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Help! I need a new car now

Here's a strategy to follow when you need to choose and buy a new car with no extra time.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Most people take a month or two to buy a new car. All that research and shopping takes a lot of time.

But sometimes folks just don't have a month or two. An accident, theft, or sudden mechanical breakdown can leave you scrambling. There's a job to get to and errands to run and you can only rent or borrow a car for so long.

This is when panic sets in. A new car is a huge purchase, but emergency situations can make you take the "a-car's-a-car" approach. Close your eyes and reach for the biggest rebate you can find.

It's a big mistake. You're probably going to have this car for a long time. With that in mind, this decision needs to be made quickly but well.

Here's a strategy to pull that off. One big bonus is that this is advice you can use any time you're shopping for a new car, even if you have more than a few days.

Start where you are (or just were)

You can learn a lot about what you need in a new car by thinking about your current car. (Or, in this case, the one you just lost.) Was it perfect? Did you just love everything about it?

If so, the answer ought to be easy. Buy another one of those. If the model's been redesigned or replaced in the meantime, find what that manufacturer makes that's closest to it or find one identical to yours in the used car market.

More likely, there were a few things about the car you didn't exactly love. Let your problems be your guide.

Have you been frustrated by a lack of storage space? Do you wish for a little more legroom? Tired of feeling like you need low-rate financing for your gasoline purchases?

Those voices might be guiding you to an entirely different class of vehicle or perhaps just a move to a different make and model in the same class.

Check your wallet

You also have to know how much you have to spend. When it comes to negotiating car prices, experts always say "talk price, not monthly payment."

That's good advice, but it is still helpful to know what you can afford to pay each month and work from there.

Some Web sites, including CNNMoney.com, have calculators that let you input variables such as "How much do I have for a down payment," "How much can I afford to pay per month" and "How long do I want to keep paying." The calculator will tell you how much you can afford in terms of the price of the car.

Now that you have a compass pointing you in a given direction it's time to let your mouse do the walking.

Turn on the computer and head to your favorite automotive Web site. CNNMoney.com partners with Edmunds.com, one of the most popular, so we'll use ours as an example.

Vehicles are arranged by type (Convertible... Coupe... Minivan...) by price range and by make (Acura... Aston Martin... Audi...)

Start by looking in a certain price range then click on vehicles that fit your needs or start in vehicle categories and click on vehicles that fit within your price range.

"There are 360 or 400 possible cars," said Jack Nerad, editorial director for Kelley Blue Book. "That will get you down to 20."

Once you've got a group of vehicles that generally fit your needs, it's time to start culling. It's fine to eliminate cars because you just hate the way they look.

For each car, read reviews from several different sources and pay attention to specifics, not just whether the writer is generally positive or negative. Watch out for sources that seem to think all your choices are great.

Look at hard data for estimated reliability and ownership costs. Consumer Reports is a good source for predicted reliability data. It requires a paid subscription.

Read owner comments on various Web sites, too. People who've purchased a car will tend to feel positively about it - after all, they did buy it - but they also might uncover annoyances and problems that reviewers will miss.

Time to drive

Once you've gotten your candidates down to, say, three or four vehicles it's time to test drive them. Contact one dealership near you for each vehicle, ask to speak to the fleet or Internet salesperson and set up a time for a test drive.

Make it clear that you'll just be driving and not buying. Let them know you're a serious customer, though.

"You can say 'I'm looking to buy a car sooner rather than later' without saying that it's an emergency," said Brian Moody, road test editor for Edmunds.com.

Try to drive a car that's as close as possible to the one you want to buy. Make sure it has the same engine, transmission, seats and general appointments. If you want to try different engines and transmissions, now's the time.

Time to buy

Once you've made your choice, it's time to make a deal.

Rather than wasting time negotiating in person, you could do just as well - maybe better - buying through a Web site like Carsdirect.com or through a buying club like Costco or AAA or through your employer or credit union.

They do the negotiating for you and they can promise a large number of sales, not just one, giving them far more pull than you would have on your own. Also, if you have a problem, they give you someone to go to rather than facing down the dealer by yourself. For an extra measure of value, try letting a few of these sorts of outfits give you their best price and take the lowest one.

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