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Pick the right model

Narrow down your vehicle choices before the test drive

Last updated: February 2014

By now you know your price range and the type of vehicle that interests you, and have used the tools and comparison charts to begin jotting down a list of the models that meet these requirements. Now it’s time to narrow the candidates to a few promising models that are worth spending the time to test drive.

To do this, gather as much information as you can about each vehicle so you can compare them in several important areas, such as driving experience, reliability, fuel economy, safety, features, and owner experiences.

A key to doing your auto research quickly and efficiently is knowing where to go and how to evaluate the information you get. By going online, you can gather what you need in a few hours. But just as cars can vary greatly in quality, so can sources of information.  

Get general model information

Websites of auto manufacturers are good places to turn for basic information. You can quickly see which models and trim levels are offered, assess the features and options, and look up specifications, retail pricing, warranties, and dealership locations. The best sites also provide some handy tools. Some let you take a 360-degree view of a vehicle, inside and out. Most also let you “build your own car” by walking you through the process of choosing everything from the trim line and powertrain to the colors and options, and then give you the retail price for your specific configuration. Some will calculate the monthly payment for you. But in most cases, you should accept this only as a rough estimate since it’s based on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP), which is higher than what you will likely need to pay.

A few manufacturer sites now post the dealer-invoice price, but even that can be misleading if you’re trying to use it to determine how much to pay for a vehicle.

Some sites let you do side-by-side comparisons of the manufacturer’s models with those of other brands. But this has limited value. It’s designed to show a model’s strengths while casting a blind eye toward its shortcomings. Every automaker, after all, wants to sell its own vehicles, not its competitors’.

Visiting a manufacturer’s website can be handy for gathering basic information, but its main purpose is to promote a product and get you to go into a showroom. The vehicle descriptions are the same as advertising, so don’t expect to find unbiased critiques.

Compare vehicle Ratings

Ratings can help you narrow your list of vehicles by giving you a quick look both at how they compare overall with their competitors and the strengths and weaknesses of a vehicle’s individual aspects.

Consumer Reports maintains an easy-to-read, dynamic Ratings chart of all vehicles we’ve tested, so you can quickly see which ones have done better or worse in a number of key areas, including our test scores, real-world fuel economy, and Ratings for predicted reliability, owner satisfaction, and owner cost. Ratings can also be reviewed in the car type sections and on the individual model pages. The charts also show which vehi­cles meet our stringent requirements for being recommended. ConsumerReports.org subscribers can access continually updated, interactive versions of these charts, which let you sort the vehicles by any of the Ratings criteria.

Read model reviews

Different models can provide dramatically different driving experiences. To get an in-depth perspective on what a particular model is like to drive, read detailed vehicle reviews from sources you trust. Good reviews can tell you about a vehicle’s driving character; how it handles, accelerates, and brakes; and how comfortable and user-friendly the interior is for everyday use. They can also give you insight into deficiencies that may not be apparent on a test drive. Because sources have varying points of view, we recommend read­ing a variety of them.

There is no shortage of reviews, both in print and online. But keep in mind that most are in publications or on web­- sites that are supported by automaker advertising, and they can pull punches to avoid offending their advertisers. So while you can get insight into a vehicle’s performance and driving character, you will seldom find hard-hitting analy­sis or an in-depth exploration of safety or reliability issues. Look to our car model pages for notes on these topics. Moreover, only a few organ­izations conduct their own instrumented testing, which allows more accurate comparisons.

The key is to find reviews that are in-depth enough to give you a good, solid overview of the car and cover the aspects that are most important to you.

CR road-test reports. Every month (except for the April Annual Auto Issue) Consumer Reports magazine and ConsumerReports.org publish a road-test report on a group of vehicles in a similar price range and category (such as family sedans, SUVs, and minivans). Subscrib­ers to ConsumerReports.org can access the full content of all road test reports and test results for any tested model.

Subscribers to CR’s Cars Best Deals Plus can also get the detailed engineers’ technical report (called Full Track Report) for each tested vehicle. These give you one of the most comprehensive perspectives of a vehi­cle you’ll find.

Other sources of reviews. There are a number of publications and web­sites that review new models, but keep in mind that they typically borrow test vehicles from the auto manufacturers’ specially maintained press fleets. Many types of problems that would show up in a car you bought from a dealership are addressed before the cars are delivered to auto reviewers. If a vehicle has major problems, it is often taken out of the press fleet so that reviewers don’t experience it. Auto-enthusiast publications also tend to focus heavily on performance attributes, often at the expense of more everyday concerns such as safety, reliability, and fuel economy.

Many newspapers print auto reviews geared toward the everyday driver rather than the enthusiast. A word of caution, however: Special newspaper auto sections are often intended to draw advertising from automakers and local dealerships. As a result, they can shy away from hard-hitting criticism or comparisons with competitive models, particularly as newspapers consolidate and cut staff to save money. Reviews may be written with more of an advertising than editorial influence.

Personal experiences. Hearing about the problems and experiences of vehicle owners can give you insight into what it’s like to live with a model, and there are plenty of websites on which you can either voice your opinion or read those of others. The sites can be very informative and even entertaining. But be careful. Sometimes the reliability of the information can be questionable. For example, you have no way of determining the source of an entry: it could be from a disgruntled automaker employee, a dealer, or a dealer’s competitor.

Websites and forums such as Epinions are a bit different in that they publish reviews that have been submitted voluntarily by owners. It’s always insightful to get the perspective of an actual owner, but keep in mind that they usually haven’t experienced a wide range of vehicles for comparison. They don’t rely on expert opinions and don’t review, judge, or test products and services themselves.

You can also find a range of topics, including car-buying experiences, discussions of recurring problems, and service frustrations that owners are having. Similarly, ConsumerReports.org publishes user reviews submitted by sub­scribers. It also provides a variety of free forums that feature discussions on various subjects.

In the free content at ConsumerReports.org, look for Consumer Reports Car News where you can find updates on vehicles that are being tested, industry news, and safety alerts.

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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