What Car Should I Buy? Your Decision-Making Guide

If you've been in the market and wondering, "what car should I buy?", then this article can help you consider all the variables it takes to make a purchase.

Happy young couple chooses a new car for the family in the dealershipShutterstock

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Are You Asking Yourself, "What Car Should I Buy?"

It can be difficult to pick the perfect vehicle—or to even know where to start—in an era where our automotive options seem endless. When thinking 'what car should I buy?', there are so many things to consider. Thankfully, there's one great place to start looking: at yourself.

It might sound strange, but your finances, living arrangements, and current driving habits will help you narrow down your options to pick the perfect vehicle. You may even find that you have the chance to pick and choose between manufacturers, models, and trims to find the vehicle that best suits your needs.

Your Finances

For many people, the number one concern when car shopping is money, and that makes sense. A car can be an expensive purchase. Before setting out, calculate how much you can afford. If you can't buy a car outright, consider a down payment to reduce monthly costs.

Crucial financial factors to consider are:

  • How stable is my income?
  • What is my ideal car cost, monthly payment, and interest rate?
  • What other car costs will I be paying through gas, insurance, registration, taxes, and maintenance?

While it's important to consider the base price of the car, it's just as important to understand how much car ownership can cost you.


If you're in search of a daily driver, you'll want to understand your commute concerns. Those include:

  • How far you travel each day
  • The size of your prospective car's gas tank and its fuel efficiency
  • The cost of gasoline in your area
  • The terrain (e.g.: if your commute takes place on dirt roads, you'll likely have to consider things like ride height, durability, and extra maintenance)
  • What space you need for luggage, groceries, or other passengers
  • What kind of work you're doing

If your work requires you to haul a trailer or fill a trunk, you may find a fuel-efficient sedan is the wrong choice when a van or truck will better serve your needs. Likewise, if you live in the city and only travel a few miles each day, a bigger vehicle may be a poor idea.

Your Passengers

Will this new vehicle mainly serve you, the driver, or will you have passengers to consider? How old are those passengers, and what are their concerns? If you're a parent, how many seats do you need, and how much leg room will your children require? If you have children in car seats, you'll need to find a car that easily accommodates those seats. If you carpool with adults or have older children, you'll likely need a larger vehicle.

Cost of Ownership

Unfortunately, costs of car ownership don't stop at the MSRP. You'll also need to consider weekly, monthly, semi-annual, or yearly payments for things like maintenance, insurance, gasoline, cleaning, and more. If you've selected a car and its monthly payment alone is already stretching your budget, understanding the extra fees you'll pay in gas may encourage you to opt for a vehicle with a less expensive base price.

Recreational Travel

Will you use this vehicle for long road trips? Will you tow a camper or boat? Do you intend to go off-roading? These uses bring in different elements to consider, such a gas tank size, fuel efficiency, tow capacity, and ride height. If you intend to use your vehicle for one of these purposes, it's important to consider the rough length of your trips, the weight of your tow load, and other relevant features.


When you get behind the wheel, you'll want to make sure that you're comfortable there. Can you reach the pedals? Do you feel cramped? Is it difficult to understand the infotainment screen? Do you feel too low to the ground, or are you too high above the road? Can you easily climb in and out? These small ergonomic comforts may not seem as important as something like overall cost, but they'll often make or break your overall enjoyment of the vehicle. Few things can make a long commute worse than a hard seat and a difficult ride.

Further, during a test drive, you'll want to see if this vehicle is comfortable for your daily routine. Will it fit in local parking spaces? If you have children, can they access the second or third rows—or, if they're young, can you comfortably install a car seat? Is there space for everyone's legs and luggage? Do you enjoy driving it, or do you feel this vehicle is difficult to control?

Wants vs. Needs

Many people have a laundry list of features they would like in their ideal car, but that isn't always practical. Before going car shopping, make a list of all those features. Then, separate them into two categories: your wants versus your needs. A powerful sound system and heated seats may seem like a "want" for you, but may actually be a "need" for someone with a long, dreary commute. These are personal decisions that will differ for every buyer, and these factors will often come into play once you've decided on a rough price range and style of vehicle.

Special Features

What special features matter to you? Buyers who want a full suite of advanced safety technologies may need to purchase an upgraded trim in order to get the latest and greatest features. Buyers that are looking for second-row captain's chairs, leatherette seats, and a panoramic moonroof may also have to upgrade trims on certain vehicles. You may want the turbo engine option but your other "needs" actually require the hybrid gas engine instead. Consider your options, along with the trim levels of the car you're looking at.


It's important to know the different styles of car design in order to make the best choice in a vehicle. A sedan, for example, may be a great commuter for a single person or couple, but it may not work for a larger family that enjoys long road trips. You may want a full-size pickup truck, but if you live somewhere with narrow streets and tight parking spaces, you may find it's a hassle. You may think you need a crossover for your family, when you'd actually benefit from a third row.

Used Car Concerns

If you're shopping for a used car, whether through a dealership or a private seller, there are several additional steps you'll want to take:

  • Confirm that the vehicle title is clean
  • Request the vehicle history, including any accident reports and maintenance
  • Request a pre-purchase inspection to confirm that there are no pressing problems

Ask Questions And Do Your Research

Buying a car can be intimidating, but the best thing you can do as a buyer is conduct as much research as you can and clarify any lingering concerns that remain once you've asked yourself the big "what car should I buy?" questions. That way, you can help ensure you've factored in all the considerations to make the ideal purchase.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
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Elizabeth Blackstock
I’m Elizabeth Blackstock, and after growing up around the Detroit automotive industry, I’ve made it my life’s mission to make information about vehicles accessible for the average consumer. Whether you’re a hardcore auto enthusiast or someone looking for a practical machine for the daily commute, I’m here to help you make your most informed decision.