It’s important to identify which car you want, down to the trim level and options. Use the ratings and advice available online to help narrow down your choices. There are great models at all prices, but there are also ones that come up short in road test performance, crash tests, owner satisfaction, owner costs, and reliability. Let the data and Consumer Reports' recommendations filter the contenders.
Every automaker lets you configure a car on its website, and most let you search their dealers’ inventory. It’s also vital that you test drive any models you’re considering before you get deep into the process; cars can feel very different when driven back to back, and less obvious things, such as seat comfort, visibility, and dash controls, can make a big difference.
Pricing information today can readily identify the sticker price, invoice price, and available incentives. But go a step further to check the average price paid and bottom-line price (both are listed on model pages at ConsumerReports.org) to be fully empowered to negotiate.
Set up your financing in advance
Once you know approximately how much your car will cost, you should focus on your financing options. Shop around for the lowest interest rate. You can get a good idea of current rates at bankrate.com. Ask your lender for preapproval, and get it to issue a bank check that you later fill out at the dealership. That option gives people “more negotiation power with the dealer and as much flexibility as possible when shopping, ” says Amy Doane, a spokeswoman for PenFed, one of the country’s largest credit unions. Getting approved in advance takes a lot of stress out of the buying process. And you can still choose the dealer’s financing if the terms are better.