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How to find the right vehicle for you

Find the models that excel in areas that matter most

Last updated: February 2014

If you’re unsure about the type of vehicle that’s best for you, determining that should be your next step. That means taking an honest look at what’s important to you. Begin by asking yourself some basic questions. Your objective is to find models that excel in the areas that matter to you.

How many people will you carry? Most vehicles will accommodate five people, although the center-rear position can be too uncomfortable in some cars to be considered a reasonable seating position. If you need to carry more people, you should look for a vehicle with a third-row seat. This includes all minivans and many SUVs. These vehicles can carry seven or sometimes eight people. Keep in mind that the third-row seats in most SUVs are small and only appropriate for children. If you need to carry adults in a third-row seat, a minivan or full-sized SUV is a better choice. Check the dimensions on the car model pages, for data on the third-row seating space.

Anyone who has owned a two-door coupe will tell you that rear-seat passengers don’t appreciate having to bend and twist just to get into a cramped and confined seating area. And folding the front seat forward so you can load gro­ceries or secure a child safety seat in the back seat gets old fast.

How much cargo do you carry? Most cars include a trunk that can accommodate luggage. For carrying more cargo or longer items, many have a rear seat that folds down, which effectively enlarges the trunk area. Some sedans have a front passenger seat that can fold flat to make it easier to carry extra-long items.

If you carry large items regularly, such as building supplies and camping equipment, you might find that a minivan, SUV, or wagon is better suited to your needs. These typically have a sizable cargo area that can be enlarged by folding down or removing the rear seats. Keep in mind that a third-row seat being used by passengers will often significantly reduce the available cargo space behind it.

A pickup is useful if you often carry loads that would dirty the interior or are taller than what other types of vehicles can accommodate. Crew-cab models, with two sets of full doors and two reg­u­lar rows of seats, can seat up to six people.

A hatchback is typically a smaller car with good cargo-carrying ability. These often have more interior space than a similar-sized sedan, and the rear hatch makes it easier to get large items in and out.

What type of driving experience do you prefer? Quick acceleration, crisp handling, and responsive steering are important in any vehicle. If you are an automotive enthusiast who enjoys driving and wants to feel the road and sense every aspect of the driving experience, these aspects will likely be high on your priority list. Most sports cars and many coupes, of course, fit that bill, but some make you sacrifice space for carrying passengers and cargo.

Many buyers used to face a dilemma when considering this question, because they wanted a sporty, fun-to-drive car but needed the practicality of a four-door sedan or wagon. Today there are a number of sedans and wagons that provide a good balance between the two. However, the trade-off when buying a sportier car is often a firm, sometimes uncomfortable ride.

On the other hand, many drivers place more importance on a comfortable driving experience. They like a softer ride, luxurious seats, plenty of convenience features, and isolation from the outside world. With the proliferation of luxury vehicles in recent years, you can now find a wide range of models that fit this mold, from family sedans to SUVs.

Perhaps you really need only basic transportation—a reliable, economical, fuel-efficient car for commuting. While on paper there are a number of models that could fill this need, it’s still impor­tant to do your research. Within a given price range there are big differences in reliability, fuel economy, comfort, and overall value.

Consumer Reports’Annual Auto Survey includes an owner satisfaction section, which gives us feedback on the experi­ences our subscribers had with more than 350,000 vehicles.

The best way to size up a vehicle’s driving experience is to read the reviews to narrow your list, then do a thorough test drive.

Is performance or fuel economy more important? Many automakers offer several engine choices for each model, but which one is best for you depends on your priorities. Is high performance or fuel economy more important? Perhaps you’re looking for a quiet, smooth-running engine that provides good response without much fuss.

Smaller models and some midsized ones use four-cylinder engines, which typ­ically provide the best fuel economy but might lack the power or smoothness of a V6. Some automakers are getting better at squeezing more power out of smaller engines, so family sedans such as the new Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu, and Toyota Camry have four-cylinder engines that are more than adequate.

Turbocharging is becoming much more prevalent as manufacturers look to deliver more power from an engine with only a modest drop in fuel economy. For example, BMW and Mercedes-Benz dropped their entry-level six-cylinder engines in favor of powerful and economic turbo-charged four-cylinders. And Ford offers a turbocharged V6 in the F150 that delivers the same performance as a V8.

Six-cylinder engines typically con­sume more fuel than four-cylinder engines. They are usually quieter, smoother, and have more reserve power too. V8 engines deliver the most power but the lowest gas mileage. These are available in some midsized sedans and sporty cars, and in most luxury and larger cars, SUVs, and pickups. A V8 engine is a good choice if you regularly tow heavier loads.

We recommend that you first decide which type of vehicle is right for you and then look for one that gets good fuel economy for its class. If you want a three-row SUV, for instance, you can save about $600 a year by choosing a 20-mpg Kia Sor­ento V6 instead of a 16-mpg Dodge Journey V6 (assuming gasoline is $3.80 a gallon and you drive 12,000 miles a year).

