Choosing a new car

Emily and I bought a new car! Our old cars are from 1998 and 2003, so this was a big change. In this blog post I’ll describe our decision process in more detail than anyone could possibly care about.

I was fairly confident I wanted to buy new rather than used. I know “new cars lose a ton of value the minute you drive them off the lot” (because why would someone buy from you when they can get the same thing from the dealer), but there’s also risk in buying a secondhand car. For example what if the first owner didn’t respect the break-in period, or didn’t change oil, transmission, or other fluids, or what if the seats got wet and there is early mildew growth? These problems are hard to check for and could reduce the longevity of the car or lead to higher maintenance costs. It’s plausible, at least, that the money lost by paying more upfront will be saved in maintenance costs in the long run. I guess I don’t have a lot of faith in the average person to treat a car decently. Plus who doesn’t appreciate a new car?

High level filtering

We had four requirements that narrowed the options significantly:

  • Can fit two rear-facing child car seats without inconveniencing driver or front passenger. Specifically our Graco Size4Me 65, which is huge (my review on Amazon, if you’re curious). This requirement eliminates a lot more cars than you would think if you don’t have much experience with rear-facing child car seats. Two great resources for this are Cars.com’s Car Seat Check and Alex on Autos’s Child Seat Reviews.
  • Enough cargo space for road trips and camping/climbing trips. For a family of four. This is subjective.
  • All wheel drive and decent ground clearance. Experience tells me that this is good enough for approach roads at many climbing areas while not hurting paved road handling or fuel economy too much.
  • Either a tow hitch or roof rails. For transporting bikes. I prefer a tow hitch.

That led me to SUVs and crossovers. So in May of last year I started making a spreadsheet of all 103 SUVs and crossovers currently sold in the US.

Mid level filtering

I spent a few hours here and there over the next few months recording various stats about each model. Length, fuel economy, seating capacity, etc. From early on I was reasonably confident that the Subaru Outback and Toyota Highlander would meet our requirements, so I used them as benchmarks for comparison. I crossed cars off the list if it was obvious we wouldn’t be happy with them. Some examples:

  • Too short (Kia Soul, Mazda CX-3). Generally anything shorter than our Corolla wouldn’t have as much trunk space as we wanted.
  • Absurdly long (Chevrolet Suburban, Infiniti QX80). Longer cars are more difficult to drive and park.
  • Poor gas mileage (Cadillac Escalade, Toyota Sequoia, Nissan Armada).
  • More expensive than other good options without clear benefits. (Bentley Bentayga, Toyota Land Cruiser). Subaru Outback MSRP is around $36k when configured with the features we wanted. We couldn’t bring ourselves to spend $20k more for the Lexus RX Hybrid or Volvo XC60, or $30k more for the Volvo XC90. That’s a huge difference. Sure, these are “luxury” cars and they’re nicer, but not $20k or $30k nicer. Not to us. So that eliminated a lot of cars. It basically wiped out the luxury brands: BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Porsche, and Volvo.
  • Poor reliability, owner satisfaction, and road test scores from Consumer Reports. (Various Jeeps, Mitsubishi Outlander).
  • All electric (only the Tesla Model X). I love all-electric cars but we live in a building with a shared parking garage with no charging options. This also reduces the benefit of plug-in hybrids. We could have worked with the homeowner’s association to hire an electrician to install a charging station or at least an outlet, but we didn’t want to put forth the effort.

Low level filtering

And then it got difficult. We had a list of seventeen cars from eleven brands, any of which would be fine. Eleven dealerships is too many to visit. We needed to narrow it down further.

Diesel vs. gasoline wasn’t a factor—all the cars on our short list were gasoline.

Some cars have three rows of seats. We thought about whether that was important to us and decided it wasn’t. Children have to be in child seats or booster seats until they’re like 8 years old so we wouldn’t be driving anyone else’s kids around anytime soon so the extra seats would only be useful when we have extra adults with us which basically only happens when our parents are visiting, which is infrequent. So the third row is nice-to-have but certainly not a requirement.

I love hybrids in theory. We’re planning on owning this car for a long time so there probably is a small cost savings with a hybrid, but it isn’t huge. If the car we chose had a hybrid option we probably would have taken it, but it wasn’t something that factored into our decision.

