What car should I buy?

Shopping for a new car but baffled by which fuel type, gearbox or body style to go for? Read on to work out which car best suits your needs

Simon Ostler
May 27, 2021

In the market for a used car and wondering where on earth you should start? It's safe to say there's no shortage of variety when it comes to the amount of options on offer. We're here to help you wade through the masses of used cars to pinpoint the perfect one for you.

When shopping for a car you're going to be bombarded by questions like: how many doors would you like? Or, which engine type do you want? You could have a petrol, diesel or plug-in hybrid to name a few. What shape of car do you want? A city car, a hatchback, or an SUV coupe? You'll also have to decide on details including whether you want power sent to the front wheels, the rear wheels or all four… We're here to help you answer all of these questions, and more.

The good thing about all this choice is that it's pretty likely you'll be able to find a car that is perfectly suited to your needs. No matter how individual those needs might be, there's almost certainly a car that will be tailored to them.

We're going to help you narrow down your choices by presenting a selection of search options on our BuyaCar search page. These help you to navigate the huge selection of cars available and encourage you to think hard about what kind of car you’re looking for - to make sure that the car that gets delivered to your door is just right for your needs.

Before you head off on your car-buying adventure then, it’s worth working out what kind of car you need as well as how much money you want to spend. You might surprise yourself with just how much car you could get for your budget - whether you’re looking for the lowest monthly payments possible or you're ready to splash some cash.

Read on for help to find exactly the right car for your needs and also check our guide on how much you should spend on it.

Car body type: spacious 4x4s or cheap city cars?

There are millions of cars on the road but they tend to conform to eight main types, with the most popular being hatchbacks and, increasingly, SUVs/crossovers. This second category includes everything from high-riding hatchbacks designed for sauntering around town in comfort to tough off-roaders capable of scaling Ben Nevis in the morning and cruising down the motorway in the afternoon.

Body types include bulky SUVs and crossovers, compact and affordable city cars, pactical hatchbacks and estates, and MPVs - also known as people carriers, which can sometimes be based on vans and offer up to eight or nine seats.

MPVs may offer only five seats across two rows but often have six, seven, eight or even nine seats spread across three rows and may feature sliding rear doors for easy access. These typically focus on providing the greatest possible practicality over style, with plenty of storage cubby holes scattered across the cabin.

Other options consist of convertibles, which offer folding roofs (sometimes metal, sometimes fabric), coupes, which are sleek two-door cars with a smoother roofline than an ordinary saloon or hatchback, and an increasing number of sporty-looking four-door saloons and streamlined five-door hatchbacks are now branded as coupes under a variety of alternative monikers such as 'sportback' or 'gran coupe' depending on who builds it.

Saloons feature a fixed rear windscreen - unlike hatchbacks - and only the metal rises when you open the boot, leaving a smaller gap for loading luggage. This means, if you want the greatest boot space or to be able to cram in huge items, a hatchback or an estate would be a wiser choice, though an increasing number of saloons are available with folding rear seats, so you can load long but relatively low items into the boot when you drop the rear seats.

Saloons are a good choice if you like sophistication with a degree of usefulness, as the fixed rear windscreen and greater separation between the cabin and the boot than in a hatchback should reduce the amount of road noise when driving.

To differentiate the body types, an Audi A4 Saloon is an example of a saloon available with folding rear seats. It is also on sale as the A4 Avant (Audi's name for an estate) and is closely related to the A5 Cabriolet (another name for convertible) and A5 Coupe. The five-door A5 Sportback, meanwhile, which has a large opening for the boot, as the glass and metal rise up, may technically be a hatchback, but is often described as coupe, thanks to its sleek silhouette. On the other hand, the Audi Q5 is an example of a 4x4, with the A3 being a standard hatchback.

Audi doesn’t offer an MPV or a city car, but MPV examples can be seen in the Ford Galaxy - which offers space for seven adults - the smaller but still seven-seat Ford Grand C-Max, with space for five adults plus two children in the rearmost row and the smaller still five-seat Ford C-Max. A typical city car, meanwhile, is the Hyundai i10 - a small, cheap-to-buy and cheap-to-run hatchback.

When deciding which of these body types best suits you, it’s worth considering your needs. For example, do you need to fit a large family in the back? Or do you occasionally carry big loads or tow a caravan? Or do you never carry anything more bulky than a rucksack and a bottle of water and have a tiny driveway that you want your car to fit onto?

It’s all very well making sure a car suits your needs, but it should address your wants, too, with image and looks being important for many drivers. SUVs, for instance, are popular because they look tough and raise you above other road users. However, they’re more expensive to run than smaller, lighter cars - primarily due to increased fuel bills - and often not as much fun to drive.

