Category Archives: Buying a new or used car

Buying a new car in 2013? Check out these top safety picks

If you’re starting the new year by shopping for a new vehicle, I highly encourage you to examine safety ratings before you fall in love with a “dream car” (see my previous post for details). New selections from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) offer a good starting point for your vehicle hunt. The IIHS announced the following mid-size vehicles as winners of its 2013 “Top Safety Pick +” awards; most are moderately priced, while the last two are more on the “luxury” side of things:

The IIHS evaluates vehicles for five criteria. To be a Top Safety + pick, vehicles must earn the highest possible score in four of those five evaluations. In the fifth, they must earn at least an “acceptable,” which is the second-highest rating available.

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Get the facts about fuel mileage before buying a new or used car

An acquaintance of mine (I’ll call her “Sue”) recently complained about the shortage of money in her household, noting that she’d bought a new crossover sport-utility vehicle (SUV) in hopes of saving money on gas. It’s the first time in years she’s had a car payment. She’d previously been driving a full-size pickup truck that she is now trying to sell; it was already paid for. I don’t know Sue well enough to ask whether she “did the math” on how long it will take to recoup the cost of the new SUV when comparing its fuel mileage to that of the truck.

Before you buy a new or used vehicle, I encourage you to do some research to determine the projected fuel cost associated with the vehicle you plan to acquire.

Fueleconomy.gov is a good place to start. It’s a website operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, and it allows you to compare the projected fuel mileage of new and used vehicles side by side. You can also search by make and see a list of the best and worst vehicles for fuel mileage. The website’s power search tool allows you to set specific search criteria, such as market class (family sedan, minivan, etc.), model year, transmission type and manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Fuel mileage estimates are based on figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are available for vehicles dating back to 1984.

Let’s say Sue had been driving an eight-cylinder 2008 Nissan Titan with four-wheel drive and purchased a four-cylinder 2012 Mitsubishi Outlander with four-wheel drive. Let’s also assume she drives 18,000 miles a year, with 40 percent of those miles in city traffic. With gas at $3.55 a gallon, Fueleconomy.gov estimates she’d spend $4,550 a year on gas to drive the Titan and $2,550 a year to drive the Outlander. That’s a fuel savings of $2,000 a year.

A new 2012 Outlander with four-wheel drive costs around $25,000; Sue’s Titan was already paid for. So, it could take more than 12 years for her fuel savings to pay for her new vehicle. Granted, the Titan is older and may require repairs sooner, but her new vehicle will likely require repairs before it reaches the 12-year mark. While it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact “break-even” point, it appears Sue may not have made the wisest choice for her cash-strapped household.

But there’s more to fuel mileage than these calculations. When you hear all those commercials on TV touting the fuel mileage of new vehicles, listen for the phrase “EPA-estimated.” The projected fuel mileage calculations are just that—estimates. Don’t expect to get EPA-estimated fuel mileage when driving your car. The EPA tests cars in a laboratory (not in real-world traffic) to determine expected fuel mileage. A professional driver tests each car on a dynamometer. Fueleconomy.gov notes your mileage will vary due to differences in driving behavior and conditions, fuel variations and the vehicle’s age and condition.

During a car-shopping excursion in 2012, my husband and I seriously considered buying a hybrid. I wanted to know what mileage drivers in the “real world” were experiencing with these vehicles. Since they have a significantly higher price tag that traditionally powered models, it’s hard to justify the extra cost of hybrids without the promised fuel savings. I turned to automotive website Edmunds.com for answers. The website includes forums where vehicle owners report their real-world mileage for various types of vehicles (check out this Hyundai Sonata Hybrid section for an example). After further research, we decided the “break-even point” was too far away on a hybrid to justify its extra cost.

So before you set out to replace your vehicle in hopes of saving big bucks on fuel, do some research and calculations. Take advantage of the customization features of Fueleconomy.gov to compare fuel mileage of cars based on the number of miles you drive per year, your percentage of city driving and expected fuel prices in your area. Then, search the Edmunds forums to look for patterns in actual fuel mileage being reported by real-world drivers. You may find keeping your “gas hog” will actually save you money in the long run.

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Check insurance claim data to find a safer car

In a recent post, I highlighted two tools you can use online to compare the safety ratings of new and used cars based on crash test results. I promised to share a third tool in a future post, so today I want to point you to the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). It’s affiliated with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and provides safety ratings for vehicles based on claim data reported by insurance companies. The HLDI says it conducts scientific studies of “human and economic losses” related to vehicle ownership and operation. The HLDI analyzes  collision, property damage liability, personal injury protection, medical payment, bodily injury liability and comprehensive insurance losses (including theft).

