Start Your New-Car Shopping With a ‘Finder’ Search Tool

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You need a new car but you have no idea what to buy. All the new models blur together and seem so similar you don’t know where to start. But don’t stress out — there’s a quick and powerful way to search for the car that meets your needs and is in your price range: Use an online car finder tool.

We’re not saying a car finder, such as the ones on NADA.com or Edmunds.com, will give you the final answer to your car search. But it will get you moving in the right direction so you can build a target list of cars to test drive. Usually this is the first step in your car-buying research.

NADA.com

A car finder also offers these advantages:

  • Shows you all of the current models for sale in a crowded, rapidly changing marketplace.
  • Allows you to search by a variety of preferences including price, brand or body style.
  • Displays a list of choices with your must-have features.
  • Lists different cars’ specifications in side-by-side comparison tables.
  • Connects you to more detailed vehicle information pages for additional research.

Getting started

Before a car finder can deliver results, you need to make a few preliminary choices, including what vehicle type and features suit your needs. But for now, mentally separate your needs from your wants.

For example, if you have a big family, you will need a roomy car to carry everyone. So you’ll probably look for a large sedan, a minivan or an SUV. If you’re a contractor, you will need a pickup truck. Someone in real estate, who often drives clients around, will probably want an upscale sedan.

Of course, there are always a lot of things on our wish list. But shopping by needs, at least in the beginning, will lead you to a car that will be practical for years to come.

» MORE: How to pick the right car

Setting search parameters

Once you have an idea of what you need the vehicle to do, you can begin your search. It’s best to search from the general to the specific. In other words, start with broad categories and then narrow the selection later. Here are common search filters and how to set them.

Price: This is especially important for people who have a fixed budget. But since price thresholds are broad, you often get too many choices. Remember to set your limit generously since you might be able to negotiate a lower purchase price.

Body style: Choosing the body style first — sedan, wagon, SUV — is a good place to start because it will pull in all of the vehicles in the class you specify, many of which you probably weren’t considering.

Maker: We suggest that you don’t select a specific brand just yet since the real value of using a car finder is to alert you to cars you didn’t know about, have overlooked or forgotten. You can narrow the list later, but for now, look at all vehicles regardless of who makes them.

After setting these parameters, you may get an impossibly long list of cars to choose from. Don’t get overwhelmed. You’re making progress.

Other car finder search options

Once you have a list of cars that fit the broad search guidelines, it’s time to narrow the field. The best way to do this is to reset some of the broad search filters, such as the price, or begin to select more specific features.

Here are some features that many car finders search for:

Fuel economy: The higher mpg you request, the fewer the choices.

Fuel type: Gas, diesel, natural gas, hybrid or pure electric.

Engine: The typical choice is among a 4-, 6- or 8-cylinder engine. The more cylinders, the higher the horsepower — and the price tag.

Transmission: Cars are offered with an automatic or a standard transmission.

Features: Maybe you have a specific need, such as a third-row seat or towing capacity. Selecting this will sometimes dramatically reduce the list of cars for you to consider.

Next steps

Using the car finder, make a list of five cars that meet your needs. At this point, you can put them into an online table, such as Edmunds’ Compare Cars tool, and review the features and specs side by side.

It’s also helpful to read road tests by automotive experts and reviews by current owners. And you should test drive at least three of your cars. However, these cars should all be strong candidates because they’ve already been evaluated by your personal choices using the car finder.

Philip Reed is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: preed@nerdwallet.com.