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What to look for when you're buying a car

If you're in the market for a car, whether new or used, be prepared for decision-making overload. Today's vehicles come with slews of options - including high-tech bells and whistles. In fact, many seem more like computers than cars.

So how do you go about making a wise choice? With traffic accidents as a leading cause of death among all age groups, safety considerations should be a priority.

Look for advanced safety features

Many newer cars are equipped with crash avoidance features such as:

  • Collision warnings
  • Lane departure warnings
  • Assistive braking/automatic emergency braking
  • Rearview cameras
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Blind spot warnings
  • Adaptive headlights
  • Electronic stability control (required in all vehicles since 2012)
  • Antilock brakes
  • Traction control
  • Alertness monitoring

Other safety-related components to consider include side airbags, all-wheel drive and LATCH connectors for car seats (if you have young children).

While many of these components may seem like maintenance headaches - requiring costly repairs when sensors go awry - the payoff is that they could make a life-or-death difference in the event of a crash (or near-crash).

What about used cars?

Buying any vehicle involves some degree of risk. New cars are often subject to recalls for defective or malfunctioning parts. In used cars, you don't necessarily know how well the vehicle was maintained - or whether underlying problems make it a ticking time-bomb.

Whether you're buying from a dealer or private party, avoid lemons by following these tips.

  • Do your research. There's one advantage to buying a used car instead of a new one: You can check how well that year's model has withstood the test of time, both in terms of safety and maintenance. Browse the Consumer Reports and IIHS safety ratings for the year and model you're looking at. Keep an eye out for recalls or problematic parts.
  • Check for a clean accident and maintenance history.Avoid salvage vehicles, which are not only money pits but also dangerous to drive. Ask for records of oil changes and other routine maintenance. Consider getting a CarFax report to ensure that the vehicle hasn't been in an accident.
  • Go for a test drive: When you take the car for a spin, do so with a purpose. Pay close attention to the vehicle's performance, including braking and steering response. Turn off the radio and listen for any unusual noises. Make sure the vehicle handles well at various speeds and driving conditions.
  • Get an inspection: Take the vehicle to an independent mechanic for a thorough look-over (especially if you're buying from a private party). Ask how much life is left in the brakes, tires and other components. Watch for any red flags and be prepared to walk away if the vehicle has serious issues.

By taking your time and making an informed decision, you can reduce your chances of ending up with a dangerous vehicle - ideally while saving some money in the process.

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