Motoring Guru, Chris Nixon, gives bmag the critical tips on buying a first car

When Buying a First Car:

Motoring writers dish out advice like doctors buttonholed at a party – we’re constantly asked what to buy. I happily give answers because I hate to see people make poor choices that cost them money or enjoyment.

At this time of year, the decision can be particularly important because it often involves young people getting their first car. It’s fraught with physical and financial danger.

My first advice is to do as I say, not as I did. I’ve rarely owned a sensible car in my life – one was a Saab that ran on lawn mower fuel!

Breakdowns and discomfort were part of the adventure, but I was handy with spanners and had plenty of helpful pals. Today’s youth has little scope to do more than change a tyre on a modern hi-tech car; reliability should be taken for granted these days.

Safety must be the prime consideration, because young drivers need saving from themselves. Many imagine a big car is safer than a small car, but I’d rather crash in a cheap, new small car with all the latest safety features than an old, big car without them.

Star ratings for occupant crash protection are a good guide. Don’t buy a new car with less than the maximum five stars. Used cars may have fewer stars, but at a minimum go for airbags and anti-lock brakes.

Choose a used car with low mileage and a documented service history to prove it has been properly maintained. Average use in Australia is considered to be between 15,000kms and 20,000kms a year. Anything less than that and you’ll be ahead.

Fuel economy is important, but can be overrated if all the car does is low-kilometre urban running. Petrol is a relatively minor cost of ownership. Economical small cars hold their prices better in the used market, so if only low regular mileage is expected, hunt for better value in a bigger car of the same age.

I could write a book on car-buying, but for now my last piece of general advice is to proceed cautiously. Research and compare prices, look for technical specifications and features on the many automotive internet sites, take your time and most importantly – don’t buy the first car you see. There are literally tens of thousands of new and used cars for sale at any one time – choice doesn’t end with the ‘one that got away’ and it’s always a buyer’s market.