HLDI loss reports can be sorted by vehicle size. If the data looks a little difficult to understand, refer to the color-coded explanatory chart on the right side of the Web page. Vehicle numbers highlighted in gold are “better than average,” and those in yellow are “substantially better than average.” Pink marks average results, while orange is below average, and red is “substantially worse than average.”

When you visit the site, you automatically see data for 2008 to 2010 models, but data for 2007 to 2009, 2006 to 2008 and other model years is linked from the right side of the page.

Here are some examples of the data you can find:

  • Looking for a small used car from the 2008 to 2010 model years? The Mitsubishi Lancer, Suzuki SX4 and Chevrolet Cobalt get substantially-worse-than-average ratings in the “all coverages” category. In fact, no vehicle posts above-average results there. The Toyota Prius Hybrid is the only vehicle getting better-than-average scores in three subcategories: property damage liability, personal injury protection and bodily injury liability insurance losses.
  • Those shopping for a large vehicle from the 2007 to 2009 model years will find the Dodge Charger and Dodge Charger HEMI posting the worst scores in the “all coverages” category, with no vehicle faring better than average there. Only one vehicle posts above-average scores in three subcategories. The Chrysler 300 4WD gets “better than average” scores for property damage liability and comprehensive losses, and a “substantially-better-than-average” mark for collision losses.
  • Go back in time even further to the 2005 to 2007 model years, and you’ll find one midsize vehicle scoring “better than average” in the all-coverages category: the Saturn Aura.

Combining the HLDI information with the crash test tools I highlighted previously can help you paint a well-rounded picture of the safety of the used cars you’re considering. In a future post, I’ll show you a great tool for calculating how much a new or used vehicle might save you on gas compared to what you’re driving now.

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Car shopping? Put safety research at the top of your list

I admit it—I love cars. I am probably the only woman in my neighborhood (and perhaps in my county) with a subscription to MotorTrend. I watch the American and British versions of Top Gear and can name most makes and models of vehicles on the road from a distance. My dream job is to be a long-term test driver for an automotive magazine so I can report on the performance of the new vehicles I am given to drive.

As much as I love the looks and features of some vehicles, they are not what I consider first when shopping for a new or used car or truck. I encourage you to join me in making safety the top criteria you use to start car-shopping expeditions. A couple of online resources make it easy for you to compare the safety ratings of vehicles.

Safercar.gov: This is the government’s online source for data from its crash tests of new vehicles. You can find test results for vehicles dating back to 1990 by using the 5-Star Safety Ratings link. Data is available by model, class or manufacturer. Most vehicles have an overall safety rating, plus individual ratings for frontal crash, side crash and rollover crash tests. Be sure to click on the linked name of the vehicle to see more detailed results broken down by passenger and to view the vehicle’s side-barrier and side-pole ratings. You can also see if potential safety issues have been reported for your make and model and even view video of the car’s crash tests. Tests are conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS): Another great source for crash test results and safety ratings is the IIHS website. In addition to seeing the organization’s top safety picks for the current model year, you can find data on specific vehicles dating back to 1997. Instead of rating automobiles on a 1-to-5 star scale, the IIHS assigns a rating of good, acceptable, marginal or poor to each vehicle. Cars and trucks are rated on front and side crash safety, roof strength, rear crash protection and head restraints.

The IIHS is a nonprofit research center funded by auto insurance companies.

Be sure to check both websites when car shopping—results may look promising on one site but not as good on the other. For example, the 2012 Chevrolet Colorado crew cab, a mid-size pickup truck, had only one government rating posted in May 2012—three to four stars for rollover safety, depending on the drivetrain selected. A look at the vehicle on the IIHS website, however, yields more concerning results: acceptable in front crashes, poor in side-impact testing and marginal in roof strength. The 2012 Mazda3 sedan gets good marks for front and side crashes and roof strength from the IIHS, but the government gives it four stars overall, and it merits only three stars for side-crash safety in NHTSA testing.

Why the differences? NHTSA and IIHS test vehicles using different testing methods and speeds—another reason to consult both sites before shopping.

Vehicle shoppers can take their research a step further by examining insurance loss data. I’ll cover that tool in an upcoming post.

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