Consequently, it’s worth balancing what you want and what you need before narrowing down which car to go for.

Doors: do you need rear doors or a hatchback?

How many doors a car has might not seem that important, but is a key factor in whether it will keep you happy over the years to come. If you regularly have three passengers in the rear seats, constantly having to jump in and out of the driver’s seat to let them in and out - in a two-door coupe or convertible or a three-door hatchback - could quickly become a pain.

With four passenger doors and the boot hatch being counted as the fifth ‘door’, five-door hatchbacks such as a Ford Focus, or a 4x4/crossover - which is like a high-riding hatchback - such as a Volkswagen Tiguan, are some of the most practical cars you can buy for their size.

In fact, five-door hatchbacks are so versatile and popular that fewer and fewer new hatchbacks are offered with only three doors. Just think about trying to put a child seat into the back of one - awkwardly clambering in and out could prove a real frustration.

Sliding doors are even more useful, although only available on a small number of cars. One of the best examples is the Ford B-Max, a small, five-door people carrier. There’s no centre door post between the front and rear doors either, so you can slide the rear door back and open the front door and hey presto, you have a totally clear space to load child seats - and children - in and out.

Four-door cars, meanwhile, are known as saloons and typically have four passengers doors and a boot but, unlike a hatchback, when opening the boot, only the metal rises - the windscreen stays put.

If you regularly carry rear passengers or want maximum practicality for carrying other people, picking a four- or five-door car with rear doors is a wise choice. Meanwhile, if you often fill the boot up with large loads, going for a three- or five-door car with a hatchback should make life easier. Two-door cars, on the other hand, are best suited to those who don’t often carry many passengers or don’t mind jumping in and out of the driver’s seat to give rear passengers access.

Seats: sporty two-seaters or huge nine-seaters?

It may sound obvious, but seats matter. Especially as not all cars with two rows of seats offer space for five - a number only have seatbelts for four - while cars with three rows of seats can offer six, seven, eight or even nine chairs.

While we often think of the most important seat – our own – it’s worth thinking about how many people you’re likely to want to carry and whether there’s enough space in those seats for those people. If you play rugby for a local team and want to cart around four teammates to matches with you, is a three-door city car really going to cut it?

It’s not even just sporty or small cars that may only have two rear seats. You may be surprised to know that not all hatchbacks have three rear seats. Some have only two - especially three-door models. If you have three children to accommodate, therefore, buying a hatchback with two rear seats could be a serious problem.

To help ensure the car you choose has enough seats, BuyaCar breaks down cars by their number of seats. This means that if you’re after an affordable five-seat hatchback, you’ll know that the Dacia Sandero has three rear seats and a total of five, while - as its name implies - the Smart ForFour has only four.

Gearbox: manual or automatic?

Traditionally, new drivers would try to pass their test in a manual car, so they were qualified to drive manual and automatic models. However, with more and more driving schools using hybrid or electric models - which are nearly all automatics - many drivers who’ve passed their test more recently may only be legally allowed to drive an automatic.

Meanwhile, others may prefer to be in full control of the gears with a manual gearbox and don’t feel comfortable with the car choosing which gear to use for them. Since you can’t just swap an automatic gearbox for a manual or vice versa, it’s very important to know which type of gearbox you want and be sure whether any cars you’re considering are manual or automatic.

This is doubly important as several of the most high-tech gearboxes are sometimes described as manuals, due to their mechanical setup, though there are only two pedals and the car changes gear for you - which nearly all drivers would class as an automatic. If in doubt, it’s worth double checking whether the specific car you're considering is a manual or an automatic.

Automatics have their fans, too, due to the ease and simplicity of driving and for those who have passed only an automatic driving test, it’s the only option. Modern automatic gearboxes are also far slicker than previous versions: systems like ‘dual-clutch’ automatic models, such as cars with Volkswagen ‘DSG’ gearboxes can be more efficient than manuals, and accelerate quicker, too. Drivers of luxury cars will typically prefer an automatic for a smoother and unflustered experience behind the wheel.

Paired with steering wheel-mounted controls called ‘paddles’ that allow you to select the gears yourself with the flick of a finger, they can be satisfying to drive, providing a greater sense of control than traditional automatic gearboxes. However, these models tend to be typically more expensive. An example of a great medium-size car with an automatic gearbox is the VW Golf 1.4 TSI 125 Match DSG.

Fuel type: petrol, diesel, electric or hybrid?

The type of fuel used is another vital consideration when choosing a car. Not so long ago the choice was simply between petrol and diesel. Petrol models were cheaper to buy, more engaging to drive and quieter, while diesels used less fuel. That isn’t always the case now, though, with ever more economical petrol engines on offer and diesel engines becoming increasingly refined.

