Confronted by choice? Try these mainstream benchmark vehicles - the best of the best
Buying a new car is a confronting, stressful activity. Plenty of people offer their advice - and much of that is uninformed. The key is to cut through the overload of noise and get down to a rational short-list of leading contenders. Evaluate those - and get the best car for you, at the right price.
Still confronted? Relax - I've made it easy.
How to choose the right new car >>
How to choose the right new car
This is advice for mainstream car buyers. If you’re a car enthusiast, a car nut, then move along: nothing for you to read here. If you love your Jeeps, your Alfa Romeos, your Audis, your Volkswagen Golf GTIs … I can’t help you. (And, to be fair, you probably don’t need help - you know what you want.)
For everyone else, buying a car can be tremendously confusing.
The Australian car market is overloaded with choice: almost 300 different cars from more than 50 brands - and they can all tell you why theirs is best. And they’re convincing. (It’s easy to be convincing when you have a $30-million marketing budget.) Many consumers get completely confused and confronted by the breathtaking scope of choice, and everyone is clammering to shove it down your throat.
Incredibly enough, there are more than 30 Mazda3-sized cars you can buy, and more than 30 Hyundai Tucson-sized SUVs. Who has time to do the objective research on all of them?
QUICK QUIZ: These cars are all the same size. How many can you name?
If you can name them all, you probably don't need my help. (Answers here >>) If not, what you need is an approach to carving up the market - eliminating vehicles on the basis of objective value and risk, comparative performance, likely customer support. Then you get to a short list of vehicles that are objectively better than the competition, and you can choose between them.
STEP 1 - ELIMINATE THE WORST COMPANIES
If you are thinking about buying a Ford or a Holden, a Volkswagen, Audi or Skoda, a Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Fiat or Alfa Romeo … think again.
Ford and Holden are terrible at customer service, and have a great many lemons in the market right now, plus a track record of letting customers down, badly. Plus, the local factories are soon to close, the brands are declining in popularity, and that adds up to less future relevance and poor resale prospects. Holden is sourcing many products from one of the worst car factories in the world - the former Daewoo factory now called GM Korea to get some of the stench off it.
The Volkswagen Group (Volkswagen, Audi and Skoda, basically) has always had poor reliability and worse customer service - especially since the GFC. Add to that the terrible emissions cheating scandal, and the risk factors are completely unacceptable.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles - Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Fiat and Alfa Romeo - is, according to the ACCC, the most complained-about car company in Australia (as a proportion of vehicles sold). Massive series of customer service failures, plus poor reliability, a major multi-million-dollar corporate malfeasance case before the courts and sales in the sewer. Doesn’t sound like a solid prospect to me.
Honda and Nissan - both really are asleep at the wheel. They’ve been overtaken by Mazda and Toyota.
The small players - Citroen, Volvo, Peugeot, MINI, Infiniti, Proton, Smart, Ssangyong, LDV, Haval, Chery, Great Wall: Some of these are either way to new, and/or too poor in quality to be worthy of your attention. Resale value is intensely questionable. And the established names - Citroen, Volvo, Peugeot and MINI - just don’t sell in sufficient volumes. That means inadequate competition among dealers, poor local support, low parts inventories and low levels of demand when it comes time to sell or trade. And Infiniti might be what Lexus is, one day … but not in the foreseeable future.
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STEP 2 - IDENTIFY THE TYPE OF VEHICLE
Do you need a car or an SUV? Five seats or seven? Hatchback or sedan? Do you want to go off-roading or do you need to tow a heavy boat, caravan or trailer? Do you really need an SUV?
This might help: Check out my report on fitting you into the right sized vehicle.
If you need to fit two golf bags in the cargo space, or three child seats across the second row, or make regular trips interstate, or to Bunnings, or park in tight inner-city spots, it’s a good time to consider all that, as well. How do you need to use the vehicle, and what is it about that applied usage that affects the choices you make?
STEP 3 - DETERMINE YOUR SPENDING LIMIT
Everyone has a budget. You need to go into this with a spending limit in mind, because the car industry excels at extracting more money from consumers than they can really afford. They do it every day.
STEP 4 - LIST THE FEATURES YOU REALLY WANT
Five-star safety is non-negotiable. There’s no reason to accept four. You want to walk away unscathed and fill in an insurance claim form, as opposed to any other alternative scenario. Five stars tips that balance in your favour. And it doesn’t cost extra.
A reversing camera is an excellent idea. (Driveway injury is the second most common cause of accidental death in children, after drowning in the backyard pool.)
Bluetooth for phone and music, GPS, perhaps Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. 12-volt outlets for recharging digital devices, cruise control, perhaps a proximity key (which just stays in your pocket or handbag - all good ideas.
Bear in mind that the entry-level variant (ie the cheapest one) in most model ranges is typically a nasty little stripped-out shitbox designed to appeal only to fleet buyers. It’s had everything that can be removed, removed, in order to slash the price. Most private buyers would do well to eliminate that one and take one step up in the range.
STEP 5 - SIDESTEP THE TRAPS
Most car buyers obsess over things like the styling and the test-drive experience, when in fact they probably should spend more time thinking about the things that can really make a difference to the ownership experience and costs.
In addition to those, many new cars are still locked into six-monthly servicing intervals, whereas others (including Hyundai, Kia and Mazda) have upgraded to 12-monthly servicing. That’s a day less logistical hassle every year, getting the bus to work and back, or whatever, as well as typically around half the service cost. Warranties vary widely, too - Kia offers seven years, while Hyundai and Mitsubishi have five years, and Lexus with four years beats Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Most other carmakers are still stuck at three years.
STEP 6 - EVALUATE THE BENCHMARKS
I’ll steer you in the direction of the benchmark vehicles of the type you’re considering. Take them for a spin. If you need some practical advice about getting the most value out of your test-driving experience:
After that, get back to me. We can refine your selection. When you know what you want, I’ll help you save thousands on any new car.
Row 1, left to right: Ford Focus, Mitsubishi Lancer, Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Golf
Row 2, left to right: Nissan Pulsar, Holden Cruze, Mazda3, Renault Megane
Row 3, left to right: Hyundai i30, Kia Cerato, Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza Go back >>