In order to properly shop for a car, it’s essential that you do your research. The sales process is an adversarial one–sure, there are crooked car dealers out there, but even leaving those aside, it’s a predatory process.

“Predatory?” I hear you say, “Isn’t that being a bit dramatic?”

Not at all. In fact, in a good car deal, the predator is you, the customer. You’re hunting a car–the dealerships and craigslist listings and private parties are your natural hunting grounds. That’s where the natural order of things sits, and that’s where it should stay. Of course, salespeople and dealerships out to survive, so they have a strong incentive to slip into the role of predator if you’re leaving a power vacuum.

“Power vacuum?” You ask, “What do you mean power vacuum?”

Yup. Knowledge and intent are power when buying a car. If you’ve got a spec sheet of the things you need in a car, and you understand the economics of dealerships, and you have a basic understanding of automotive mechanics, your chances of walking away with a car that will serve you well are very good–assuming you also exercise good impulse control (being polite never hurts either–just remember that there’s a difference between being polite and being a sucker).

In this post, we’ll talk about creating your spec sheet.

The Spec Sheet

In the case of my recent foray into the savanna full of automotive gazelle, I was part of a team, and the team had a set of requirements. We were replacing a sedan that, though we had no particular love for it, had served admirably for upwards of a decade. I’ve owned unreliable cars before, and I wasn’t willing to go back there unless and until I’m obscenely wealthy and have a very large garage and copious free time.

My opposite number was sick of cars she didn’t fit into comfortably–she wanted something that wrapped around her like a glove, the way my late lamented Firebird wrapped around me, lo these long years ago. The idea initially excited me–happy, engaged drivers tend both to be safer drivers and have a better mood on days when they need to drive, and really, what’s the point in spending cumulative years of your life in a car if you’re not enjoying yourself? Unfortunately, this requirement posed a bit of a problem–I’m 5’10” with obscenely broad linebacker shoulders, and fairly soggy around the middle. She’s 5’3″ and very petite all around. Finding a car that fit both of us was going to be a tall order, full stop.

Fortunately, we did agree on a few things. Our spec list looked like this:

1) Must have a manual transmission. No exceptions.

2) Must be extremely reliable.

3) Must be capable of 30mpg or better when treated well.

4) Must be straightforward to maintain and user-friendly for home repairs.

5) Must not put a huge dent in the budget.

This got us as far as our first pass looking at what was on the market, and narrowing the list from everything to a manageable set of options. It sounds pretty basic, maybe even moronic, but if you don’t know what you’re looking for you’re unlikely to find it.

Over the following week, our spec list narrowed further, but what you see above was enough to get us out and test driving–which brings me to another basic rule:

Until you know exactly the car you want, never buy a car the first time you’re on a lot–and let the salesman know that it’s your policy. There are some non-obvious reasons for this, which I’ll get into some next time.

The next test drive

After making up our preliminary spec sheet, She Who Must Not Be Named started not-so-subtly indicating an interest in the Mini Cooper (at least, that’s what it looked like to me when the lustful eyes, lolling tongue, and grabbing motions accompanied by chants of “WANT!” communicated to me whenever we passed one on the road). I hadn’t considered one on the assumption that it’d break the budget line item on our spec sheet, but I figured “What could it hurt?” and allowed myself to be dragged along to a dealership.

We grabbed the keys to a Cooper S and took it for a joyride–and let me tell you, the car is a joy. The superchargered engine, the drive-by-wire cockpit, and the stiff-and-low suspension all conspired together to remind me what driving is supposed to be like. Not just what it can be like if you know how to take mediocre equipment and make it dance, but what it’s like when the equipment drags you outside like an eager puppy and says “Let’s play.”

Oh. My. Godlessness.

We took it out to an abandoned road with enough straight and enough curves to give it a good shakedown. It crawled up to 100mph without even pushing, and it easily handled the corners at twice + ten the posted speed (so a 25mph corner played nice at 60mph). The stopping distance was unreal–a light car with broad carbon-ceramic brake pads and excellent ABS meant that I went from 100-0 in about half the distance I’d have been able to do in a normally-proportioned car.

