Please help me choose a car

I just totaled my car this weekend. I’m trying to figure out what to buy next, but I have no clue where to even begin. I should probably buy a used car because those cost less money, but I don’t want one so used that it’ll require frequent repairs. I’m a female in my twenties living in northern Virginia, and live within a few miles of my job, gym, grocery store, etc.

The car I totaled was a 1996 Toyota Camry that I bought in 2008 for $6,000. It had 56,000 miles on it when I bought it, and I chose it because (1) It was affordable, (2) It got good gas mileage, and (3) Toyotas have a reputation for being reliable.

This time around I’m looking to buy something in the $3,000 to $9,000 range. Where I’m struggling the most is in deciding which features are worth paying a little extra for. For example, is it worth it to pay a few thousand dollars extra for a car that has 10,000 miles instead of 50,000 or a hundred? Are bigger cars really that much safer than smaller cars? How important is getting good gas mileage if you use the car mainly for local trips? Is a sunroof worth the extra money? What car has a good mixture of being safe, reliable, and affordable? And where should I look to get a car? Should I go to a dealership or look online?

Those are a lot of questions, so to distill this post to its purest form: I don’t know a lot about cars. Please give me any advice you think would help me decide what to buy.

If your top end is $9,000 you don’t really have a choice vis-a-vis new versus used. The cheapest new car in the US is the Hyundai Accent, and it’s a hair under $11,000 with a manual transmission and no air conditioning.

Big cars may or may not be safer than smaller cars. Depends on the car. For used cars, you can find safety ratings at (along with just about all the other information you could possibly want).

Pay a few thousand extra for a car that’s still under warranty. Don’t pay a few thousand extra for a car that has 50,000 miles on instead of 100,000.

A sunroof isn’t worth anything unless you actually want one. Do you want one?

As for gas mileage, do you make a lot of local trips? If you drive, say, a hundred miles a week, then no, it doesn’t matter. But if you drive 500 miles a week making only local trips, then yes. Bear this in mind: at the kind of prices you’re talking about, on-paper mileage figures are not going to be very useful. 10 year old cars are typically out of tune, and will generally operate significantly less efficiently than they did when they were new. By way of example, a car will use as much as 20% more fuel in 2011 than it did when it was new in 2001, and be significantly less powerful.

ETA: If you know absolutely nothing about cars, I recommend CarMax. They’ll fleece you (ie., charge you $2,000 more than the car is worth), but they won’t fleece you any more than they do everyone else, and they’ll give you a warranty. Conversely, a dealer or savvy private seller will fleece you as much as they possibly can.

Paying for a month or two of access to Consumer Reports online is probaby a good first step. You’ll have access to their used car reliability ratings and tons more info. I’d start there and identify a few models that you like. I’d look at Edmonds too. Then hit AutoTrader and see what’s for sale in your area.

Questions like how much a sunroof is worth, or what the price difference should be for a car with 50K vs 100K miles can easily be determined by going on Kelley Blue Book website and adjusting those factors while leaving the rest constant.

In an accident between a Crown Victoria and a Ford Focus I’d rather be in the Crown Vic but I’ll still buy the Focus (or Corrolla) for the gas mileage around town. You’re more likely to roll an SUV in a skid than a Crown Vic so size isn’t everything.

If you want safety then look for anti-lock brakes and stability control. Not getting into an accident is half the battle. I can think of specific incidences where I lost control of a vehicle with conventional brakes and I maintained control under worse conditions with anti-lock brakes. Crossing left-of-center is a bad day for anybody regardless of how big the vehicle is.

You can put a sun roof on anything for a couple hundred bucks.

Stay away from stuff like automatic climate control. You’re paying extra for crap that is VERY expensive to fix. These things consist of extra computers and control modules that require many labor-hours to dig out. A $100 part could easily cost $1000 in labor to replace. And unlike seat-warmers, you can’t do without heating for defrost and basic comfort. You have to fix climate control systems.

As for the difference in cost between 10K and 50K mile car, that requires research. Generally you should expect to get 150K out of an engine/transmission. You can amortize the cost based on that.