Some of the best fuel-economy figures we’ve achieved have been with gasoline/electric hybrid and diesel models. They tend to provide better fuel economy than a similar-sized conventional vehicle. Hybrid models that have achieved the most miles per gallon in our tests include the Toyota Prius (44 mpg), the Honda Civic Hybrid (40 mpg), the Lexus CT 200h (40 mpg), and the Toyota Camry Hybrid (38 mpg). The Toyota Highlander Hybrid (27 mpg) provide the best fuel economy of any SUV we’ve tested. But hybrids don’t necessarily save you money overall in the first few years. (Learn more about fuel economy and alternative fuel vehicles.)

Diesel cars typically get about 30 percent better fuel economy than similar gasoline-powered vehicles, but diesel fuel usually costs about 10 percent more.

Mercedes-Benz has diesel versions of its E-Class sedan and GL- and ML-Class SUVs. The Mercedes-Benz E350 BlueTec we tested got 26 mpg overall, compared with the 21 mpg we got in the V6-powered E350 gasoline version. Volkswagen currently offers diesel versions of its Passat and Jetta sedans, the Golf hatchback, the Jetta wagon, and the Touareg SUV. Our tested Passat TDI with the automated manual DSG transmission got 37 mpg overall, compared with the 25 mpg we got in the 2.5-liter gas version with a
six-speed automatic. Audi has diesel versions of the A6 and A7 sedans and Q5 and Q7 SUVs, while BMW offers diesels in the 3 and 5 Series.

Manual or automatic: Which transmission do you want? Most models are available only with an automatic transmission, which is the choice of most American car buyers. Many automatics now provide a manual-shift mode that works much like a manual transmission but without a clutch. Selecting the gears yourself can make a car more enjoyable to drive. Manual-shift mode is also handy when driving in hilly or mountainous areas, because it provides more control than conventional automatics when shifting down on long descents, easing the burden on the brakes. A few automatics have a winter mode, where the transmission starts in second gear to improve traction on slippery surfaces.

Manual transmissions, which are often available in inexpensive or sporty models, provide better performance and fuel economy than automatics. Many drivers also find them more fun to drive. However, if you spend a lot of time in stop-and-go traffic, working the clutch a lot can become a chore.

A recent design being used by some automakers is a computer-shifted manual transmission that works like an automatic but can provide sportier shifting.

2WD, AWD, or 4WD: How much traction do you need? Most vehicles use two-wheel drive (2WD), where engine power is sent to either the front or rear wheels. Front-wheel drive is used in most cars, wagons, and minivans. It eliminates the drive shaft to the rear of the car, letting manufacturers employ a less elaborate rear axle that leaves more room for rear seat and trunk space. It’s also better than rear-wheel drive in slippery conditions because there’s more weight on the front wheels, which both propel and steer the car.

Rear-wheel drive places less demand on the front wheels, allowing them to be used primarily for steering. It’s com­monly used on pickups and traditional truck-based SUVs that are designed to handle heavy-duty chores such as towing. But rear-wheel drive is also the preferred setup for sports cars and high-performance sedans because of its con­tribution to ideal weight distribution and therefore results in good handling.

Traction control, available on many vehicles, helps maximize traction at the drive wheels by preventing wheel spin. It’s particularly useful when accelerating on a wet, snowy, or icy surface. If no drive wheel has grip, however, traction control won’t help. In wintry conditions a 2WD vehicle with traction control can have more difficulty getting up a slippery slope than one equipped with AWD or 4WD.

All-wheel drive can power all four wheels. It provides maximum forward traction and is especially helpful in slippery conditions and when driving over moderate off-road terrain. AWD is also helpful in rapidly changing conditions or when driving on a road with intermittent snow and ice. It’s the system of choice for most cars and SUVs.

Although 4WD and AWD are designations that are often used interchangeably in advertising and brochures, the major difference is that 4WD incorporates low-range gearing. This helps in more challenging off-road conditions, such as traversing rocks or wading through water, or tackling steep off-pavement hills. The majority of 4WD-vehicle owners, however, never come close to needing this capability.

Modern 4WD systems are either full-time, which means they can stay engaged all the time, or automatic, where the vehicle automatically switches between 2WD and 4WD depending on the driving conditions. But many pickups and some truck-based SUVs have only part-time 4WD systems. These require the driver to manually shift between 2WD and 4WD, which limits the vehicle’s ability to provide optimum traction when the road suddenly becomes slippery. In addition, a vehicle with a part-time system can’t be driven on dry pavement when in 4WD mode without running the risk of severe damage to the drivetrain. Keep in mind that AWD and 4WD systems add considerable weight to a vehicle, compromising fuel economy.

New Car Buying Guide

Learn more about choosing a car, what to do at the dealership, pricing, trading in your car, financing, closing the deal and more in our new car buying guide.

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