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2 February 2021

How to buy the best new car

Buying a new car? Our five key steps explain the best way to buy a new car.
How to buy the best new car 1
Daljinder Nagra

Shopping for a brand new car is an enjoyable and exciting experience. It’s your chance to tailor your new car to your exact tastes, choosing everything from the seat fabric to the type of engine and gearbox.

What's more, buying new means you can drive with the peace of mind that your car hasn't been poorly maintained by a former owner - something which can seriously affect the lifespan of a used model.

With thousands of pounds at stake, you want to be sure you’re choosing the right car in the right specification, and getting it for a good price. This guide sets out the five key steps to ensure you do just that.

Want to just start browsing the very best models across all classes? Take a look at all our recommendations in our best cars page.

What car should I buy?

Even if you think you know what kind of car you’d like to buy, it’s still worth considering your requirements. You may find that the car you want and the car you need aren’t quite the same thing.

For example, while you may like the looks or high driving position of a large SUV, all-wheel-drive is rarely necessary in the UK unless you live in a remote rural area or regularly go off-road.

More importantly, our tests have shown that, dependent on model, you may be better off in terms of passenger and luggage space, in large estate or hatchback model, while limited visibility, particularly to the rear, can also be a problem in bulkier models.

Each of our online new and used car reviews gives detailed measurements of a vehicle's passenger and load space, as well as assessments of its usability, from its controls to how easy it is to drive.

It's also important to consider carefully what fuel-type powers your next new car. With the industry gearing up for the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel powered cars, there is a greater emphasis on plug-in hybrid (PHEV) models, which purport to provide excellent fuel economy for those who need the flexibility not currently offered by a battery electric (BEV) car.

The claimed fuel economy figures of PHEV cars are incredible, but time and again, we've seen them come up short when faced with our independent fuel consumption and emissions tests. Not only are certain models caught out for their poor fuel consumption - particularly when driving with the battery flat - but some also emit far higher emissions than official standards allow.

We recommend you write a list that prioritises what you want and need a new car to do – and that should include an idea of how much you’re willing (and able) to pay. It's also worth carefully considering where you're going to be spending most of your time driving, and whether regular access to private charging facilities is a realistic option, to assess whether a hybrid car or electric car  really could lower your running costs.

We reveal the best hybrid cars

How much can you afford to spend?

Cars are expensive – quite likely the most expensive thing you’ll buy aside from a property. So it’s vital you don’t pay over the odds, or over-extend your finances.

Make an honest assessment of your available budget. Bearing in mind that although a finance deal may make a car more affordable in the short-term, paying up-front is often the cheapest way to buy one in the long run particularly if you plan to keep it for a long time. Read our car finance explained guide for more detail.

As well as the initial purchase price, remember to factor in ongoing costs such as fuel, car tax, car insurance, servicing and depreciation (more on this below). Then compare like-for-like with pay-monthly finance deals, as they may include some of these costs.

2. Do your research

Once you’ve narrowed down what you need the car to do – and any other criteria, such as looks or brand – it’s time to start researching the most suitable models available in your price range.

A good first step is to read our in-depth new and used car reviews. You can filter these according to starting price, brand, and all sorts of features, from fuel type to car class.

In our reviews, you can also find out if the car you're interested in is likely to last. Thanks to our annual survey of thousands of car owners, we can know which cars are the most - and least - reliable.

Need a hand pulling together your new car shortlist? We've rounded up the very best (and worst) cars in each class: 

3. Draw up a new car shortlist

Done your homework? Good. Now you can compile your shortlist of cars you’re most interested in. Then your next step is to contact local dealers to book in some test drives.

Some brands offer 24-hour or weekend-long test drives, so don't be fobbed off with a 10-minute spin round the block. A car that looks good on paper won’t be if you can’t easily get in or out of it, or you don’t like the way it feels to drive.

We rate every car we test on how smoothly it drives, how well it accelerates and we run repeat tests of braking from 62mph to standstill. This allows us to see if braking distance is consistent and doesn't increase with repeat runs.

Which means you can use our car reviews to make sure you don't waste your time on a model that will be a pain to drive.

