How to Research a Car Online

Jack R. Nerad | Feb 18, 2021

American car buyers have thousands of choices. New cars, used cars, certified pre-owned cars — the options seem endless. But if you know how to research a car online, you can quickly whittle the selection down and find the perfect solution to both your wants and needs.

Researching a Car Online

Some Vehicles Are Better Than Others - Find the best car deals!

There are between 300 and 400 new-vehicle models available during any given model year. Multiply that by each past model year, and the number of potential choices is mind-numbingly large. This staggering array of vehicles can cause some potential buyers to freeze in place. They know they want a new car, and they know they can afford it, but choosing just one is so intimidating that they put the purchase off until another day. 

A car purchase is an important decision, and you don't want to make a big mistake. But if you learn how to use online research to choose the right car, you won't find yourself frozen in your tracks. 

Instead, by using the research tools that are available to you for free – many of them right here on JDPower.com – you can obtain the information you need to make a satisfying car-buying decision.

J.D. Power bases its research on information provided by hundreds of thousands of verified owners of new and used vehicles. This data demonstrates that vehicle quality and vehicle dependability have been on nearly steady upswings for decades now and that alone should give you confidence in your car choice.

At the same time, you can build that confidence by conducting research based on your needs and wants. While vehicle experts and statistically reliable data can provide you with valuable information about the automotive choices you have in front of you, you are the primary expert when it comes to determining what vehicle will best serve your purposes. You'll use research to assess which vehicles are most likely to satisfy you.

By all objective measures, certified by statistically reliable research and analysis, there are more good cars out there than ever before, and a lot of them will meet your needs. This article can help you discover them.

Narrowing Your Choices - Find the best car deals!

The first thing you need to do is decide what size and type of vehicle you need and want. You'll know this better than anyone, and once you determine if you'd rather have a minivan or an SUV, a sedan or a hatchback, a coupe or a convertible, or a midsize or a full-size pickup truck, you'll instantly narrow your choices to a more manageable size.

When choosing a vehicle type or even choosing between one vehicle type and another, you're the best expert. Next, though, you'll want to research a car online to help you determine which individual models within your chosen vehicle category might better suit your needs. 

As data from J.D. Power, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) demonstrates, some vehicles are better than others. Beyond ratings related to dependability, quality, overall appeal, fuel economy, and safety, you may have specific requirements that a vehicle must meet. 

For example, you might have only so much space in your garage. You might need to carry more than five people. You might need to tow or haul something heavy. You might want something fun to drive. You might want smartphone integration, a Wi-Fi connection, a blind-spot warning system, and massaging front seats. 

When you research a car online, especially if you use a comparison tool that allows you to view data for multiple models simultaneously, you'll discover all of these things and more. And as a result, you'll quickly start narrowing your choices to a handful of potential vehicles.

Researching Affordability - Find the best car deals!

Once you've decided what kind of vehicle you want and need, the next step is research affordability. Few of us have unlimited bank accounts that allow us to buy anything we want. So, if you're searching for an SUV in which to transport your family, the Bentley Bentayga would undoubtedly do a fine job of it. But at $183,425, it might be a bit out of your budget.

JDPower.com has a car loan calculator perfect for converting the price of a car into a monthly payment. But if you need more guidance, numerous personal finance websites offer tools to help you understand the recommended percentage of your income that you should devote to transportation costs. Those costs will include the monthly payment or lease payment for the vehicle in addition to charges for insurance, registration and fees, fuel, repairs, and maintenance.

Armed with this information, you can research vehicle prices online to discover the new makes and models that will fit within your budget parameters. During this process, you'll find that virtually all vehicles in a particular vehicle category overlap in terms of price. 

For example, suppose you want a midsize 3-row SUV. In that case, you'll find that if you can afford to buy a Ford Explorer, you can also afford to buy a Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Toyota Highlander, and several other competitors in the class.

If you're shopping for a used car, you can use an online vehicle classifieds tool to search for makes and models that are within your budget and close to home. Filters allow you to adjust for vehicle type, model year(s), mileage, and several other factors that can ultimately create a tailored list of makes and models that meet your criteria.

Pricing can help you find vehicles within a category that fit your budget, but it won't guide you to that one vehicle you will buy. For that, you'll need to conduct more research.

How to Find the Best Cars and Trucks - Find the best car deals!

