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26 February 2021

How to buy the best new car

Buying a new car? Our guide will help you find exactly the right model for you
How to buy the best new car 1
Daljinder Nagra

Shopping for a brand-new car should be an enjoyable and exciting experience. It’s your chance to tailor your new wheels to your exact tastes, whether it be a zero-emission (or indeed, high-performance) engine, high-tech interior features or simply an extrovert colour scheme.

A new car represents a significant investment, but with numerous ways of financing your next set of wheels, you may find it easier to get into your preferred new car than you might have imaged.

Aside from desirable finance deals, there are numerous other benefits to buying new. Not only will you get a fresh manufacturer warranty, which can last up to seven years in some cases, but you can drive with the peace of mind that your car hasn’t missed a service, or otherwise been poorly maintained by a former owner – something that can greatly affect a its lifespan in later years.

 Want to just start browsing the very best models across all classes? You can see our pick of the cars that excel in our tough tests - see the best new and used cars.

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 essential requirements. You may find that the car you want and the car you need aren’t quite the same thing.

For example, while the spacious interior and high driving position of a large SUV may make it seem like an ideal car for those who regularly carry passengers, features such as all-wheel drive are expensive and rarely necessary unless you live in a remote rural area or regularly go off-road.

Do you need a large car to transport lots of children or luggage, for instance? Or are you looking for something that will be frugal on a long motorway journey? Perhaps you’ve had your interest piqued by the impressive-sounding running costs of the latest electric cars and plug-in hybrids? 

They certainly seem to provide the solution to ever-rising motoring costs, but our research suggests that it could end up costing you more, depending on your particular circumstances.

In the latest Which? Car Survey, respondents overwhelming told us that ease of driving, seat comfort and overall value for money were the key considerations when looking for a new car – a definite sign of the times where cost and whether it's fit for purpose take centre stage.

Your requirements may differ, particularly if you’re looking at the luxury or sports car end of the market, where power and passenger space take greater priority. 

We tailor our car reviews to judge new models on what drivers tell us really matters, based on the car class. This means you can use our recommendations to buy in confidence.

Regardless of whether you opt for a brand-new or nearly new model, there will be thousands of pounds at stake. This guide sets out the key considerations you should be making to get the right car for a good price.

What are nearly new cars?

A nearly new car is usually registered by a dealer or manufacturer - someone who is not planning on keeping it for more than a short period. Nearly new cars normally have, at most, no more than a few thousand miles on the clock.

Buying a nearly new car can bag you an attractive discount, but will also mean it has a shorter warranty. This is because the warranty starts as soon as the car is registered, which could be months before you buy the car – although this is less likely to be a problem if you choose from a manufacturer with a longer than average warranty.

Nearly new cars typically include:

  • Ex-demonstrato’ (ex-demo) cars used to provide test drives to buyers at a dealership. It may have a few thousand miles on the clock, but will often have lots of optional extras. It’s likely to have been well looked after in order to impress buyers.
  • Pre-registered cars bought by dealers to meet sales targets and sold on at a discount after around three to six months (there’s usually a minimum period before the dealer qualifies for discounts or sales bonuses from the manufacturer). It should have delivery miles only – usually no more than a couple of hundred, but it may have been sitting unused on a dealer’s forecourt for several months.

Which fuel type is best?

It's important to consider carefully what powers your next new car - a traditional combustion engine or electric power, or a combination of both. 

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. These purport to provide excellent fuel economy for those who need a greater range (and quicker refuelling) than what's currently offered by electric cars.

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. This is because our tests are more demanding to better replicate real-world conditions and driving.

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. Use our free car emissions checker to ensure any new or used model you’re considering doesn’t have a dirty secret.

Full hybrids can be a convenient alternative for drivers looking to reduce their fuel consumption and emissions, but who don’t have regular access to convenient charging facilities. Full hybrids work by harvesting energy normally wasted under braking and coasting. This is used to power an electric motor, which can assist the petrol engine (lowering consumption) or power the car emissions-free for limited distances.

Mild hybrids work in a similar manner, but have much smaller batteries and therefore can't be driven on electric power alone.

Certain manufacturers are developing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCEV), which are slowly emerging as an alternative to battery electric cars. Currently however, there are only a tiny number of expensive models currently available, and the hydrogen refilling stations in the UK are few and far between.

Why you need to read our car reviews

Regardless of what you want your new car to excel at, our in-depth car reviews reveal the truth about how each car we test performs in every area that matters. 

