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Car Handbook

Hit the Books Before the Accelerator

Countless car-buying guides describe makes and models, covering everything from cylinders to seat comfort. How much do you really need to know about cars before you buy one? You don’t have to be a car genius to buy a car you’ll be happy with. Just do some soul-searching and some simple research first.

Consider Your Needs and Wants

When you start the car selection process, simply knowing that you “kind of like little wagons” or want something with “some zip” is fine. But also ask yourself, “What will I use the car for?” and, “What are my priorities?” A small wagon might be a reliable family car, whereas a two-seat sports car might be the ticket for weekend cruising. Use our Car Buyer's Checklist to review your options.

Resale Considerations: Tips for Better Resale Value
Don’t Hurry Love

The best way to avoid problems after you buy a car is to know what you need before you buy it—and not get swept away by love. Here’s what happened to a poor fellow who fell for a car and made a commitment too soon.

he man was enamored with a little foreign sports car offering a fast ride and some sex appeal. He put down his money and made a long-term financial promise. This man lived in the North Woods—100 miles from the nearest foreign car dealer. He had failed to realize that every time his fast and temperamental import broke down, he’d have to have it towed 100 miles!

Frustrated and fed up, he wanted to return the car, but it was too late. He’d signed the contract to purchase the car and had to live up to his agreement, for better or worse.

Go into car-buying with your eyes open. Before you buy a car, know what car you want. Know its value. Know if you can afford it. Don’t let love turn your head and empty your wallet.

Ask Around

Whether they’re highly knowledgeable about cars or not, car owners can tell you about the experiences they’ve had with their cars. Quiz them to find out what they like and don’t like about their cars. Listen to their recommendations, but keep in mind that their reasons for liking a car may differ from yours.

Visit the Library

Comparison shop by learning how “the experts” rate cars. “Consumers Digest” and “Consumer Reports” publish annual reports comparing models.

Go Online

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention using the Internet for research. You may be able to access a website full of information on the vehicle you’re considering. If you don’t have Internet access, your local library may offer free Internet access on its computers.

Use your resources to narrow your choices down to three or four models. Different manufacturers design cars that are very similar, so learn which cars or trucks are basically the same. Guides often categorize cars in classes so you can easily comparison shop.

Compare Costs

If you’re like most car buyers, you’ll get a loan to pay off a car, so you should determine what you can spare each month. To figure your car costs, remember that the listed car price is only one slice of the financial pie—and it’s usually negotiable. Insurance, depreciation, license fees, gas, and maintenance make up a major part of the cost, but buyers seldom consider them up front. Adding up all these pieces will tell you what you’ll really spend monthly and annually over the life of the car.

Make a Safe Choice

Manufacturers have discovered that a majority of consumers put safety first. Therefore, manufacturers are putting considerable effort into designing cars that can minimize injuries in an accident.

Every year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issues reports comparing the occupant protection levels of approximately 90 automobiles. The test simulates the impact of two cars meeting head-on at 35 miles per hour. Crash-test dummies in the cars show the injuries people would have received if they’d been in the accident. To get the latest crash test results, call NHTSA’s Vehicle Safety Hotline, (888) 327-4236 or TTY: (800) 424-9153. If you prefer, check out its website at www.nhtsa.gov.external link icon

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also has a website (www.iihs.orgexternal link icon) which contains a lot of information on crash test and survivability ratings.

Safety Equipment

For optimal safety, cars should not only hold up well in a crash, but should also include safety equipment. Consider ordering the following for your car if the following aren’t already standard equipment:

Advanced Frontal Air Bags: Advanced frontal air bags are designed to meet the needs of the occupant in a variety of specific crash situations. Depending on design, advanced frontal air bag systems automatically determine if and with what level of power the driver and passenger frontal air bags will inflate. The appropriate level of power is based upon sensor inputs that can typically detect occupant size, seat position, seat belt use of the occupant, and crash severity.

Side-Impact Air Bags (SABs): Side-impact air bags are inflatable devices that are designed to help protect your head and/or chest in the event of a serious crash involving the side of your vehicle. There are three main types of SABs: chest (or torso) SABs, head SABs, and head/chest combination SABs.