Understanding car depreciation

In simple terms, the longer you keep a car, the less it will be worth if you sold it – and some cars depreciate much faster than others. It's usually unavoidable unless you own a car that becomes sought after due to its rarity, performance or provenance. Such cars are few and far between, though, and as a rough guide, you can expect a new model to be around half its value after between three and five years.

As such, depreciation is a major cost to consider when buying a new car. If, like most people, you’re likely to want a new car before your old one is ready for the scrapyard, it'll pay to buy a model that depreciates slowly. 

There is no hard and fast rule about depreciation, but you can help alleviate it if you: 

  • Choose a popular model. Cars like the Ford Fiesta and BMW 3 Series are always in demand, and can command a more robust used price than similar models from less popular manufacturers.
  • Play safe with the colour. SMMT data shows that the most popular used car buys in 2020 were either black or silver. Colour is a matter of taste, but you may find you have to lower your price to sell a car in a particularly individual hue.
  • Specify desirable kit such as air conditioning or active safety technology.

Whichever car you choose, depreciation is likely to account for more than half of your running costs over the first three years. It can affect expensive models from premium brands just as much as a cheap car from a mainstream brand, and the sums involved – the amount you ‘lose’ – can be much higher.  

But it’s irrelevant if you keep your car until it wears out.

Every year, we survey thousands of car owners to find out which cars you can (and can't) depend on - go to the most reliable cars.

Car security

A car's security may be an important factor in your choice of which car to buy. 

Pay particular attention to the security features of 'keyless entry' cars – whereby a chip embedded in the key fob emits a signal to the car, allowing it to be opened and started without needing to use a key. 

Keyless entry cars can be at risk of theft from a 'relay attack'. Thieves use a basic piece of electronic equipment – a 'relay box' – to lengthen the signal produced by the key, fooling the car into thinking it's close by when it's not. Thieves can then open and start your car.

Other security issues we've seen with keyless cars include: 

  • Ignition blocking attacks – where a criminal can jam an ignition and block the signal from your key fob, preventing you from starting your car and driving away. 
  • Rolljam attacks – your car key emits a digital signature when you press the fob. A criminal then uses basic equipment to capture the signature. This can be used to unlock the car and potentially drive it away.

If a car you're interested comes with keyless entry, or it's bundled in with an option you want, ask the dealer what the manufacturer is doing to combat these attacks. For example, the following measures, introduced by some manufacturers, can reduce the risk of a relay attack. 

  • BMW and Mercedes (models since 2018), for instance, have added motion sensors into their key fobs. So the key won't produce a signal if it isn't moving – such as when you're at home. 
  • Subaru and Mercedes (including pre-2018 models) owners can turn off their keys once they’ve locked the car.
  • Land Rover and Jaguar use ultra-wide-band (UWB) across their entire range. UWB is a technology that can very accurately determine the distance between the key and the car, so the car can’t be tricked by the relay attack.

You may also be able to completely deactivate the car's keyless functionality, either through the car's instrument panel or by asking your dealer. 

4. Where to buy your new car and how to finance it

While you may be more familiar – and comfortable – with the idea of visiting your local dealer to buy a car, it’s now possible to buy a new (or used) model entirely online or over the phone.

There are pros and cons to both buying in-person and remotely, so we recommend you read our guide to where to buy a car to help you decide what’s best for you.

The right way to pay will also depend greatly on your circumstances and the deals on offer at the time of purchase. To learn more about payment and ownership options – leasing (renting) a car is increasingly popular and affordable – take a look at our guide to car finance explained.

Some dealers and brokers sell 'pre-registered' cars. These are often well-priced with discounts of as much as 30%.

However, buying a pre-registered model could mean a shorter warranty – the warranty starts as soon as the car is officially registered, which could be months before you buy the car. You’ll technically be the second owner, as the dealer who registered the car will be the first.

5. Shop around and haggle hard!

A key advantage of online (or phone) car buying is the ability to compare prices from dealers all over the country without necessarily having to haggle with them yourself. 

Depending on the car-buying service or broker you contact, they will have either pre-negotiated discounts from dealers, or will do it on your behalf once you’ve told them what car you’re after.

