Choosing the right bodystyle
Choosing a body shape is a question of both practicality and style. There are seven options: saloon, hatchback, estate, MPV (or multi-purpose vehicle), coupe, cabrio or off-roader, also known as SUV (or Sports Utility Vehicle)
- Saloons have a separate boot, which means that loads are hidden from view. On smaller cars (up to Golf/Focus size), saloons are out of fashion and may be worth less than a hatchback when you come to resell them.
- Hatchbacks are characterised by a tailgate that lifts up from the bumper and includes the rear window. On smaller cars, they are now the rule rather than the exception, but on executive cars they have no appeal at all.
- Estates offer a larger load space by extending the roof to the rear of the car. Originally the most practical mainstream design, estates are now quite fashionable and are often designed to look a bit sporting (e.g. Alfa 156 Sportwagon), which means they might not have as much room as you expect.
- MPVs are a completely different category. There are now three different types of MPV: full size models like the Ford Galaxy, small MPVs like the Renault Scenic, and utility MPVs or “vans with windows” like the Citroen Berlingo. The number of seats varies from five to seven (or occasionally eight) depending on the model.
- Off roaders started life as genuine farm vehicles like the original Land Rover or Jeep. Now usually designed more for tarmac, they look butch but are far easier to drive. The big news in this sector is “crossover” vehicles like the Volvo XC90 which is part off roader, part MPV and part estate.
- Coupes have always had their place in the market, but recently have been losing out to the growing popularity of convertibles.
- Convertibles are a big success story at present, especially as many are becoming available with folding metal roofs that turn them into coupes as well (e.g. Peugeot 206 Coupe Cabrio).
Choosing the right fuel
The type of engine you choose will greatly affect the character and performance of your vehicle. Alternative fuels such as gas and electricity are just starting to catch the public imagination – especially in London where they are not subject to the Congestion Charge.
At present, the main choice is still between diesel and petrol, with diesel driving just over a quarter of all new cars sold today. Diesel sales have soared in the last three years for two reasons. Firstly, the Government made changes to the taxation of company cars which benefit cars with low carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Diesels always score well for CO2, although most diesels have to pay a small excess due to their higher emissions of other pollutants (mostly small particulates). Secondly, there has been a revolution in diesel technology. In recent years, “common rail” diesels have been developed which are far more powerful (and more economical) than older designs. Common rail works by injecting all the fuel from a single pipe, or rail at immense pressures – over 10,000 pounds per square inch, the idea being that the higher the pressure, the greater the engine’s efficiency. If you are considering a diesel, make sure that it is common rail – typical abbreviations are HDI, CRD, TDCI or PD (PD being VW’s equivalent to common rail which works slightly differently, but gives the same result). The last of the non-common rail diesels are still being made and should be avoided – they are usually the cheapest diesels in the range, such as the 1.9 SDI fitted to some VW and Skoda models.
The latest diesels are always more economical than the equivalent petrol (typically 30% better), but they may be more expensive to buy and diesel is no cheaper than petrol. More surprisingly, diesels are now often nicer to drive than petrols – they have more power between 30 mph and 70 mph, which is where you need it most. They are also quieter on the motorway as they are lower revving (i.e. the engine is running more slowly for a given road speed). However, diesels are still noisier when they are cold, so a 6 a.m. start in winter can have you worrying about waking the neighbours. Check our road tests for more information on particular models.
Getting the right safety equipment
ABS, or anti-lock braking system, is a sophisticated system that stops your brakes locking up if you have to brake sharply, preventing skidding and loss of control – it even allows you to swerve to avoid an object during an emergency stop.
All new cars have seat belts in the front and rear that comply with British safety standards. Some cars now have a “three point” belt in the back for the middle passenger (like the ones in the front), rather than the old fashioned lap-only belt. If you regularly carry three in the back, this is a major consideration: a lap-only belt, although far better than nothing, can cause serious stomach injuries as the whole force of the impact will be taken through the stomach. The only extra feature you may want to ask about is the seat belt pre-tensioning system – it pulls the belt tight in the event of an impact, clamping you to the seat faster than a standard belt’s fast-pull locking system.
