Video: Driving Northwest: Tips for buying a car

We're being bombarded by the popular press that there's never been a better time to buy a car.Since my test vehicles come directly from the manufacturers, that insulates me from what's going on in the marketplace more than I'd like. So stepping onto dealer lots to do a little research has made my jaw go slack. Clearly posted discounts boast 25 percent off MSRP. One salesperson I talked to said they'd go lower if a buyer just asked. This will not last forever, folks. Manufacturers are cutting production to match anemic demand.

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But getting a great price doesn't always mean you're getting the best value. In my younger foolish days I passed on my dream car (a Mazda RX-7) because I got a screaming deal on a different sports car (which I'm ashamed to name, so I won't). For years I kicked myself every time I saw an RX go by. Eventually the unmentionable car that had years of service left in it was sold at a big loss. It was the very definition of poor long term value, not to mention I didn't get what I wanted. Talk about an expensive lesson learned.

Cars are big investments; you want to do it right. And by right I mean getting a vehicle that not only meets your needs but makes you happy. And so I humbly offer five tips to help you choose your next vehicle. Not only that, these five info McNuggets have sub tips as well, so really, you're getting quite a bargain here.

TIP #1 is the least fun: Figure out your financial situation.

Sorry to throw cold water on your dreams but someone has to. Transportation is about freedom, so don't make your car a financial ball and chain. A BMW 3 Series is hot but buying a Chevy Malibu might mean you can afford to eat more than just Top Ramen (not that I don't love that stuff).

And it's more than the monthly payment, there are a lot of other aspects to consider. Look at fuel economy ratings. Does it require premium gas? That can mean an extra 20 percent in fuel costs. If it's a hybrid, crunch the numbers to see if the extra cost is worth the investment (unless you are buying for purely environmental purposes).Diesels are becoming more popular and know that the fuel is now widely the same as mid-grade gasoline.

There are tax credits too. A couple worth mentioning? Hybrids that get over 40 MPG on the highway are exempt for Washington state sales tax. Many diesels are eligible for federal tax credits.

Check with your insurance company because coverage costs between even similar vehicles can be a nasty surprise.Consider buying used, a car's value drops a lot during the first year or two. Cars coming off two-year leases are especially attractive since these cars are generally well cared for, lest there be hefty charges when they're returned.

TIP #2: Do your research.

Things have changed dramatically in the last five years when it comes to quality. Keep your options open to different brands and you have more models to choose from. I'm not here to be a "buy American" cheerleader. I do advocate wise buying though and I think people do themselves a huge disfavor by not considering some of the great new products available across the board.

Example? Here's a list of the top 10 makes according to the J.D. Powers 2009 Vehicle Dependability Study. Buick and Jaguar tie for first place. They are followed by Lexus, Toyota, Mercury, Infiniti, Acura, Lincoln, Cadillac, Honda. Know that only 1 or 2 points often separate these brands. This surprises a lot people who just assume the expected brands dominate (let alone Jaguar sharing the top spot).

With the web, it's never been easier to find reviews and information. I'm partial to the iTunes podcast called DRIVE but that's just me (just search for "car reviews" in the iTunes store).Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Edmunds Inside Line are great online resources. Some other websites you may not know about are Autoblog, Jalopnik, and The Car Connection. The internet is also good for finding incentives like rebates and special financing Searching for owner's group blogs will give you an idea of common things that are happening to a particular model.

TIP #3? Realize that vehicles are both practical AND emotional purchases

Look inward. Certainly buy the kind of car you need but just as important, the one you LOVE. Get the one that you just have to turn around to look at when walking away in the parking lot.

Do this and chances are you'll take better care of it and keep it longer.It's a great place to start on the way to long term value. Also, the better a car is cared for the longer it's kept out of the landfill or junkyard.Keeping it on the road saves resources. Ultimately that's better for the environment.

TIP #4: Test drive at least 3 different vehicles

I can't stress this one enough. The average new vehicle costs around $29,000. Since you may keep a car for 10 years, you owe it to yourself to test more than just one.

Maybe there's one you really have your eye on. Read reviews to find which cars compete with it, then go out and experience them all. There is no substitute! Believe me, cars can surprise you. I can't tell you the number of times a passenger in one of my test vehicles has blurted out "This is a (insert brand here)!?" This reaction can be both positive and negative. Hey, even if you end up with the car you originally leaned toward, you'll know for sure that it is right for you. That's a nice warm and fuzzy feeling.

One more thing auto journalists have observed over the years: When people ask us for advice, 9 times out of 10 these people have either already bought the car they're curious about or have not considered any other vehicle (nor do they plan to). In other words they're looking for validation, not information. Don't be that guy (or woman).

Finally, TIP #5: Proper maintenance

You thought I was going to tell you how to wear down a sales person to get the best deal? Sorry, that could fill a book. I will advise you to do your research on the internet and find out what other buyers are paying. Those who are uncomfortable with haggling might want to try a buying service. Once that shiny new car has graced your garage, take care of your investment. Keep it clean and follow the manufacturer's maintenance plan.

Doing this is very simple and, let me stress this, cheaper in the long run than trying save a buck. Sure you can go above and beyond by changing the engine oil every 3,000 miles or using synthetic oils like Mobile 1 but it's not really necessary unless required by the manufacturer. By simply looking in the owner's manual and following the recommended schedule your investment is better protected. Some vehicles have oil change intervals of 10,000 these days, 5,000 is typical. Make sure you know what yours requires. Also know that some brands such as BMW and Volkswagen pay for all scheduled maintenance for a number of years.

Follow these tips and you may end up in my situation. I bought new almost 20 years ago, and my personal car is still in great shape. The scheduled maintenance has been done so I've avoided crippling breakdowns due to broken timing belts and seizing transmissions. And since it's a car I really enjoy I have no plans to sell it. No car payments for the past 16 years and none for the foreseeable future.

In the end, long term value is what you're after. It's best for your bank account, the environment and your personal satisfaction as you head on down the road. Best of luck out there!

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