I bought my first car ever, last year. I did a lot of reading, research, and talked to people with experience in automobile ownership. Here, I condense my thoughts about buying a (first) car and present it for the first time buyers. Most tips are applicable globally, however some of the tips and links I provide are suitable for buyers in Finland.
1. Do you need a car ?
We start here, because this is a very crucial step. Cars are a depreciating asset, and can be gruesome money pits if you make a bad decision. Buy a car if and only if you need the car. I’m not here to counsel, so I won’t bore you more. Let’s dive right into our topic.
2. New vs Pre-owned:
Buying a shiny new car (P.S. pre-owned cars can be just as shiny after a polish) from a dealership with a big ribbon on it is a feeling a lot of people crave, this is very predominant in societies where cars are projected as status-symbols, but for a moment consider this chart:
- New cars depreciate rapidly (red curve), some makes, losing up to 40% of their value in the first 2-3 years.
- Cost of maintenance (blue curve) for cars rises over time, as for the first few years the car is under warranty (generally, 3 years in the EU, but KIA offers an impressive 7-year warranty).
My (and a lot of people’s) recommendation is to buy a 3-5 year old car. Basically, by this time the previous owners have borne the brunt of rapid initial depreciation, and the maintenance costs aren’t astronomically high; aka the sweet spot. Remember, the likelihood of a big maintenance/repair is low, but it is not zero. Remember, cars are machines, and they break.
Additionally, you’re choosing the greener alternative and by not falling victim to the century old Game called “planned obsolescence”, which was invented by the CEO of General Motors to outsell Ford.
3. Condition of the car:
There are several factors that determine the overall “health and fitness” of a car, but the ones you can easily screen / find out and hence filter out the cars you need to stay away from are:
- Mileage: Indicator of wear & tear on the entire car, engine, axles, brakes, tires, even the upholstery.
- If budget allows, filter out cars with > 100,000 km and go for the lowest reasonable mileage (see next point) you can find from.
- Don’t be tempted to buy a 4-year-old car with 4,000 km on the dash. That car is bound to have some structural issues like rust, and major repairs are in store for the new owner. Just like physical mobility is important for us humans, Cars need to be driven to stay fit as well. A reasonably driven car would be driven 20,000 - 30,000 km / year. On the other end of the spectrum, you should also stay away from cars with > 45,000 km / year. These have been under heavy usage, and might even be rentals.
- How was the car driven? : This bit of information can be difficult to “Google”, but I found being nonchalant with the seller is the easiest way. This matters because two cars clocking 80,000 km aren’t the same if one spent the majority of the time on the highway, and the other spent it downtown. Highway driving is “mellow” on the engine. Of course, the tires are worn out, but they’re cheaper to replace than fixing or deep-cleaning an engine.
- Previous owner(s) : Relates to the point above, this tells you was the car (possibly) driven and cared for. e.g., Company cars are good for this as they get undergo maintenance on time.
4. Fuel - Engine:
This is arguably the most important aspect of your car, despite being away from your line-of-sight under the hood [or in the case of EVs, under your seat]. Let’s think about it:
Choice of Fuel
The average consumer in the 2020s has more choices than ever before: Petrol, Diesel, Natural Gas, Electricity and even Hydrogen! In what I have seen, availability of natural gas isn’t as widespread in Finland to make it “mainstream”, and electricity prices vary by supplier and their myriad of offers; therefore in this section we’re going to talk about the differences between Diesel and Petrol, as Electric cars are in a league of their own.
Here, I’ll elaborate on this issue with Finland as the geographic background, please feel free to ponder about these points in the context of your geographic location and make the best decision for yourself. A lot of these points would vary based on your Country/region of residence, accessibility to refueling/recharging, the fuel prices & surcharges, vehicle & road taxation laws, to enumerate a few.
Cost / liter: Diesel is slightly cheaper than Petrol, at the time of writing this post in Finland the price difference is in the range € 0.15 / l to € 0.20 / l. This might seem tempting, but you have to factor in the amount of driving you’ll do for the difference to make sense (i.e. be profitable after accounting for taxes etc.).
Taxation: In Finland, Diesel vehicles are subjected to heavy taxation. This table shows the added tax on a car (in reference to Petrol-fueled vehicles). This calculator gives you a very good estimate of taxes.
Fuel Added tax (cents/day/100 kg weight) Diesel 5.5 Electric 1.5 Natural Gas 3.1 Petrol-Hybrid (plug-in) 0.5 Diesel-Hybrid (plug-in) 4.9
Source for table.