The 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engines available in the Ford Fiesta and Ford Focus, for instance, can prove very economical when driven gently, while the 2.0-litre diesel engine available in the VW Golf is smoother and quieter than many petrol engines.

As many modern diesels are cleaner, just as smooth and refined as many petrol models while being economical and powerful, they’re popular in upmarket cars including the BMW 3 Series (320d) and Mercedes S-Class (S400d). They’re also an advantage in big, heavy SUVs, as diesel engines offer plenty of muscle at low engine speeds - invaluable in weighty cars that require a lot of punch to get moving.

Used diesel cars registered before 1 April 2017 typically come with lower road tax than petrol equivalents, thanks to their lower CO2 emissions. However, newer diesel models that don't satisfy the latest emissions regulations attract higher first-year road tax costs than petrol models that emit the same amount of CO2.

Hybrids, which combine traditional petrol or diesel engines with electric motors, are a growing category. Conventional hybrids such as the Lexus IS300h, draw power from the engine, while the motor can boost performance and economy while lowering CO2 emissions. These can be expensive to buy but offer improved fuel economy around town, though they’re not as suited to long motorway trips.

Plug-in hybrids or PHEVs such as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV go one step further by offering some degree of pure electric running (typically up to 30 miles) due to larger battery packs - provided you recharge them regularly. Unlike conventional hybrids, you can top up the batteries by simply plugging them into the mains. Fail to do so, however, and plug-in hybrids can be expensive to buy and uneconomical to drive, as you're lugging around heavy batteries and an electric motor, but with little electric assistance if you don't charge every 50 miles or so, as they typically only offer around 30 miles real-world range at most.

As with ordinary hybrids, plug-in models make the most sense for those who predominantly drive around town, where the battery charge can last longer due to the lower speeds and some additional charge is added back to the batteries when braking. If you only cover short distances, however, electric cars make more sense, as you don't have to worry about running out of charge and if you do cover long distances then you'll get little economy benefit from a plug-in hybrid and a cheaper petrol or diesel model would make more sense.

Plug-in hybrid models that meet the ‘Euro 6’ emissions standard, emit no more than 75g/km of CO2 and can travel more than 20 miles emissions-free are exempt from the London Congestion Charge, too. That could be valuable to you if you drive frequently in London, though from 25 October 2021 only fully electric cars will be exempt.

Finally, there are pure electric cars such as the Renault Zoe that are fully powered by electric motors, which are kept running thanks to larger battery packs. All current electric cars are free to tax and comply with low-emissions zones - since they don’t directly emit anything (though emissions are typically generated in sourcing the energy required to charge them).

Early electric cars were only capable of travelling short distances between lengthy charges, however newer models such as the Kia e-Niro 64kWh can travel for up 230 miles in the real world on a single charge. However, finding compatible charging stations that are in working order and available can be a problem.

This is where Tesla’s excellent Supercharger network - only available for Tesla drivers - has an advantage. This network currently stretches across most of Europe, the USA and China and offers the very real prospect of letting you drive from the north of Norway to the south of Spain using only Tesla chargers with no worries about compatability.

Engine size

The size of a car’s engine is a fairly reliable guide to its power. At least it was until car makers began producing smaller engines with economy- and power-boosting turbochargers that help to get more power from small engines. Examples include VW Golf 1.4-litre TSI petrol models and Ford 1.0-litre 125hp EcoBoost models. These engines feel like reasonably powerful 1.8-litre or even 2.0-litre engines from just 10 years back.

You’ll still see some cars such as the Nissan Juke offered with a 1.6-litre petrol and a smaller 1.2-litre engine. The former is a conventional engine but the 1.2 is turbocharged and called the 1.2 DIG-T. It’s more expensive but more efficient and better to drive, offering more power at lower engine speeds, which makes it feel like the more muscular motor.

So don't necessarily be guided by engine size when choosing which car suits you. Whether you plan to tear around at speed, or just want to cruise around effortlessly in high gears, the best turbocharged engines are far better than many larger non-turbocharged engines - even if the power outputs may be similar.

Due to this trend, Audi has moved away from quoting engine sizes with its new cars and instead refers to its engines by a number that reflects their power. All that said, while a family car can cope being powered by a small turbocharged engine, if you’re after the effortless performance normally offered by luxury cars, it’s best avoiding the smallest engines in bigger cars, though medium-sized turbocharged engines often offer the same kind of power as the largest equivalent engines from a decade back.

Drive type: front, rear or four-wheel drive?

Not to be confused with the engine or the gearbox, the drive type reflects which wheels transfer the engine’s power to the road; the front wheels, the rear wheels or all four.

A majority of cars - especially smaller models - feature front-wheel drive. This frees up more interior space and provides a more predictable, secure feeling when driving on wet or slippery roads.