Whether you want fuel consumption information that actually bears some relevance to real-world driving, so you'll know what your running costs will be, or accurate, comparable boot-space measurements to ensure you don’t get caught out with a boot that won’t be big enough for your needs, we can help.

Each of our online new and used car reviews also gives detailed measurements of a vehicle's passenger space. If you regularly take adult passengers, this means you won’t have to guess yourself whether everyone will comfortably fit in from the brief amount of time you get in a test drive.

Plus, we also assess usability - from the car's controls and visibility from the driver’s seat to how easy it is to drive. We do this so you don’t have to waste your time test driving cars that aren’t any good.

Our findings often make for surprising reading. For instance, many MPVs and large cars dispel the myth that large off-roaders are the best models for practicality and passenger space, with variability in seating layout and ease of access being just as important in terms of practicality as outright space.

What is the safest car?

You might be surprised to find new cars differ in how safe they are. As a general rule, it's usually smaller city cars and other budget models that fail to score a full five stars in safety organisation Euro NCAP's crash tests. 

It’s important you consider whether safety is up to scratch. In particular, check that any car you’re considering is available with AEB (autonomous emergency braking). For more information on the key safety kit you should look out for, head to our car safety features explainer.

At Which?, we don’t compromise on product safety. Any car that is awarded three stars or less by Euro NCAP is automatically made a Don’t Buy.

Each car we test also goes through a rigorous high-speed hazard-avoidance test, which reveals its behaviour in extreme situations. Don’t assume new cars are equal in this respect – this test has uncovered more than one model that doesn’t come up to scratch.

Our expertly curated guides make it easy to find a model we recommend (as well as those we think you should avoid), whether you’re looking to buy new or used. Use the links below to find out the top models in the most popular car classes:

The cars you love and hate

Of course, sometimes you’ll want to follow your heart and you’ll be set on a particular model, regardless of how it performs objectively.

Each year, we survey tens of thousands of motorists, who tell us all about why they love (or indeed don’t) the cars they own. It can make for surprising reading, with models we’d mark down for issues such as poor reliability, worming their way into their owner’s hearts.

Feel-good factor is one of the few things we can’t test in a lab. To find out which models are most cherished by their owners, regardless of their flaws, head to our guide on the cars you love and hate.

New car optional extras

Regardless of what type of new car you end up choosing, you’ll likely be presented with a bewildering array of optional extras, which can quickly balloon the price of your purchase.

It can often be tempting to spec the most advanced kit, particularly if the price is rolled into a palatable monthly payment. 

Some options can be of little real benefit, or worse, distracting when you’re trying to drive. We’ve found kit such as gesture control (where you control the infotainment system by waving your hand in front of it) and remote parking options (which allow you to move a car back and forth short distances using a smartphone app) to be of limited use.

But some expensive options are worth paying for and will truly enhance both your safety and the driving experience.

Items such as 360-degree monitors can make even the largest vehicle easy to manoeuvre in tight spots, while adaptive cruise control and lane-keep-assist can take the strain out of long motorway journeys. A head-up display will mean you’re diverting your attention from the road less, but make sure you’re happy with the display in your own driving position.

Find out which tech we recommend you fit to your new car, see car options explained.

How to pay for a car

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

There are a multitude of ways of going about paying for your new car. What is right for you will depend ultimately on your personal circumstances and the offers available on the car you’re after.

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 upfront is often the cheapest way to buy one in the long run, particularly if you plan to keep it for a while.

Dealers will offer finance options themselves, in the form of hire purchase (HP), personal contract purchase (PCP) or through a lease deal.

Initial deposits and monthly payments will vary depending on which deal you go for. You’ll also need to consider the fact that under a lease deal you won’t have any option to buy the car at the end of the agreement.

Some deals are also subject to stringent mileage limitations and may require maintenance or repair work to be carried out by a franchise dealer. Our car finance explained guide details all the information you need to consider before entering into any finance agreement, as well as other options for personal finance that may suit your needs better.

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.

Car tax and other costs to consider

Buying a new car will mean that you’ll save on having to get an MOT test for the first three years of its life. However, there are a number of upfront costs you’ll need to consider, which can vary drastically depending on the type of new car you choose.

Car tax

Officially known as Vehicle Excise Duty, car tax is an annual fee for using your car on the public road. If differs depending on the age of the car, but all models sold after April 2017 are subject to the following:

  • A ‘first year’ rate, which is dependent on its CO2 emissions,
  • A subsequent ‘standard’ rate, which is currently £150 per annum, regardless of your car’s CO2 rating.

If your car costs £40,000 or more (including options), you're also liable to pay an annual £325 supplement in years two to six of ownership – adding £1,625 to the overall tax bill.