Even if you’d rather buy locally, do collect quotes from several sources as prices vary enormously across the country. You may find your local dealer will match or beat a price to secure a sale.

How to haggle

If you are buying in person at a dealer, go well-prepared. 

  • Have a good idea of the exact model, trim level, engine-specification and options you’d like, and how much you should be paying
  • The price you see in the brochure (or stuck to the windscreen) should be viewed as a starting point for a negotiation 
  • The sales team nearly always has some room to manoeuvre on price, so push hard for a discount. 
  • If they don’t offer one (or some sort of other incentive, such as free servicing or desirable optional extras) be prepared to walk away – there’s always another way to buy your perfect new car.

To learn more about haggling, including examples of what to say to maximise your chances of getting a discount, read our expert guide on how to get the best price on a car.

Ready to start car shopping? Head to our car reviews to see the models that excelled in our rigorous tests. You could also check out our Don't Buy cars, to see which models you should avoid. 

Bestselling cars compared

We've tested all of the UK's bestselling cars. Below, we've listed the key details for the four most popular models to help you find out whether one is right for you.

Alternatively, head to our round-up of the best cars you can buy.

Ford Fiesta

  • Class: small
  • Price: from around £16,000

The Ford Fiesta is the UK's bestselling car and has been for many years. This small car comes in a wide choice of trims and you get a decent range of petrol (including mild hybrid) and diesel engines, so there's something to suit everyone.

Unlike some rival small cars, visibility is ok and you can see traffic around you fairly easily - particularly important if you regularly drive in busy cities. Its main controls are logically laid out and the pedals and gear lever are well positioned, so it's a doddle to drive.

But how did this car perform in our tough tests and is it reliable? See our independent Ford Fiesta review.

Vauxhall Corsa

  • Class: small
  • Price: from around £16,000

The perennial thorn in the Fiesta's side, the Vauxhall Corsa has been a long-time challenger for Britain's most popular car. The latest model, new for 2020, is available as an all-electric model for the first time, alongside conventional petrol and diesel versions.

When we tested it, we found it to be reasonably powerful, economical and fun to drive - not a common combination in a small car. However, it has the familiar small car drawbacks of a cramped rear cabin and meagre boot space.

Find out how this model performed in our road and lab tests, in our full Vauxhall Corsa review.

Volkswagen Golf

  • Class: medium
  • Price: from around £23,000

The Volkswagen Golf has been a strong choice in the family hatchback market for decades. 2020 saw the launch of the all-new eighth generation model.

You get a familiar choice of petrol and diesel engines, with some now boosted by mild-hybrid technology. As ever, VW's slick DSG twin-clutch automatic gearbox is offered alongside the conventional six-speed manual.

Inside, the level of quality is enough to make you question whether you'd need the more opulent cabin of the closely related Audi A3, with which the Golf shares much of its underpinnings. What you might find less brilliant are the new all-digital controls, with nearly all of the cars functions controlled through the central touchscreen - something that can be distracting when driving.

Pleasingly, this family hatchback hasn't lost its impressive leg-room up front, and is a very practical proposition overall. But is it economical to run and can you depend on it? Our Volkswagen Golf review reveals all.

Ford Focus

  • Class: medium
  • Price: from around £22,000

The perennial rival to the VW Golf, the Ford Focus is the go-to choice for keen drivers in the medium car sector, thanks to its keen handling balance and sharp high-performance iterations. Typically its also a shade cheaper than its German foe, and the latest versions are available laden with tech.

There are nine trim levels to choose from, including an 'Active' model, which features mildly raised suspension and plastic body cladding for a butch crossover aesthetic. Even the entry-level models are reasonably well equipped (crucial safety kit such as AEB is standard across the range). If you'd rather splash the cash, posh 'Vignale' trim comes with a B&O sound system, as well as (otherwise optional) active park-assist fitted as standard.

Like the Golf, you get plenty of room inside and a practical boot. The Focus is also available as an estate, in addition to the five-door hatchback model, which shares the same engines and trim line-up.

So how does the Focus compare to the VW Golf, and do we recommend it? Find out in our Ford Focus review.

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