Last time I called the Civic CRZ a rocket-powered rollerskate that wanted to be a car. The Mini is the opposite: a driver’s car with the attitude and poise of an atomic-powered ice skate. Smooth in the right places, rough in the right places–like the original British Mini, a toy in the very best sense of the word. Even better, it fit both of us very well. I have never before driven a hot hatch (the class of car the Mini falls into) that behaved so well.

A little digging showed that Minis before 2005 had a chronic problem with the thermostat sticking, which could lead to head warping and other nasty problems. I spent an hour in a shop with a mechanic who was doing a rebuild and got to know the engine a bit, learning the ins and outs of its charictaristic issues. This is a car where you definitely want to keep up with the oil changes, and only use synthetics–and it’s also a car that tends to get abused. Hot hatches like this are huge in street racing, and very popular with teenagers, so if you’re picking one up on the used market you should take a lot of care.

That said, it is a very well put-together drive train, and if you stay on top of the maintenance it gets a very high dependability rating from Edmunds and JD Power. After crawling around under a few of them I can see why: it’s very well-designed to deal with the kind of driving it gets subjected to. Driven properly and maintained well, it should be quite the joy to own.

They also hold their value very well–less than 30% depreciation over the first hundred-thousand miles, post 2006. This car was looking really good–the chunk it would take out of the monthly budget, though, was just a tad hard to swallow. We put it on our “maybe” list and went on looking at the rest of the field. And since Mini is owned by BMW, the post-Mini conversations naturally led us to a conversation about German cars, and sports cars in general.

After all, we already have a cargo hauler vehicle for gigs and for taking people to/from the airport. We’ve both missed having a sports car in the house. We decided to two more items to our spec sheet, one that puts the definitive shape on what we were looking for:

6) A sports car–or, if it was really good, a hot hatch.

7) If a sports car and not a hot-hatch, Rear-Wheel Drive is non-negotiable. (Hot hatches are almost always FWD, but we both prefer the way RWD cars handle).

And with that, our list of potential make/model combinations shrank from thirty to ten. Now, we had a manageable field to survey.

This spec sheet fit our needs and desires–it may not work for you. If you’re in the market for a car, consider:
1) The practical needs that your car will meet–how much space will you need?
2) Ergonomics and comfort — chances are you’ll spend a lot of time in this car, you want it to feel homey and enjoyable. A well-chosen car can take a lot of stress out of your daily commute. The shape of the seats, the amount of elbow room, the ride height, the driving position, cupholder positions, and the visibility all play in to this aspect. Pay attention to them on test drives, and take notes on what works and doesn’t work for you.
3) Extras. I didn’t talk a lot about these above because we’re both great if we’ve got a good radio with an aux plug. You might need Sat Nav, or a DVD player, or an infra-red HUD. Power mirrors might be non-negotiable to you. Be clear on your expectations.
4) Safety. Check the car’s safety ratings–and don’t accept less than three stars on any impact unless you’re deliberately picking a classic car. If it’s a two-seater and you ever might transport children or pregnant women, make sure you can turn off the passenger-side airbag.
5) Reliability, maintenance schedule, and repair costs. Consumer reports, Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, and JD Power all have good info on these. Also don’t be shy about talking in depth to a mechanic about specific models.
6) Modifiability. If it’s important to you to modify your car, check the health of the aftermarket for the cars you’re considering–and make a healthy aftermarket an item on your spec sheet.
7) Transmission: Manual and Automatic aren’t you’re only choices. Get familiar with the different options, decide what will best suit your needs, and decide how important it is to you. For me, an automatic is a deal-killer–for others, the case might be reversed. And a lot of people are okay with any transmission as long as it’s behaving itself.
8) Economy. Gas mileage–and don’t just think in miles-per-gallon. If you want to accurately calculate your fuel costs, calculate it in gallons-per-100-miles. The economy difference between 15 and 20mpg is orders of magnitude greater than the economy difference between 25 and 30, or between 30 and 40.
9) Insurance costs. Once you get a list of models you’re interested in, call your insurance agent and see how much each one will cost you.
10) Budget. What are you willing to pay? (Don’t forget to include taxes, title, and license).
11) Power. How big an engine do you need?

If you’ve got a good handle on all these things, you’ve got a pretty full spec sheet, and you’re ready to do some serious car hunting.

Next time: The BMW odyssey and checking for mechanical integrity.