Topics To Research

Now that you’ve narrowed down what type of vehicle you want to purchase,

let’s break the areas of the vehicle down that you need to consider in your new car research.

features in call out bubbles on new car illustration

You can start your new car research with these categories:

  • Mechanical/Drivetrain
  • Exterior
  • Interior
  • Comfort and Convenience
  • Audio
  • Safety

For more information on any of the terms that follow, make sure you consult our Glossary of Automobl Terms. We have a brief explanation of every feature found on Automobl, described as best we can for the automotive newbie as well as the seasoned veteran.

As well, break out that Top Ten list that you put together in the “What should I buy” chapter. Keep this list in mind as you review the features found on the vehicles on which you’ve narrowed your search.

Mechanical/Drivetrain

line illustration of car engine

This is the ‘guts’ of the vehicle. The vehicle is driven by an engine, that needs to consume energy to move. This energy can be delivered through gasoline combustion, Diesel fuel combustion, gas/electric hybrid and fully electric vehicles. Regular gasoline engines are by far the most prevalent. They come in a variety of sizes and cylinder configurations. For example, an in-line four cylinder engine holds four cylinders in a row. A V-6 engine has two sections, called banks, configured with three cylinders in each of the banks. The engine cylinder configuration looks like the letter V. The more cylinders to an engine usually means more power, as well as deteriorating fuel economy.

Engines also can have air forced into them using devices like superchargers or turbochargers which can increase power when accelerating. These types of engines deliver power when needed, and aren’t as fuel thirsty as their un-turboed (called normally aspirated) counterparts.

We track a wide variety of engine configurations:

  • In-line 3 cylinder engine
  • Turbocharged in-line 3 cylinder engine
  • In-line 4 cylinder engine
  • Turbocharged in-line 4 cylinder engine
  • Turbocharged in-line 4 cylinder Diesel engine
  • Twin turbocharged in-line 4 cylinder Diesel engine
  • Twin turbocharged in-line 4 cylinder engine
  • Supercharged in-line 4 cylinder engine
  • Supercharged turbo in-line 4 cylinder engine
  • Flat 4 cylinder engine
  • Turbocharged flat 4 cylinder engine
  • In-line 4 cylinder engine and hybrid electric drive
  • In-line 4 cylinder engine and plug-in electric drive
  • In-line 5 cylinder engine
  • Turbocharged in-line 5 cylinder engine
  • In-line 6 cylinder engine
  • Turbocharged in-line 6 cylinder engine
  • Twin turbocharged in-line 6 cylinder engine
  • 6 cylinder engine and hybrid electric drive
  • 6 cylinder engine and plug-in electric drive
  • Flat 6 cylinder engine
  • Turbocharged flat 6 cylinder engine
  • V6 engine
  • Supercharged V6 engine
  • Turbocharged V6 engine
  • Turbocharged V6 Diesel engine
  • Turbocharged in-line 6 cylinder Diesel engine
  • Twin turbocharged V6 engine
  • V8 engine
  • Supercharged V8 engine
  • Turbocharged V8 engine
  • Twin turbocharged V8 engine
  • Turbocharged V8 Diesel engine
  • 8 cylinder engine and hybrid electric drive
  • 8 cylinder engine and plug-in electric drive
  • V10 engine
  • V12 engine
  • W12 engine
  • Battery electric vehicle

You generally don’t have to worry too much about what kind of engine sits in your vehicle. You do have to worry about how much horsepower it makes (the power of the engine) and how much torque it delivers (the twisting force of the engine). Horsepower is the power you need when you’re passing someone on the highway. Torque is the power you feel when you pull away from a stoplight. The more of both, again, generally, the worse the fuel economy. That’s one thing you do need to worry about. How much money will you spend on fuel each year? Will it be a thrifty fully electric vehicle that uses about $600 in electricity (Nissan Leaf), or a full-size sport utility that will send your annual fuel bill to $2,850 (Toyota Sequoia)?

Transmission

car shifter illustration

There are two types of transmissions: manual and automatic. Here are some details on both:

Manual Transmission

  • Very involved driving experience
  • Requires both hands to be free at all times
  • Need to learn how to use a clutch
  • Driver controls what gear the transmission is in at all times

Automatic Transmission

  • Shift the vehicle into drive using a lever, and let the car do the shifting for you
  • No clutch
  • Simulated shifting available using a ‘manual mode’ on many new cars
  • Some vehicles have a ‘dual clutch’ automatic transmission that selects the next gear change for crisper shifts and sportier feel

In Europe, more than 40% of vehicles are equipped with a manual transmission. In North America, it’s fewer than 5%. Because manual transmission vehicles aren’t as common, their resale value is generally lower. Keep this in mind when choosing the type of transmission you want.