This supplement doesn’t apply to zero-emissions models, such as electric and hydrogen-power cars. These are also exempt from both the first year and standard duty rates, making them completely free to tax.

If you can’t yet buy a zero-emissions vehicle, it pays to choose a car with low CO2 emissions - the first year tax rate can reach an astonishing £2,175 for the most polluting cars. Head to our car tax explained guide to find out more.

Car insurance

Third-party cover is a legal requirement to use your car on the road, but we’d recommend opting for fully comprehensive cover to ensure your brand-new car is completely protected.

Insurance costs vary wildly, but there are some factors to consider to lower your premiums as much as possible:

  • Opting for a high-performance model may raise your premium, depending on your experience and its desirability to thieves
  • If you’ve got a garage or driveway, use it to park your car overnight rather than leaving it on the road
  • Be realistic about your annual mileage. Covering your car for miles you aren’t driving could push up your premium
  • If you don’t use your car for commuting or other business use, you should look for a policy that covers you for social use only.

It’s important to be honest about your specific details when buying car insurance, to avoid running the risk of a claim being rejected should you be involved in an accident. Find out more about buying the right cover for you - see car insurance explained.

Servicing and maintenance

Your new car will typically require a service once a year. But many new models use ‘condition-based’ servicing, which will alter servicing intervals depending on how hard (based on how much fuel it’s used) or far the car has been driven.

Contrary to popular opinion, you don't need to take your car to the dealer who supplied your car (or any other franchise dealer for that matter) to maintain your vehicle’s warranty. Provided the recommended parts are used and the servicing schedule is followed properly, you won’t have any issues if you prefer taking your car to an independent garage or specialist.

To retain business, many dealers will include servicing costs (for a fixed period) in the cost of the car, or otherwise as part of an optional package, particularly if you’re buying on finance. 

This can be worth taking out, although pay careful attention to exactly what work is carried out, so you don’t get billed for unexpected extras. Find out more in our guide on how to find a good garage.

Car depreciation

New cars lose value at an alarming rate. On average, you can expect your new car to be worth around half what you paid after just three years. This is of less importance if you plan to keep your car for the long term. But buying the wrong model could cost you dear if you don’t plan to hold on to it for long.

Car finance rates are based on estimated depreciation over the length of the contract, so choosing wisely will save you money even if you’re leasing.

Some cars perform better in terms of depreciation than others. As a general rule, expensive luxury cars tend to depreciate fastest, as their high running costs make them unpalatable to typical used car buyers. Whereas you’ll lose less money on a mainstream model in high demand.

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

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

Depreciation can be your friend if you’re looking at a nearly new car, though. Despite having minimal miles, they will already be a few months to a year old, which can save you thousands on the list price, compared with a brand-new equivalent.

Test driving a new car

Once you’ve got a shortlist of models in mind, it’s important that you spend some time behind the wheel to ensure it really is right for you.

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.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have seen opportunities for test drives curtailed as dealers are classed as non-essential businesses during lockdown (although, click-and-collect sales are still allowed). Expect them to reopen with strict social distancing measures in place.

As an alternative, websites (see below), which offer a money-back guarantee should you not be completely happy, are increasingly prevalent. This can be a convenient way into a new car if you’re unable to visit a showroom.

However, the best way of getting a feel for car without being able to take it for a drive is with our in-depth reviews, which give full details of a car’s safety, economy, space and handing. See the models we recommend, across all car classes, in our guide to the best cars.

Where to buy a new car

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.

If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of haggling with a dealer, there are a number of broker services which can not only negotiate a discount on your behalf, but some (such as Carwow) will send your proposed purchase to dealers nationwide, who then come back with their best price.

If you are prepared to negotiate yourself, our guide on how to get the best price on a car details the exact process you should follow to ensure the best possible deal.

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.

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. And 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 legroom 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 lineup.

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

Volvo XC40 Plug-in hybrid

  • Class: compact/small SUV
  • Price: from around £36,000

Where once the UK new car sales tables were dominated by small and medium hatchbacks, the rise in popularity of crossovers is being felt, with Volvo’s premium XC40 now a feature of the top 10 rankings.

With a smooth drive, eye-catching styling and a pleasant interior, it’s not hard to see why it’s so popular. It’s also now available as a plug-in hybrid version, which claims to offer 28 miles of zero-emission driving range, and average fuel consumption from 117.7mpg.

However, as we’ve seen in our tests, plug-in hybrid models can often struggle to match their claims. Find out how this upmarket model fared in our full Volvo XC40 plug-in hybrid review.

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