SABs inflate in a fraction of a second and are designed to help keep your head and/or chest from being hit by hard objects both inside and outside your vehicle in serious side-impact crashes. Sensors determine whether a crash is severe enough to inflate the SABs. Unlike frontal air bags, some of the side curtain air bags may stay inflated for several seconds during a crash for additional protection in the event of a rollover.

Safety Belts in Front and Back Seats: While some people believe it’s better to be thrown free from the car in an accident and therefore don’t wear their safety belts, the chances of being killed are 25 times greater if you’re ejected from the car. About 60 percent of the deaths and injuries in car crashes could have been avoided if the occupants had been wearing safety belts. Further, many states require the use of safety belts. So buckle up!

Anti-Lock Brake Systems (ABS): Anti-lock brakes automatically pump the brakes for you when you slam your foot on them in an emergency. They may help you avoid an accident by slowing or stopping your skid while you try to turn. The downside is that if you try to pump the brakes and end up taking your foot off the brake pedal, the anti-lock feature won’t work as it’s designed to. You must constantly hold your foot on the brake. Learn to use anti-lock brakes properly if your car has them.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC): ESC systems use automatic computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to assist the driver in maintaining control in critical driving situations, such as when a driver tries to turn very hard (swerve) or to turn on a slippery road. ESC systems prevent the vehicle from understeering or oversteering.

What Should I Know About Air Bag Safety?

There are millions of cars on the road with air bags, and frontal air bags have saved 36,976 lives between 1987 and 2012. Air bags, combined with lap/shoulder safety belts, offer the most effective safety protection available today for passenger vehicle occupants. So what’s the problem?

An air bag activates at a force of up to 200 miles per hour, posing a risk to children and small adults. NHTSA estimates that since 1990, over 290 fatalities have been attributable to frontal air bag inflation. NHTSA reports that by 2008, however, air-bag related fatalities declined to almost zero following technological advances and regulatory changes.

In 1997, NHTSA allowed manufacturers the option to reduce the inflation power, or aggressiveness, of first generation air bags to lessen the likelihood of an air bag-related injury. These less powerful air bags are known as “depowered” air bags and have been in most vehicles since 1997. “Advanced frontal” air bag systems are a next-generation air bag system designed to be even more effective than depowered air bags in saving lives, while at the same time minimizing the likelihood of an air bag-related serious injury or death. Depending on design, advanced frontal air bag systems automatically determine if and with what level of power the driver and passenger frontal air bags will inflate. Vehicle manufacturers are also required to provide detailed information in the owner’s manual about the features of the advanced frontal air bag system and how it operates.

Child Safety Seats

Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death or serious injury for children, yet nearly 80 percent of children who die in vehicle crashes could have been saved by proper use of child safety seats or safety belts.

In Minnesota, children ages 8 years and under or shorter than 4 feet 9 inches must ride in federally approved safety seats, as identified on the seat. Infants under 20 pounds must ride in rear-facing safety seats, which must be secured with a seat belt, assuming that the car was originally equipped with seat belts. The fine for failing to properly restrain children is $50.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that all children ride in a booster seat until they are between 8-12 years of age and at least 4 feet 9 inches tall.

When purchasing a child safety seat consider the following:

Additional information including a list of inspection clinics, distribution programs, and child safety seat specialists in Minnesota can be found at www.buckleupkids.state.mn.us.external link icon

Research Recalls

To find out if a car model has ever been recalled due to a defect, call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Vehicle Safety Hotline, (888) 327-4236, or visit its website: www.nhtsa.gov.external link icon The NHTSA can send you information about any recalls or Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs). Information may also be available by going to the manufacturer’s website and typing in your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

Technical Service Bulletins are bulletins issued by the manufacturer to help automotive technicians diagnose and repair problems reported by consumers and dealership service departments. The problem is not always mechanical; it may range from diagnostic and repair procedures for a known vehicle problem to warranty and service manual updates. TSBs give both the dealership and car owners information into what issues might arise with certain models. TSBs are not compulsory repair notices so the dealer and car maker are not under any obligation to make the repairs or even notify the vehicle owners.

The Bottom Line:

For more information, contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at 888-327-4236 (TTY: 800-424-9153) or visit its website at www.nhtsa.gov.external link icon