Buying a car can be a stressful experience. It’s a big decision with a ton of little decisions roped in — new or used? Car or truck? Cloth or leather? gas or electric? Not to mention, there’s way too much information floating around on the internet, making it challenging to compare your options.
But don’t slam that laptop shut just yet. Your computer (or smartphone) is your biggest asset when buying a car in 2022. Not only can you do all your vehicle research online, but you can also utilize your favorite spreadsheet software (Excel, Google Sheets, LibreOffice, etc.) to craft your own car comparison spreadsheet that puts all the data that matters to you in one easy, digestible place.
A Note on Car Shopping in Pandemic Times
The automotive market is likely different since your last car purchase due to the effects of COVID-19, specifically regarding purchase process and vehicle costs.
More dealerships have turned to an online ordering process, with some even delivering the vehicles to your driveway so you never have to set foot inside the dealership. Many shoppers are foregoing the traditional dealer experience altogether, with options like Vroom and Carvana offering an online alternative.
Because of supply chain shortages (remember the whole steel and computer chip ordeal?) and soaring inflation, both new and used car prices are at all-time high. Vehicles are a precious commodity, and there suddenly aren’t enough to go around. You can expect to get more out of your trade-in (or to sell for a higher price privately), but plan to sink those additional earnings right back into the cost of whatever new car you purchase.
How to Use Our Car Comparison Spreadsheet
Building a vehicle comparison spreadsheet is super helpful for processing the mountains of data you should be compiling if doing your due diligence when shopping for a new or used car. But if you’re not savvy with spreadsheet programs, you can use our free template to compare cars.
You can use this spreadsheet to compare new cars or used cars. The data points you measure and compare will differ for each (more on that below). After you’ve compiled all the data in one easy-to-read format, you can then compare your top choices across the criteria that matter to you and come to a decision.
But where do you collect the data points for your car comparisons? Here are a few key resources when shopping for a new or used car:
If shopping for a new vehicle, you can build and customize it directly on the automaker’s site. Common car manufacturers include Ford, Subaru, Toyota, Honda, Kia, Chrysler, Hyundai and Chevy. You can use these automakers’ (and others’) sites to find new vehicle costs, features and specifications. Many automakers have built-in comparison functions that let you compare their models against competitors.
Go to sites like Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, Consumer Reports and JD Power for honest reviews. These sites review the newest vehicles released by car manufacturers, but they also have old reviews of dated models, which can be useful when used car shopping.
In particular, Kelley Blue Book (KBB) is a useful tool when shopping for used vehicles. This site can give you an understanding of what a specific used model should be selling for, based on features and condition. With KBB in your digital back pocket, you should be able to recognize when a used vehicle costs more than it’s worth.
If you plan to purchase from a dealership (rather than privately), look at the inventory of local dealers online. This is particularly helpful if shopping for a used vehicle: Any dealership can let you customize and special order the exact new vehicle you want on their site, but when shopping used, you’re beholden to the inventory they physically have on their lot.
Used Car Websites
If you’re willing, you can drive elsewhere in your state (or even across the country) to find the specific used vehicle you want. Rather than browsing every possible dealership website, you can scour used car websites like CarGurus, Cars.com, Autotrader and CarsDirect that compile listings for specific models from various dealerships and private sellers.
Vehicle History Reports
If you’re comparing used cars, get a true picture of what happened with previous owners. Vehicle history reports can tell you if a car was in an accident (and how many), its maintenance records, the number of previous owners and more.
What to Look for in a New Car
The top features you’re looking for in a new car won’t be the same for every buyer. For example, parents might be more concerned with rear passenger capacity, cupholders, teen driver technology and in-car vacuums (yes, that’s a thing). Salespeople who visit and sometimes drive clients will want something flashy and sleek. Environmentalists (or even just Uber drivers) will want something with great fuel economy — maybe even a hybrid or an EV — while outdoor adventurers might need an SUV with enough towing power to haul their trailer or boat.