Two person seat memory was an absolute requirement because I’d be driving the car on weekends and Emily would be driving it on weekdays. This didn’t rule out any cars, but it did mean we had to choose more expensive trims.

Blind spot monitoring was an absolute requirement—it’s a fantastic safety feature—but this didn’t rule out any cars, either.

We started visiting dealerships. We visited the Putnam group of dealerships in Burlingame, because they sell five of the brands on our list (Chevrolet, Buick, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota). We also visited dealerships for Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, and Subaru. We test drove a few cars and sat in a few more. I’m wary of American cars so we didn’t see the Ford Edge. The Acuras were a little pricier so we didn’t see them. Maybe we didn’t give them a fair chance.

We got a better idea how much trunk space we wanted and which features we did and did not care about, and we narrowed it down to four: Kia Sorento, Nissan Murano, Subaru Outback, and Toyota Highlander. The Highlander is the most expensive of the bunch, and we both thought the handling was cushier than we would like. Not the end of the world, but we thought the other options handled better (though we didn’t actually drive the Murano). The Highlander was also the most expensive of the bunch. The remaining three were similarly priced, though perhaps the Outback is slightly cheaper when built out with the options we wanted. The Outback also has better gas mileage than the Murano and Sorento. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Sorento’s frontend. Reviews generally praise the Outback’s AWD. Consciously this didn’t play a big part in our decision making, but subconsciously… who knows.

Then we decided on the Outback!

The spreadsheet

Switch to “The Short List” tab at the bottom to see only highly ranked cars. View full size in Google Sheets for ease of use and to see full column titles. Disclaimers:

  • Ratings and notes are my personal opinion for my specific needs. A car that’s a bad choice for me might be a good choice for someone else. In other words, sorry if I railed your car!
  • I make no promises about any of this data. If you notice a mistake let me know and I’ll fix it.
  • MPG numbers are from fueleconomy.gov (EPA and Department of Energy) for the all wheel drive trim with the best MPG (not necessarily what we would have bought, but useful for eliminating poor performers). Most numbers are for the 2018 model year, but a few are for 2017.
  • Most other info is for the 2017 model year, but some is for 2018.
  • An empty field means I didn’t collect data. I didn’t bother for many minor features, especially for cars that we had already ruled out.
  • The “as configured” price is a rough approximation of how much it would cost for us, configured with the features we want. This usually includes things like all wheel drive, blind spot indicators, lane departure warning, surround view cameras, etc.
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2 Responses to Choosing a new car

  1. Alex says:

    Your spreadsheet doesn’t include cargo volume? Lazy!

    Nice list. We got a CX-5 last year and have been pretty happy with it. Even though we have similar priors to you, it’s interesting what we valued versus you. E.g., seat memory wasn’t all that necessary for us, but we really wanted newer safety features like blind spot monitoring, emergency braking, and adaptive cruise. I also valued driving experience pretty highly. I was worried about car seats fitting, and while it’s tight with the car seat behind me, everything fits. (Also I think higher trim levels had some features you didn’t have on your sheet.)

    Mostly, it’s fun to see how others go through the process. How was the actual buying process for you once you settled on a car?

    • Mark Doliner says:

      Some newer safety features are important to me… blind spot monitoring was a requirement, but it was either standard or an option on all the cars on my short list, so it didn’t really come into play (I updated the post and added that). Also side airbags and good crash ratings. Emergency braking and adaptive cruise were less important to me… I appreciate them, but they don’t seem super important to me. We did end up getting “EyeSight” on our Outback which includes both of those things. I appreciate having emergency braking. I usually end up turning off adaptive cruise because I’m a pretty active driver and it’s hard to tell if the car ahead of me is going more slowly than I want if my car slows down automatically. I think Emily leaves adaptive cruise turned on and probably finds it useful.

      > How was the actual buying process for you once you settled on a car?

      Pretty good. Easy. I called or filled out online forms for about 5 Subaru dealerships near me to get a quote for the specific model+options that I wanted. Three of them were similar, on the low end of the TrueCar range, and below what I believe to be dealer invoice (we bought at the end of December, so maybe there were manufacturer incentives?), so we went with one of them.

      We had an appointment ahead of time, so paperwork was ready when we got there. I think we were at the dealership for 1.5 or 2 hours. Went pretty smoothly.

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