Choice of Engine:
Diesel Engines are “special”:
- Diesel engines & cars are more expensive to build than their petrol counterparts.
- Diesel cars drive “differently” than the petrol counterparts:
- Compared to petrol engines, diesel engines don’t rev as high, generally red-lining at 5000 rpm.
- Diesel cars lack the oomph necessary for the “sports car” feel. Which is evident by the fact of the limited number of sports cars that run on diesel.
- Diesel engines produce higher torque at low revs.
- A combination of the above factors mean that the engine doesn’t have to rev as hard to deliver the power to the wheels when you want to, for instance, overtake vehicles on a highway. Diesel might not even require a gear change, just slam the gas pedal and watch it go. On the other hand, a petrol has to downshift a gear or even two to overtake.
- Due to the above factors, diesel cars can feel “unusual” for people who have been used to driving petrol vehicles. But an automatic transmission makes it easier to transition.
- You might have heard the phrase, “sounds like a diesel engine”, well it’s true. Diesel engines like to let others know they’re around. But this is not an issue with modern well-engineered cars, e.g., some of Audi’s diesel engines are so refined that, from inside the cabin, they can totally pass for a petrol engine.
- Diesel cars have better economy than petrol counterparts, especially in cruising on the highway.
- Diesel produces lower CO2 than petrol, but, it produces a lot of particulate pollution.
- To deal with this, in some Diesel cars you need to add AdBlue or Diesel Exhaust Fluid to reduce the amount of air pollution.
- Most modern Diesel cars are fitted with a Diesel Particulate Filter to cut down the particulate emissions. Several cars have “self-cleaning” programs, but for the program to kick in, the car needs to be taken on a drive in clean air and cruising at constant highway-like speeds.
Front-wheel drive vs 4-wheel drive vs Rear-wheel drive:
One other thing comes to mind regarding the “Drive system”.
So cars are either:
- Front-wheel drive (FWD) [etuveto] [most common in mass-appeal cars],
- Rear-wheel drive (RWD) [takaveto] [common in BMWs], or
- All-wheel drive (AWD) [neliveto] [common in high performance cars].
The difference is that, for these 3 types of cars, the engine sends all the power to either the front wheels or Rear wheels or to all 4 wheels respectively (with set ratios like 60:40 or ratio ranges 20:80 to 80:20).
For Finnish road conditions + Cost of purchasing them, I’d rank them as: FWD > AWD > RWD.
My 2 cents: Just buy a FWD and put some winter tires in November, and you’re all set. If possible, try to get a car with Electronic Stability Control (ESC) [Ajonvakautusjärjestelmä]. I’ve seen it REALLY help me when on slopes with piled on loose snow and slush. Of course, if you would drive every day in heavy snow/rain, then AWD cars are the gold-standard. But remember, they consume more fuel (Fossil / Electricity).
I’d advise to stay away from buying a RWD with a front-mounted engine. This past winter, I saw a few BMWs stuck in the snow with their rear tires spinning out and failing to get a grip. RWD with front engines are useless in the Finnish winter because of simple Physics. There is no “weight” on the rear axle (when the trunk is empty) when you need the grip. I know, some people (from across the world) load the trunk of their vehicle with sand bags to put weight over the axle (rear) where the engine is sending its power. FWD cars with front engine have the massive engine and everything under the hood applying a constant downforce on the front axle which keeps the wheel’s grip and maintain traction. This is also one of the reasons why I personally think BMW made the historic decision to stop manufacturing RWD cars for their new range of Series 1,2, and 3.
Do you really need a V8 ?? (Performance):
Car dealerships might want to sell you a car with an engine with a higher displacement (measures in units of volume, e.g. a 1.6 L vs 2.0 L engine) or one with more cylinders (4-cylinder vs 6-cyl). My advice is: Don’t get lost in the numbers.
Once you reach a good power output (measured in kilowatt or horsepower), for a normal driving (city + a bit of highway cruising), you are in a very good position with anything having ≈100 hp. Heck, you have seen plenty of Ford Fiesta’s on the road, and did you know a lot of them run on 80 HP. The higher power you pay for, the more “fun” & “sporty” the car is going to feel; this power can not only be felt on the highway but even while pulling away from a traffic light (remember to drive safely and follow speed limits). Indulge in this if you want to, but only after asking yourself: “Do I/we really NEED that extra performance?”. Especially, considering the fact that engines with higher displacement also have a higher fuel consumption. Plus, as a bonus they also weigh heavier therefore have higher taxes. This is why I called them “gruesome money pits” earlier.
Going Hybrid vs Full-Electric: