Fine Tuning: The Ultimate Guide To Buying A New Car

When it comes to a new car purchase, it’s easy to overlook function for form or substance for style. Here’s everything you need to consider and what to look out for on a test drive.

By Noelle Faulkner


When it comes to a new car purchase, it’s easy to overlook function for form or substance for style. Here’s everything you need to consider and what to look out for on a test drive.

By Noelle Faulkner

When it comes to life purchases, next to a home (and probably a mattress), a car is one of the most important and most-used investments you’ll make in life. Not only does price come into it, but trust and liveability. Cars are a personal purchase and should be able to reflect who we are, even if that reflection is one of style, practicality or performance.

The showroom can be a daunting place, especially for women – we all know at least one tale of deeply ingrained misogyny that has occurred around a car. Thankfully, some makers are doing their best to stamp out this attitude, but regardless, it doesn’t hurt to arm yourself with a few points: what to ask, what to take note of and what to push for, whether you’re in the market for a supercar or an SUV.

Making The Initial Decision

Believe it or not – this is the hardest part. When you’re in that market mind frame, you’ll be noting every car you see on the road. So it’s likely you might have some idea of what you like and why. But what do you want from your car? Each category has an intended purpose, but there are some that blur the lines – so it’s worth casting a wider net based on your likes.

Currently driving a hatchback but you want to upgrade to something more adult, but still feel sporty? Consider a crossover SUV, one of the newest and most competitive styles in the market. These small, high-riding hatches are like the designer activewear of motoring. Some of the leaders in this sector right now include Volvo XC40, Lexus UX, Mazda CX-3, Toyota C-HR, Nissan Juke, Honda CR-V and Hyundai Kona. If adventure or snowy road trips are your thing, a number of makes, like the BMW X2, Suzuki Jimny and Audi Q3 make crossovers or compact SUV with an all-wheel-drive system.

Equally, wagons have been making a comeback of late, acting as a stylish way to have a family car without the bulk and soccer-mom feel of an SUV. Check out the Skoda Octavia, Mercedes-Benz CLA or GLA, Mazda 6 Touring and Subaru XV for options that might be a catch-all, if you’re not so into the high-riders.

On that note, Australia’s appetite for SUVs is not slowing down anytime soon. If that’s your flavour, you’re in luck, because there is an SUV for everyone. From the stylish new entry from Alfa Romeo, the Stelvio, to Mazda’s CX-5, CX-7 and CX-9, Hyundai’s multi-model range, the classics like the Range Rover Evoque and newish Velar, Nissan Patrol, new all-electric or hybrid models like the Jaguar iPace and Hyundai Kona EV (coming soon) and Porsche Cayenne, to the fashionable 7-seater (yes! They exist!) Peugeot 5008. Even Lamborghini, Bentley and Rolls Royce have entered the SUV market, with Aston Martin and, eventually, Ferrari, coming soon.

If affordability and city life are key considerations, nothing beats the humble hatchback, the most affordable car on the market. Brands like Toyota, Volkswagen, Mazda, Honda, Suzuki, Kia and Hyundai corner the market as favourites, but now, with the rise of EVs and hybrid engines, we’re seeing small cars become even more economical. Some standouts? BMW i3,  Hyundai Ioniq, Toyota Corolla Hybrid and Lexus CT hybrid.

Of course, a fail-safe option for a catch-all is an executive-chic sedan, like one of the many offered by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus, Volkswagen or Audi. Or you could take the no responsibility approach and turn heads in a sports car like a Mazda MX-5, Arbarth 124 Spider, Porsche Cayman or new kid on the block, the Alpine A110, and leave everyone else in the dust.

Research, Research, Research

Once you’ve decided on what type of car you want, it’s time to research. Thankfully, the internet has a number of trusted websites to help. So as to not get bogged down in tiny things and opinions, it’s best to avoid blogs and instead, stick to notable industry sites that can help with direct comparisons, up-to-date pricing, ANCAP safety reports and dealer contacts. Start with, and

It also helps to compare the market on insurance, looking at what that might cost you, as well as comparing the standard warranties – as this might have changed since you last thought about a car. Tesla currently offers an 8-year unlimited kilometre warranty, Kia has a seven-year one (with free roadside assistance for 12 months) and Ford, Holden, Renault, Skoda, Isuzu, Haval, Jeep, Peugeot, Hyundai, Honda, Mazda, Citroen, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen currently offer five-year warranties. Suddenly the ol’ three-year offer looks weak, huh? Next up.

  1. Make a budget and stick to it. This includes what you can afford to finance, insurance, servicing and running costs.
  2. Write a list of what safety features and equipment are important to you. This will arm you with knowing where to spend on optional extras and what should come standard. For example, Apple CarPlay comes as standard in many cars now, but some makers still option it out. Would that hinder your budget? The same applies to cameras and some safety equipment, paint, sunroof, wheel options etc.
  3. Narrow the field to three cars, even if you’ve decided on one. You might be surprised at what the competition can offer.

Down On The Showroom Floor

Once you’re armed with knowing what you want –it’s time to get dirty. Always take a friend who might point out things you don’t see. Climb in and out of the car, check every little bit of plastic and little things that may annoy you – this is essential. Is there a blind spot in the front pillar –a common irk for women of smaller stature. Is the backseat not fit for adults? How much luggage fits in the boot? How easily scratched is the plastic? How washable is the interior, especially when small humans are involved? How friendly is the infotainment system? What is the vision like? How much stuff can you pack in the back? And here’s the big one: can you (and your family) live with this for a minimum of two to three years?

Always make sure the car you’re looking at on the showroom floor is the level of trim you can afford/intend to buy, sometimes dealers will upsell or instead show you something that is out of your budget, even if you’re clear on what that might be. If that’s the case, find one who does. Things like seat bolstering, cabin materials and support make a huge difference on show and can differ between trim levels. Next comes the test drive.

The Dos And Don’ts Of A Test Drive:

Don’t let a dealer intimidate you.

Do look at the roads surrounding the car’s location and try to take corners, roundabouts, lane changes and different types of roads and places to park. This is where you can look for blind spots, note road or wind noise and see how well active safety things like blind spot monitoring, cruise control, parking sensors and the like work.

Do ask the dealer to list every active safety feature on the car and show you how it operates.

Don’t go alone. Having a friend or family member in the back will help to point out little things, like space, climate control, body roll and passenger comfort.

Do move through the gears and all the driving modes (if it has multiple), test the brakes and acceleration.

Don’t forget to connect your phone and blast the stereo system. Turn it right up!

Do remember that if something small bugs you now, it’s going to annoy the hell out of you in the long run. The great thing about buying a car in this market is that we are not spoiled for choice.

The Deal

So you’ve decided on The One, or at least made a shortlist. This is also where research will come into play. Yes, it might be boring, but knowing what the competitor manufacturers offer as standard will arm you with what is reasonable, and also give you an edge on the dealer. More than that, it’ll also help give you a clear indication of what you’re actually willing to pay for.

For example, some premium brands might charge through the roof for active technology or creature comforts that are available in lower-graded brands as standard, but what you get in return is a higher sense of luxury. That might be confusing, but hopefully, by now, you know what your budget is and what is important to you. Be shallow! Go for style over technology if that is a priority – it’s entirely up to you. Don’t be afraid to start the process again if you feel uncomfortable here. But also, sometimes, the top spec consumer brand is going to be a lot more liveable than the bottom spec luxury brand’s model (and have better resale value) – remember that.

Some manufacturers offer an optional extra bundle or pack, like a “safety pack” or “style pack”. This might include things like safety options, navigation, tech, semi-autonomous gear, metallic paint, a specific cabin material or a sunroof – and knowing what features are included in each pack also goes back to knowing what you do and don’t want. Chances are, this is the point you’ll be emotionally distracted by shiny things. Repeat: stay on budget.

The runout sales at the end of the year and end of financial year sales are usually the best time to steal a deal. If kilometres don’t bother you, this is also the time when ex-showroom models will be up for sale – and often, these are packed with top-notch specs, but priced down to ensure a sale.

Finally, and here comes the broken record, stick to that budget – it’s acceptable to ask for up to 12 per cent off the on-road cost, but unlikely to get any more – sometimes being too pushy works as a disadvantage. Ultimately, the best ace you can have up your sleeve is research, knowledge and willingness to walk away if you don’t get what you want. Keep in mind, the car isn’t going to go anywhere if you walk away.