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Buying & Leasing a Car

Guide to Getting the Best Values

How to use our criteria for ranking the top cars when you go car shopping.

We pick Best in Class and Best New winners based on performance, value and safety. About half the score is awarded for performance and value, including resale value, power, fuel efficiency, front and rear legroom, headroom and cargo space (the space in the trunk or the space behind the second-row seats in a wagon, crossover or minivan). Sedans are ranked within price categories. Sports cars, crossovers, minivans and wagons aren’t broken out by price, so we also score on a scale that rewards lower prices.

A vehicle’s safety features, such as anti-lock brakes, side and side-curtain airbags, and electronic stability control, count for about 35% of the total score. The remainder of the score comes from our impressions while test-driving the new cars. We assess design and comfort as well as dashboard layout.

Keys to a great deal. Only the most desirable vehicles actually sell for the suggested retail price. That’s why we also list the dealer cost, or invoice price (all prices include the destination charge). Our dealer cost does not reflect the “holdback,” which is money refunded to the dealer from the carmaker after a vehicle is sold. Ideally, you’ll negotiate a price as close to the dealer’s cost as possible. At least aim for Kelley Blue Book’s New Car Blue Book Value, which represents the most common selling price for the vehicle. Before you shop, check kbb.com for price updates.

Another measure of a vehicle’s worth is the resale value three and five years down the road. These figures, also supplied by Kelley Blue Book, are the estimated price a dealer would pay at trade-in, expressed as a percentage of the sticker price.

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Don’t neglect ownership costs. In our tables, service cost is an estimate of the cost of maintenance and unscheduled repairs over five years. Insurance cost is an estimate of the annual premium for each vehicle for a middle-aged driver with a clean driving record.

Finally, we choose the most fuel-efficient vehicles based on annual fuel costs, using gasoline prices of $2.85 for regular, $3.05 for premium and $2.98 for diesel and assuming 15,000 miles of driving each year.