Airbags are inflatable cushions that expand in a fraction of a second in the event of a collision. Drivers’ airbags prevent the driver hitting the steering wheel, a major cause of injuries. Passenger air bags prevent the front passenger hitting the dashboard, although a correctly worn seat belt should do this anyway. Side air bags provide some protection against the intrusion of body panels in a side impact. Nearly all cars now have a driver’s airbag fitted as standard, with passenger and/or side impact air bags as optional extras, often costing up to £500. More upmarket models are now offering head curtain airbags that fire out of either the headlining or side pillar – these dramatically reduce the likelihood of injury.
Headrests play a major role in safety, preventing whiplash injuries as the head is thrown backwards during an impact. Look for cars with headrests fitted to both the front and back seats. If they are adjustable make sure they are positioned correctly. Badly positioned headrests can be as bad as none at all. As a rough guide, the headrest should be in line with the back of the head, not in line with the neck. In the latter case, the head could just pivot around the headrest, causing injury.
Child seats, particularly those that are rear facing (used until a child is at least one-year-old), should not be used in a seat equipped with an airbag. However, many cars now have the facility to turn off a passenger seat airbag using a special keyhole – check before fitting though. The latest child safety seats are fitted using the ISOFIX system. These are child seats designed for a particular make of car and are easier to install and remove.
Choosing security equipment
Manufacturers’ standard security devices are often not effective enough to protect your car. Studies of new cars often reveal that they fail to meet the Home Office’s security guidelines, which suggests that a car’s locking system should keep a thief at bay for at least two minutes. The most important security features are locks, alarms and immobilisers.
Central locking secures all car doors when the key is turned in just one lock. Some systems also close any windows that have been inadvertently left open. Remote central locking systems are operated as you approach the vehicle via a button on the key fob.
Deadlocks are highly effective. They prevent doors being opened even if windows are smashed.
Alarms are effective up to a point. Make sure the system does not work on what is known as a ‘voltage drop’. This type of alarm is triggered by a drop in car battery voltage, which happens when someone tries to start the engine. However, cold winter weather can also sap the battery’s power, causing the alarm to go off by itself.
Immobilisers come in two forms:
- Physical: bars that fit on to the steering wheel, locking it to the accelerator or gear lever
- Electronic: devices that stop the engine from working if the car is broken into. All new cars now have some form of engine immobiliser.
Depending on the cost of your car and the area you live in, you may wish to invest in a tracking system which, when activated, can pinpoint your car by satellite. It is estimated that 95 per cent of stolen vehicles using this system are recovered but the fitting and monthly costs can be high. The coverage is now being extended to mainland Europe too. Leading systems include Tracker and NavTrak and they can be astonishingly sophisticated. The latest NavTrak system has a discreet personal ID tag, so even if the thief steals the car with the keys (e.g. by breaking into your house), the control room is alerted.
The major cost of owning a car is the decline in its value over time. A few cars retain a large proportion of their value. Most, however, are worth less than half of their new cost after just three years. Check in a used car price guide to see what older versions of your prospective car sell for.
The cars that hold their value best are those that are most sought after, like a Mini Cooper S or Ford StreetKa. A waiting list is a good sign of desirability. The more prestigious marques may appear more expensive initially but could actually be a cheaper proposition over the lifetime of the car.
The financial balance between depreciation and cheap initial price can be difficult to work out. Make sure you spend some time considering the figures on paper before jumping to a decision that may cost you thousands when you come to resell the car.
A great deal of the eventual depreciation comes down to the image of the car. Image is a complicated mix of aspiration, fashion and reputation that owes something to car advertisements and often little to the car itself. Broadly speaking, image comes from the manufacturer rather than the model. In the second hand market, an Alfa is never going to have the image of an Audi, regardless of how many magazines prefer an individual Alfa to the equivalent new Audi. The only exceptions are small, sporty models that develop an image of their own like the Peugeot 206 Coupe Cabrio or the Ford StreetKa mentioned above. However a mainstream Ford Focus 1.6 is always going to depreciate faster than a VW Golf. Most road testers agree that the Focus is a better car, but the Golf has years of careful VW image-building to fall back on.
Another general rule of thumb is that the specification of a car should be appropriate to its class. Fitting satellite navigation or leather seats to a £10,000 hatchback may seem the last word in luxury to you, but a used car buyer would not expect to find them on such a car and probably won’t be prepared to pay extra for them in three years time. On the other hand, woe betide the person who wants to sell a used Jaguar XJ with cloth seats and a manual gearbox – in that sector, most buyers expect leather and automatic transmission as of right and will want a hefty discount if they are missing.