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Get All the Facts

­Before visiting a dealership at all, gather as much additional information as you possibly can on the vehicles in your price range. Automakers' brochures and Internet sites can offer other pertinent details, such as exterior color and interior-trim availability.

It's always a good idea to visit an auto show if one is held in your area, because they present a rare opportunity to compare many makes and models side-by-side. If possible, rent or borrow the particular vehicle you're considering, so you can take an extended test drive.

Perhaps the right "car" for you is a "truck." SUVs, minivans, and pickups are considered "light trucks," which account for more than half of new vehicle sales. However, some of these vehicles are tall and/or long, so make sure the one you want will fit in your garage. In addition, shorter riders may have trouble entering and exiting tall trucks. Look over the specifications for the vehicle that interests you, comparing them to similar models.

Most trucks and SUVs offer four-wheel-drive systems, as do some cars and minivans. Whichever type of vehicle you choose, select a model with options that suit your needs, not just your desires.

Some features may come as stand-alone options only. Or they may be included as part of higher trim levels and/or bundled with other items in specially discounted packages. Generally, it's best to choose the trim level that includes most or all of the features you desire, instead of equipping the base model with individual options. On the other hand, if you'll wind up with added features you may not otherwise want, taking the higher trim level can be a lesser value.

Not all features may be available with all trim levels in a given vehicle line, and some features may only be ordered as part of an option package.

Take the time to compare ownership costs. Consider factors such as insurance premiums, resale values, and fuel economy -- including whether the vehicle requires more expensive premium gasoline. Compare financing rates from local lenders to find the best deals on new-car loans. The difference in such costs can add hundreds -- even thousands -- of dollars to your final purchase price in the long run.

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