Identify the Models That Fit Your Needs
Browse ratings and reviews online, factoring in budget, size, and lifestyle needs, such as third-row seating and towing capability. You can also check the reliability histories, owner satisfaction scores, and information about safety features and crash-test results at CR.org/carsatoz. You’ll also want to learn about other trim levels and comparable models, so you can pivot to a second choice.
Decide Between New and Used
Look at current transaction prices using CR’s Build & Buy Car Buying Service or TrueCar to learn what’s a fair price for the model you want. Run the numbers to see whether buying a new or used version is right for you. Used-car prices are elevated now, so you may find that buying new is smarter than buying a 3-year-old car. Also, lower finance charges, zero miles on the odometer, and a full factory warranty can make new cars more appealing. Buying used these days often means looking back several years in order to see a meaningful discount.
Research Your Trade-In Value
Use CR’s Trade-InValue Estimator to find out what your old car is worth. Then see what a local dealer will offer. You’re likely to get more money for your old car if you sell it yourself, so check its retail value using Kelley Blue Book, and look at what similarly optioned versions of the same model are listed for.
Get preapproved for financing through your bank or an online vendor such as Carvana or LendingTree. Locking in a rate gives you a starting point for negotiating financing terms with a dealership. If the dealership can beat your secured loan, great.
Find Your Car at a Fair Price
Use a car-listing aggregator like Cars.com or CarGurus to find models nearby. You can widen your search radius if you’re not finding what you want in your area. But call dealerships before heading out to see a specific car, because some post online listings before the cars are on their lots. Use CR’s Build & Buy Car Buying Service to compare in-stock vehicles and see what others paid. You can get up-front price offers online from local certified dealers. On top of national incentives, Consumer Reports members are eligible for additional incentive offers from select manufacturers.
Test-Drive and Verify Your Features
Test-drive the car to make sure that you’re comfortable with its performance—and physically check to make sure the car you’re buying has all the features you want before you drive it off the dealership lot. Some manufacturers have had to suspend certain options due to the chip shortage and other supply chain issues, meaning online information and brochures may be out of date. Ask if the manufacturer plans on installing missing features retroactively.
Be Prepared to Act Fast
This is a seller’s market. If you have to go outside your local area to a dealership, CR’s experts advise putting down a refundable deposit on the car via phone to make sure it’s actually there when you arrive. Also, have your financing complete and your old car prepped for trade-in to expedite the transaction. Dealers are less willing to negotiate now, if at all, but manufacturers still may still offer attractive terms on leases and financing.
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