Suspension

tire and suspension illustration

Suspension systems are the underpinnings of the car. This is what the wheels are attached to, and have a huge bearing on ride comfort. Using springs, shock absorbers, suspension arms and stabilizer bars, engineers can tune the suspension on a vehicle for a sporty ride or make you feel like you’re sitting in your living room. By individually attaching the wheels to the suspension, it can react to the road surface independently. This is called an ‘independent suspension’. Generally speaking, an independent suspension will deliver a smoother, quieter ride. On some trucks and even a few cars, the wheels are attached directly to the axle. When one wheel hits a bump, the wheel on the other side feels it, which can result in a harsher ride. Pickup trucks usually have a solid axle rear suspension because load hauling and strength are more important than ride quality. But today, even a solid axle suspension can give the driver a very smooth ride.

Some vehicles have automatic ride control. It uses road sensors and electronically controlled springs and shock absorbers to adjust the suspension settings hundreds of times per second to the road conditions. These suspension systems are expensive, but they’re incredibly effective in delivering a smooth ride when you want to cruise, and improve handling when you’re feeling it’s time to MOVE.

Wheels and Tires

car tire with tire track behind it illustration

In broad terms, there are two types of wheels. Steel wheels (require hub caps or wheel covers to make them look nice), and alloy wheels. We lump all the alloy wheels together into one category. They can be plated with a chrome finish, painted in a textured black, and feature other decorative treatments. Alloy wheels usually look better than steel wheels. With the exception of entry level vehicles, you’d be hard pressed to find many vehicles that don’t come with alloy wheels.

Tires are really, really important. They act as part of the suspension of the vehicle, they provide all of the traction (grip) for the vehicle on the road, play an important role in braking, and as they used to say on the old tire commercials, ‘they’re the only thing between you and the road’.

The Tire Rack has a great description of what all the numbers mean on the side of a tire. But there’s three numbers and two letters you really need to know.

Here’s a common tire size:

P225/50R16

  • P The most common tire designation is a passenger tire. That’s the ‘P’ at the beginning.
  • 225’ stands for 225 millimetres or the width of the tire
  • 50’ is the ratio of the height of the sidewall of the tire to the width of the tire. In this case, the sidewall is 50%, or half as high as the tire is wide. The lower the number, the wider the tire in relation to the height of the tire. This would referred to as a ‘low profile’ tire (for example, P275/35R19).
  • R is the construction of the tire. This is a Radial tire.
  • 16 is the wheel rim size in inches. I don’t know why the tire width is in millimetres and the wheel rim is in inches.

Look for high first numbers and low second numbers for sportier performance. The lower profile tire reduces tire ‘squirm’ and helps keep all of the tire on the road in corners. Look for lower first numbers and higher second numbers for a more sedate, comfortable ride. The taller sidewall acts like a spring for a cushier ride.

Exterior

four cars in different colours illustration

The things you see (and some you don’t) are found in the Exterior section of a vehicle. Items like body side moulding, fender flares, splash guards, moonroof, two tone exterior, type of headlights (LED, HID, Halogen), washer jets for the headlights, fog lights, exterior mirrors (heated, colour keyed, chrome finished, auto dimming, auto tilt in reverse, extendable), roof rack, among many more. Features that are hidden until you press a button like a Power trunk/hatch release, Directional headlights (headlights that steer around corners), High beam assist (a function that automatically dims the high beams on a vehicle when another vehicle is in view) won’t be apparent until you look at the individual features on a vehicle.

Interior

new car dashboard

We include the type of upholstery (leather, cloth, leatherette) and number of seats in Automobl comparisons. Can the front seats be power adjusted and the number of positions? Consider a memory driver’s seat if you have multiple drivers sharing the same vehicle (this feature along with dual zone air conditioning has been rumoured to have saved many marriages). Interior trim features include gloss black or wood/wood tone trim, metallic trim on the doors, console or dashboard all add to the interior appearance and can make a world of difference to the eye-pleasing perception of a vehicle’s interior. Look for available storage such as cupholders, centre and overhead console storage, door map and seat back map pockets. Is there a spot to hide valuables or can you tie down objects in the cargo area?

