J.D. Power VDS listed the most frequent problems reported on vehicles as what you might imagine: engine issues, wind noise, road noise, rust, uncomfortable seats and problems with the heating and air conditioning. Those problems still persist, of course, but for the first time ever the number-one problem reported by car owners in the study concerned the vehicle technology—particularly the voice recognition systems (doesn’t understand), hooking up and using the internal hands-free phone, and navigation systems that are too hard to use or simply inaccurate. In this high-tech age, with most people using very intuitive smart phones, the car companies are, apparently, having a hard time keeping up technologically.

Personally, I understand, as these technologies in cars are often my most reported problems I encounter during a car review test drive. More than once I have described the internal technology on, say, a fancy BMW as requiring the driver to stop by the nearest university and taking an advanced degree in engineering before attempting to change the radio station or increasing the fan speed on the AC. Car companies have responded: until about four years ago almost every car brand had moved its upgraded climate control into the ubiquitous LCD screen, calling for several distracting moves to change the temperature or air direction; today almost every company has taken the climate control out of the screen and given these systems their own place, and knobs, on the dash.

I am a bit dumbfounded, however, by the types of complaints people have about their cars. Oh sure, it’s impossible to know about coming engine problems or rust in a new-car test drive, but wind noise? Road noise? Uncomfortable seats? Voice recognition that regularly calls your sister when you actually asked it to play Twisted Sister on your play list? Navigation that sends you to Cheyenne rather than Longmont?

Did you drive the car more than around the block before signing the $40k purchase contract?

So I offer you my “New Car Buyer’s Checklist” to help alleviate headaches, and remorse, down the road:

      • Get over yourself. You have to remove as much emotion from this decision as possible, and be prepared to discover that your “favorite car” is, in fact, a lemon.
      • Do as much research as possible (the web has tons of info)—and pay attention to the negative reviews and comments from both journalists and car owners.
      • Connect your smart phone to the Bluetooth and use the phone (if it isn’t easy to connect/disconnect, don’t buy the car). Use the voice recognition for the phone.
      • Connect your phone or other device to the sound system and run through your play list. Again, use the voice recognition. Don’t believe the sales guy that the voice recognition has to “learn” you; if you can’t make it work properly now, you’ll have problems.
      • Check out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration web site. Check for recalls, safety bulletins and child safety guidelines.
      • Look for the websites specializing in car shopping comparisons that offer insight into prices in your area. A few good ones are,, and
      • Take more than the cursory dealership test drive with the smiling and schmoozing sales agent. Drive the car on the highway and up into the mountains. Listen for road noise and wind noise, notice seat comfort and check the visibility and ease of operation of the mirrors.
      • If you play golf or go on road trips, load the trunk with a couple of golf bags or suitcases to see if it fits your needs.
      • Operate both the heat and the AC—the full range of the climate control—to make sure they do what you want. Too often the heating or cooling at your feet, face or windshield is lacking.
      • Turn on the heated/cooled seats and heated steering wheel and make sure they operate as expected.
      • Bring your family—or several of your friends—and make sure the back seat will meet your needs.
      • Use the navigation system to find an address, and also to find a “point of interest” (like a restaurant), and make sure it is something you can operate easily (many of them are unbelievably cumbersome and, trust me, you won’t “get used to it” if it sucks).
      • Take notes.
      • Go home and think it over for a day or two. Don’t succumb to the “it probably won’t be here tomorrow” sales pitch; if it isn’t, it wasn’t meant to be. Buy with your head, not your heart.

A new car purchase is, for most people, the second most expensive purchase they’ll ever make (behind a home), and it would be awful to make a huge mistake. I keep thinking about those people who dropped some serious coin in 2013 for a Jeep or Land Rover who now, according to J.D. Power, have nearly the most complaints of any car owners.

Making the wrong choice will literally drive you crazy for years.

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