It's easy to go on looks alone, of course, but down that road lies trouble (very much like picking a spouse on the basis of looks alone).
Or you can focus on the price of your new car, but if you do that to the exclusion of other considerations, such as comfort, safety or reliability, it's not likely you'll be happy with your "bargain."
So where to begin?
To make sure you buy a new car that fits your needs, start by answering these 10 questions:
1. Do I prefer a domestic or an import brand? Does it matter?
2. Do I need (or just want) a large new car, a medium-sized new car -- or a small one?
3. Do I need (or just want) a vehicle with rear-wheel drive, front-wheel drive or some sort of all-wheel-drive/4x4 system?
4. Do I prefer a soft ride, a firm, "sporty" ride -- or something in-between?
5. How important is power/performance? Do I need (or just want) a new car that can do 150 mph?
6. Do I need (or just want) a vehicle that can carry cargo? How much?
7. What kind of gas mileage is acceptable -- and what's not? Is my personal "tipping point" at least 28 mpg -- or is 16 mpg OK if the car otherwise meets my needs?
9. What level of warranty coverage meets my expectations? Is three years/36,000 miles enough? Or is the minimum five years/50,000 miles?
10. Is resale/trade-in value a big consideration? Some brands hold their value much better than others.
Your answers to the above will automatically exclude a number of makes/models, narrowing your pool of possible candidates considerably. Now the biggest question:
11. How much do you want to spend?
Never, ever plan to buy a new car without thoroughly figuring out beforehand the maximum amount of money you're comfortable spending -- and stick to it. This will keep you on budget and help you dodge the "low monthly payment" shuck and jive that often gets unsuspecting new car buyers in way over their heads. Be sure to include everything in the bottom line, too. That means finance charges, interest, taxes, insurance, everything you will need to spend to own and drive the car.
Having settled on a figure you can further narrow down the potential new cars on your list to a manageable half dozen or so.
Now it's time to actually go look at each vehicle left on your list. Sit in it, see how the controls feel and, ideally, take each out for an extended test drive. It is strongly recommended that you insist on a test drive of at least an hour or two before you even begin to talk about buying a new car. Otherwise, you're buying a pig in a poke that could turn out to have seats that are too hard, an engine that's too noisy, a transmission that's hard for you to shift smoothly, blind spots that make changing lanes hazardous -- any number of things you can't discover without actually trying the new car out.
Bring a notepad with you and jot down the things you like about the vehicle -- and those you don't -- for future reference.
Most dealers will accommodate a buyer's request for a test drive. It's a reasonable request given you are considering a purchase that could amount to tens of thousands of dollars. If the dealer refuses to allow a test drive, it's smart to just pencil that vehicle off your list and move on to the next candidate. And be sure to take the test drive without a salesman riding with you.
Once you've test driven all the candidates, you'll have a much better idea which of them might be "right" new car for you. Usually, you'll be able to narrow down the choice to just one or two specific models that has the right combination of features/equipment, style and "feel" that works for you.
The rest is easy.
Having settled on one or two "possibles," you can get down to the nitty gritty of researching new car prices (remember to haggle up from dealer invoice, not down from MSRP "window sticker") and negotiating the best deal when you buy a new car. One make/model may be the focus of a very compelling rebate/incentive/financing deal. Or perhaps you can get more options/features in one new car model for about the same price as the other. Or maybe you just happen to like the way one of them looks a little bit more than the other (all else being more or less equal).
But whichever make/model you end up driving home, you're bound to buy a new car that's right for you.
And that's the very definition of successful new car shopping, whether you're spending $15,000 or $50,000.