Buying A Used Car: Balancing Priorities

Ayrton Senna Acura NSX

There will always be a head versus heart type of struggle when buying a used car.  We won’t pretend there is a blanket solution for everyone, because the ideal balance of priorities is unique to the individual.  By taking the following into consideration, it can be easier to achieve.

Fun vs. practicality.  It’s natural to want what we can’t have, but it has to be tempered with reality.  A parent schlepping kids in a minivan might pine for the two-seat convertible in the next lane, but it’s also understood the fun would erode quickly because one-third the passenger space wouldn’t cut it for practicality.  Understand your everyday needs.

Power vs. mileage.  It’s probably one of the biggest struggles for driving enthusiasts on a budget, not to mention tradespeople and anyone with a lengthy commute.  We can’t have subpar mileage but we feel the need to jump from zero to 60 as quick as possible.  Assuming you find an empty lane to dash up to speed, will a few extra seconds throw life into disarray?  Is time saved accelerating worth the extra time to refuel more often?

Space vs. size.  You can’t be faulted for wanting enough legroom, headroom and cargo space in a used car.  Do consider how that translates into the kind of vehicle you need for everyday life.  Occasionally having five or six others with you shouldn’t necessarily dictate you buy a large vehicle when you’ll spend most of your miles driving alone.  Consider your living space, how much room you have for parking in your garage or on the street and whether you’ll tire of jockeying a bigger vehicle back and forth just to fit in a parking lot space. 

Handling vs. comfort.  It’s much sexier to prioritize sharp handling over comfort, lest we compare ourselves to elderly relatives and their luxury barges.  There’s no sin in wanting either or both.  You’ll find a number of used cars have adjustable suspension settings to offer a healthy compromise when one trait is desired over the other.  And as much fun as a sharp-handling car can be, too jolting a ride for too long a trip will accelerate fatigue and can cut into your ability to focus.  

Price vs. value.  The lowest-priced used car might not make for the cheapest long-term experience.  Understand the value you’re buying.  Look into cost of ownership, including gas mileage, maintenance and insurance premiums for that particular model.  Projected resale value shouldn’t be ignored, since you’ll someday sell or trade that used car yourself.

Style vs. safety.  Balancing priorities here can be crucial, however much you hope to never test a car’s safety.  As you narrow your list of used cars, check sites like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to research safety ratings and crash test results.

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