To arrive at that single vehicle that will end up in your driveway, you should do more than just find a car that will meet your carrying-capacity needs and your budget parameters. You should look at vehicles qualitatively because some models in each segment are better than others. And by better, we mean they have higher quality, greater dependability, and a more comprehensive set of useful features than others with which they compete.

How do you find these better vehicles? Let us count the ways. 

First, vehicle ratings are among the tools you can turn to for more in-depth research. For example, JDPower.com has a useful section defining the best new cars and trucks

This extensive set of ratings is based on the most recent collection of J.D. Power survey data, derived entirely from the experiences of the people who own the individual makes and models. These are verified vehicle owners, too, which is much different from a rating provided by an anonymous person who rented a car at an airport for the day. 

By reviewing this rigorously vetted data, you'll get statistically reliable snapshots of the relative virtues of top vehicles in a particular segment. In turn, JDPower.com can help you discover the best vehicles in each segment. And, you'll see what owners like the most about that vehicle and what they don't.

How to Find the Best-rated Cars and Trucks - Find the best car deals!

Another section of JDPower.com provides you with access to the award-winning vehicles of the year and offers deep dives into the ratings for every model in their respective segments. Naturally, this section is called Best Car Ratings of the Year

In this area of the website, JDPower.com singles out exemplary vehicles for awards based on insights from real, verified owners. You'll find this information covers five distinct areas of interest. They include:

  • Quality
  • Reliability
  • Performance 
  • Design
  • Resale Value

Quality and Reliability Ratings

In this section, you can research the highest-rated models for quality and reliability based on the most recent J.D. Power Initial Quality Study (IQS) and Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS). J.D. Power quality ratings are based on consumer insights during the first 90 days they've owned their new vehicle. J.D. Power reliability ratings are based on consumer insights after they've owned their vehicles for three years.

Performance and Design Ratings

While the quality and reliability ratings tend to view vehicles based on problems they have or don't have, the J.D. Power performance and design ratings look at specific attributes that owners most appreciate and like. In other words, they're based on "things gone right versus things gone wrong." Derived from data gathered during the J.D. Power Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout (APEAL) Study, these ratings measure consumer driving experience insights during the first 90 days of ownership. 

Resale Value Ratings

When you buy a new vehicle, you might prioritize what it might be worth in a few years when you're ready to get something different to drive. That's where J.D. Power resale value ratings come in handy.

Expert Reviews - Find the best car deals!

While it is essential to learn what owners have to say about their vehicles, you'll also want to find out what automotive industry experts recommend. 

Why? While owners know a great deal about the car they drive, they might know next to nothing about the other vehicles in the competitive segment. Expert reviewers are paid to know about virtually all of the vehicles in each segment. 

Many automotive research websites, this one included, publish reviews written by expert vehicle testers. They may drive as many as three new vehicles each week and are particularly adept at identifying the nuances that make one vehicle a better choice than another, and explaining why.

Critical skills required of their profession include evaluating and assessing vehicles within the context of available alternatives and based on the vehicle's likely buyer. The expert's knowledge of the competitive set, first-hand driving experience in all vehicles in a segment, understanding of who may buy the vehicle, and careful evaluation using consistent methodologies produce the expertise and guidance that can help you determine the models most worthy of your consideration.

Expert vehicle reviews are useful tools in discovering the sometimes subtle but significant differences that make some vehicles better than others with which they compete. 

Summing Up - Find the best car deals!

Having researched a car online using several of the tools we've identified, you still might not have a clear idea of what individual model is most likely to meet your needs. 

The reason? Most likely, you recognize that several vehicles have all the attributes you seek. 

That's not surprising because automakers spend billions of dollars every year making certain their vehicles have the attributes buyers want. But that doesn't mean your research has been in vain. If it has taken you from hundreds of possible choices to a handful, it has been beneficial. 

Where do you go from there? We suggest you go to a place that we identified earlier. Buying a new vehicle online isn't merely about choosing a car that meets your needs. It's also about helping you identify a vehicle that you want. Subjective attributes like exterior styling, interior finishes, and brand reputation and prestige are legitimate reasons to make a final choice. And so are how the dealership treats you and the price and deal they offer you.

For the typical car buyer, there is no one "perfect car to buy." But by doing car research online, you can arrive at a vehicle that is very likely to meet all your needs and expectations.

Jack R. Nerad has covered car buying, auto retailing, and the automotive industry for more than three decades. He has held editorial director posts at dealership, consumer, enthusiast, and market research publications; appeared on television as a car-buying expert; and hosts a popular podcast. He is the author of several books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car.

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