“The number of makes, models, options and packages can be mind boggling,” says automotive expert Clare Dear, member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

So where do you start? How do you cut through the online clutter? Dear says to start with your needs and your budget.

Wants vs. needs

“Lifestyle is really the determining factor when deciding what type of vehicle you should buy,” he says. “Start by listing your basic needs. Do you need a two-seater or four-door sedan? Will you have more kids? Do you like to cycle or camp and need to account for equipment?”

This list will keep you grounded as your research will likely lead you to vehicles that fit your wants rather than your needs.

Price to buy vs. price to drive

Next, look at price. “To figure out what you can afford, determine your weekly or monthly budget,” advises Dear. “Include payments to buy or lease the vehicle, and how much it costs to keep it on the road: gas, insurance, maintenance.” Sticking to your budget is easier when you know what it is.

Your research: 3 starting points

Since where you live affects availability, options, features and price, make sure you’re consulting Canadian websites and sources of information. “You also want to use credible websites,” warns Dear. “Consumer magazine sites that offer comparative testing are generally more reliable.”

Start by researching the following:

  1. Price. “The car market is so competitive that it’s unlikely you’ll get a car for a song these day,” explains Dear. “But you can visit a manufacturer’s site, build your car by selecting features and options, and get a price. Do that with different makes and models to see which one will fit your budget.”

    Also, ensure you’re comparing apples to apples. That can be difficult when features are combined into packages. “Some manufacturers will offer free maintenance for a year or two,” he adds. “That could affect your buying decision because the price of routine maintenance can swing quite widely between vehicles.”
  2. Fuel efficiency. Natural Resources Canada offers a Fuel Consumption Ratings Search Tool that gets Dear’s stamp of approval. “With 2015 models, there’s a new five-step testing cycle that wasn’t used with previous models,” he explains. “This has created some confusion because there’s a noticeable swing between 2015 and 2014 ratings. So while it’s easy to compare ratings with vehicles belonging to the same model year, it’s not so easy when comparing a current model to an older one.”
  3. Safety ratings. “Most cars, unless they’ve been recalled, are safe. But some are safer than others,” says Dear. “It’s important to research a car’s safety rating as a determining factor.” His advice: the ratings offered by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) are the best to go by because they rely on far more than just head-on collisions.

Finally, don’t sign on the dotted line based on research alone. “Before any firm commitment, the best thing to do is drive the car,” says Dear. “Really experience how it drives at highway speeds, city speeds, smooth roads, and bumpy roads, and how it parks.”