On the other hand, many BMWs (particularly older models) and sporty cars are rear-wheel drive to sharpen their cornering responses. This also means that no matter how hard you accelerate, the steering wheel never tugs left or right should the wheels spin, as can happen in front-wheel drive cars. However, rear-wheel drive cars can be tricky to control on slippery surfaces such as snow; you can fit winter tyres to offer more grip on cold, icy and snowy roads.

Meanwhile, four-wheel drive systems, where all four wheels transfer the engine’s power to the road, can be permanent or part-time systems. Permanent four-wheel drive sends power to all the wheels, all the time. Part-time systems, however, under most conditions, send most of the power to either the front or rear pair of wheels to maximise fuel economy. However, if the system detects any of the wheels spinning, more power is directed to the wheels - front or rear - with most grip.

Audi’s quattro and BMW’s xDrive systems are examples of this type of intelligent four-wheel drive system. They provide optimum grip in slippery conditions but unlike full-time or permanent four-wheel drive systems are less of a drain on the engine during normal driving and so are more economical.

Typically, front wheel-drive cars offer the best compromise between secure handling, good grip in all conditions and strong fuel economy, and so are the most popular. As a result, they’re the cheapest, too. Meanwhile, an increasing number of performance cars are moving to four-wheel drive - as new cars produce more and more power - to reduce the amount of wheelspin experienced when accelerating hard.

MPG: how much fuel a car uses

We’re talking about fuel economy here; a topic close to most car buyers’ hearts. The higher the fuel economy, the further you’ll travel on each gallon of fuel. It’s worth remembering, though, that until recently, claimed MPG figures have been wildly inaccurate.

The chief problem was that the official figures were achieved in labs rather than on the road; this ignored the impact traffic, hills, hard acceleration and other real-world factors can have on how much fuel your car uses. As a result, you can expect most cars to consume far more fuel than the official figures. That’s been addressed by a new test procedure called 'WLTP' that was phased in from 2018 onwards. Most new cars from this point onwards should have a new, more accurate figure.

This means there are millions of used cars out there with old, less accurate official economy figures, however. While the figures are often inaccurate, they are still a useful way of gauging which cars are more economical than others. You can expect a diesel car with a 60mpg economy figure to be noticeably more economical than a 40mpg petrol car.

Similarly, different drivers could get 60mpg and 40mpg from the same car, depending upon how they drive; driving style has a huge part to play in a car’s economy. Accelerating relatively gently and changing up a gear sooner rather than later can help to reduce fuel consumption, while blasting along the motorway at 90mph is far less economical than sticking to the legal 70mph limit.

CO2 emissions: cheaper road tax for older low-emission models

Not so long ago, we never gave our car’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions a second thought, but now they’re a key component in a car’s running costs, affecting how much road tax and, if you run a company car, how much benefit-in-kind tax you pay.

If you’re a ordinary driver, though, road tax is where you’ll feel the effect of your car’s emissions. Many cars registered before 1 April 2017 were treated more leniently than they are now. For example, one example is the VW Golf 1.4 TSI Match, which would cost £30 per year for a pre-April 2017 model, while one registered after that date would cost £145.

That’s quite a difference but it’s first-year road tax on these newer cars that really hurts, with the worst CO2 offenders costing £2,135 when new. Meanwhile, cars costing over £40,000 - including options - that were registered after April 2017 have a £335-per-year surcharge added on top for five years from the second to the sixth year's road tax. This is regardless of their emissions.

Altogether, it’s a big incentive to buy a low-emission car registered before April 2017. However, remember that diesel cars emit less CO2 and so are cheaper to tax than petrols, as are hybrids, while electric cars have no tailpipe emissions, so pre-2017 models are free to tax. Generally speaking, economy and CO2 emissions are quite closely linked, with an economical car emitting less CO2.

Insurance group: a higher group costs more

Car insurance is a complex and at times contradictory topic. Contradictory because while you might choose a car such as a Skoda Citigo in a low insurance group (they run from 1 to 50), your age, profession, where you live and driving record will influence how much premium you pay - meaning that a car in a low insurance group could still cost you more to insure than a high insurance group car, with a lower risk driver in a lower risk area.

Still, all being equal, a car in a low insurance group should mean cheaper insurance. So pay close attention to this if you’re after the lowest bills - especially if you’re a young driver or haven’t been driving for many years, as the savings for you could be greater than for a lower risk driver.

Don’t assume that larger, more expensive cars always cost more to insure. You’ll find that some cars you might think would be more expensive to insure, are in fact cheaper. Additional safety kit or cheaper repair bills for the bigger, pricier car could both help to make it cheaper to insure than you expect.


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