That said, there are some standard features to consider when shopping for a new vehicle. Here are some of the top ones to look out for:
- Price. New vehicles are struggling to differentiate from competitors now that driver-assist safety tech and smartphone integration (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) are the norm across the industry. For many buyers, the cost (and how that evolves into a monthly payment) might be the deciding factor between two similar models from competing automakers.
- Warranty. A new-car warranty isn’t the most exciting feature to consider, but when car manufacturers like Hyundai offer 10-year powertrain warranties, it’s a little harder to accept a car that is only under warranty for five years.
- Fuel economy. Fuel prices were almost nonexistent at the start of COVID-19, but two years in (and with war raging in Europe), fuel costs are at an all-time high. It’s important to prioritize a vehicle that gets excellent gas mileage — or even a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle.
- Safety scores. An increasing number of new vehicles come with a standard comprehensive suite of active safety technologies (blind spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, etc.), so it’s more important to consider scores from NHTSA and IIHS to determine the safest model in the segment.
- Cost to Own. It’s hard to predict what will happen five years out, but if you have it your way, you’ll still have your new car and it will be running smoothly. While nothing is a guarantee, KBB’s 5-Year Cost to Own is a good estimate on how much you’ll actually spend on maintaining your vehicle in its first five years.
Final Tips for Shopping for a New Car
When comparing different cars from different automakers, keep these tips in mind:
- Compare equivalent trim levels. Don’t compare an entry-level Ford F-150 against a top-tier Chevrolet Silverado 1500. The F-150 will have far fewer features, but the Silverado will be way more expensive. Make sure your comparisons are apples to apples.
- Always take a test drive. Online shopping is great, and you can compare metrics for cargo volume and horsepower all day. But until you’re behind the wheel, you won’t really get a grasp for seat comfort, acceleration, speaker quality and any other features that are important to you — and how they compare to other vehicles you are considering.
- Don’t forget taxes and insurance. When thinking about how much your new car costs, you’ve probably been saving for your down payment and calculating your monthly payment in your head. But don’t forget to factor taxes, monthly insurance premiums and other fees into your budget when looking at the total cost.
What to Look for in a Used Car
If you’re using our template to compare cars that had a previous owner, you’re going to compare some data points that you wouldn’t for new car comparisons. When shopping for new cars, you might be comparing cars from several different automakers, but when shopping for used cars, you might be looking at multiple versions of the exact same make and model. You’ll need to consider things like condition, price and vehicle history to decide between vehicles that have all the same features.
Our vehicle comparison spreadsheet has a special section specifically for used cars. Here, we encourage you to compare features like:
- Number of previous owners
- Vehicle history (flood damage, number of accidents, maintenance history, etc.)
- Exterior condition
- Interior condition
Final Tips for Shopping for a Used Car
When browsing for used cars, remember to:
- Always take a test drive — to a trusted mechanic. While you don’t want to pay for a vehicle inspection for every car that makes it onto your spreadsheet for consideration, you should take any vehicle that that you’re ready to make an offer on to a trusted mechanic for an independent inspection. If the mechanic raises any red flag that you’re not ready to invest in to fix, do not purchase the car (no matter how good the price).
- Never skip the vehicle history report. Dealerships are held to a standard, especially when they are franchises of international brands like Toyota, Mazda and Chevy. Private sellers, on the other hand, are more likely to sell you a lemon. While we’re not preaching a “trust no one” mentality, do your due diligence by ordering a vehicle history report. You might even be able to convince the dealer or private seller to pay for it. Use the vehicle history report to compare models — and use it as leverage when haggling for a lower price.
- Avoid dragging your feet. Buying a new car gives you the luxury of time. You can research as long as you want, sleep on the decision for days and then, when you’re finally ready, customize your dream car and have the dealership order it — without ever risking missing out on that vehicle. Used cars, however, are a finite commodity. If there is a specific car that you want and someone else swoops in before you, there’s no guarantee you’ll find another used car for sale just like it.
Timothy Moore covers banking and investing for The Penny Hoarder from his home base in Cincinnati. He has worked in editing and graphic design for a marketing agency, a global research firm and a major print publication. He covers a variety of other topics, including insurance, taxes, retirement and budgeting and has worked in the field since 2012.