How can you figure out what kind of car you need when it's time to buy? Here's one way: Take a sheet of paper and draw a vertical line one-third of the way from the left. You'll have two columns now, one twice as big as the other. In the first column, list all the kinds of automobiles available:

  • Subcompacts and compacts
  • Family sedans or station wagons
  • Sports cars/coupes/convertibles
  • Minivans
  • Sport-utility vehicles
  • Pickup trucks
  • Full-size vans or conversion vans
  • Luxury sedans
  • Cars with wings, that fly and float

In the right-hand column, jot down answers to the following questions:

  • How many miles per year do you think you'll drive the vehicle?
  • How much time, on average, do you think you'll spend in it each day?
  • What type of driving will you be doing? (What percentage of the time will it be on city roads, highways, or off-road?)
  • How much can you afford to spend?
  • List all the reasons you want and need the vehicle -- commuting, shuttling kids to activities, camping, antiquing on weekends, etc.

Now, begin reconciling the two lists and eliminating the vehicle types that don't meet your needs. If you spend a lot of time buying antique furniture, for example, or transporting large animals between zoos, you probably won't want a small sports car with leather seats. If you drive 90% of the time in the city or in heavy, slow traffic, you might not want a gas-guzzler or something that's difficult to park.

Your goal is to get down to one vehicle category. Once you do that, you can begin narrowing the field even further.

To learn about the ins and outs of the car-buying process, check out the Fool's Buying a Car area, and ask any questions on our Buying and Maintaining a Car discussion board. (Don't forget to get tips on car insurance, and other important kinds of insurance, at our Insurance Center.) Here are a few more good car-buying resources:

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