Comfort and Convenience

heater controls for car seats illustration

This is all the stuff that makes you feel good about a vehicle, past the visceral sensation from crisp handling, acceleration and braking. Air conditioning (front seat and often available for the back seats). Heat for seats, steering wheel and even armrests. Tilt and telescoping steering wheel for adjustability for all heights and shapes of drivers. Is the steering wheel power tilt and telescoping so that it can be programmed into a memory system? Can you raise and lower windows with a simple tap on a button or do you have to hold the buttons to move the windows?

Are the gauges digital and back lit or classic white lettering on a black background? Do you want the mother ship (the manufacturer) to be able to communicate with your vehicle? Cellular connected services are more and more common, with brand names like OnStar, Remote Connect, FordPass and HondaLink. Some manufacturers even allow you to communicate with your vehicle using your phone or smartwatch to remotely lock or unlock doors or to start the vehicle.

Do you want the vehicle to steer for you? Autonomous driving aids are upon us, usually at a premium price on the highest trim levels. Adaptive cruise control is found on many vehicles, and on most Toyotas, it’s a standard feature. Automatic emergency braking will help brake the vehicle if it detects the likelihood of a collision, and some systems will warn you if there’s a pedestrian in the roadway and can help you avoid hitting them. When backing up, Cross traffic alert will detect a vehicle passing behind your vehicle, and either warn you or even help bring your vehicle to a stop before a collision can occur.

Audio

smartphone with car dashboard in background illustration

Today’s car audio systems rival those of home systems. Names like Bose, Infinity, JBL, Rockford Fosgate and Bowers & Wilkins  all make car audio systems. Even the base audio system in most vehicles are very good. Look for the number of speakers and subwoofers and if there’s a brand name attached. Can you easily stream the music from your smartphone to your vehicle? Almost every vehicle made is equipped with Bluetooth connectivity to make it easy to pair your smartphone to the vehicle, but some lower trim levels on entry level models still make it an option. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay make it easy to use your phone hands free, but is still being rolled out, so if this is an important feature to you, make sure the trim level that you’re shopping has the feature that matches your phone (Android versus iOS).

Safety

safety features on new car

There are two fundamental types of safety systems: Active and Passive.

Active safety systems help keep you safe as you drive. A responsive engine, drivetrain and suspension system can be considered an active safety system. The ability to steer around an obstacle rather than hit it is an active system. Traction control and Stability control help maintain tire grip and steering control while you drive. Anti-lock brakes help you steer around an obstacle without locking up the tires.

Sonar parking assist helps you keep track of how close your vehicle is to objects to help you avoid hitting them. Four wheel or all wheel drive vehicles generally have better traction than front wheel or rear wheel drive vehicles.

Passive safety systems are things like air bags, seatbelts, seatbelt pretensioners, and adjustable head restraints. These items help keep you safe in the event of an accident, without you having to steer, brake or control any functions directly.

That’s a pretty heavy list of things to look for. But once you’re familiar with the items on your Top Ten list, you’ll be able to filter out the vehicles that don’t line up with your needs quite quickly.

Use the Automobl Comparison Tool to find the vehicles with the features you want and need, and see how they stack up against each other. You’ll be able to narrow down your choices while ensuring you get the features you want at a price you’re willing to pay.

Are we there yet?

Hang in there, we’re almost done with new car research. Just a few more items.

Many dealers run advertisements in local newspapers and on-line. Once you’ve narrowed down your search to two or three vehicles, keep an eye out for these ads for the makes and models you’re shopping. Sometimes there’s an advantageous rebate available, or a month-end special. You can take advantage of these additional savings when you’re ready to buy.

Another thing to learn is the invoice value of the vehicle you’re shopping. There are a number of websites (edmunds.com) that will help you find out what the dealer pays for the vehicle you want. It’s helpful to know what the margin on the vehicle. This is the difference between the price you pay and the price the dealer pays for the vehicle. If you have difficulty finding this figure, you can assume that it’s not more than about 10% of the new vehicle’s Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). Of that, the sales consultant will make anywhere from $200-$500 on the sale. The rest will go to the dealer. It’s really not a big margin. That’s why they will try and load accessories and warranties onto your vehicle so they can increase the margin on the vehicle as it goes out the door. (We’ll address this in the Back Office section of the course.) Unhaggle also offers an invoice pricing service.

When you’re negotiating your deal, start with the invoice price and work your way up to the MSRP. It’s far easier for them to hold to the MSRP, and harder for you to work down from that number. You’re going to make them work to get more dollars from you above the invoice price. We’ll get to this concept in the Negotiation section.

You Now Have an Important Decision to Make

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