So you're done with college and thinking about buying a car. Like, a real car -- no more timeworn hand-me-downs from your family, no more suspiciously affordable "specials" from the local used-car lot. You're doing your own thing now, and it's time to find a car that's right for you.

But where do you start? We know the car-shopping process can be overwhelming, so we've put together the following nuggets of wisdom to help you through it. Buying your first car is an experience you'll always remember, and we want to make sure it's as satisfying and hassle-free as possible.

The "New vs. Used" Question

Back in the day, many Americans -- even recent college grads -- bought new cars without thinking twice. There was a very good reason for this: New cars tended to be leaps-and-bounds better than their predecessors.

But times have changed, and the reality is that cars have been pretty darn good for a while now. If you test drive a car that's five or even 10 years old, you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference from a new car in terms of the way it handles the road. Another great thing about used cars, of course, is that they cost less, and they're also going to depreciate less over time.

Accordingly, if you can find a low-mileage, well-maintained used car, it could really work to your advantage. Think about it: You can afford it more easily, it's still a nice car to drive, and when you're ready to part ways with it, you won't take nearly as much of a hit on depreciation.

Nonetheless, that new-car smell can have a powerful effect, and new cars are almost guaranteed to have the latest technological upgrades, as well as extensive warranties that you generally can't get on the pre-owned market.

It's ultimately your call, but the moral of the story is that used cars are more viable than ever, so we think they merit close consideration.

The "Lease vs. Buy" Question

The rule of thumb on leasing a new car -- at least according to many parents we know -- is that you're paying something and getting nothing. But we've got a slightly different perspective on this. When you graduate from college, especially in these tumultuous times, it's hard to say where you're going to be a few years down the road. Maybe you'll be backpacking across Asia by then, or living in a city where you don't need a car. But if you can count on staying put for at least the next two years, leasing could be a very convenient option. You get to drive a nice new car for the duration of the lease -- indeed, a nicer one than you could afford if you were buying a car -- and if anything goes wrong unexpectedly, the dealership covers the cost. It's really not a bad deal for the right kind of car shopper.

Know Thine Used Car Before Buying

If you're buying used, a pre-purchase inspection should be an absolute top priority. It's easy, too. All you have to do is find a reputable dealership or independent garage that specializes in the brand, and ask a mechanic to give the car a thorough once-over. These inspections typically don't cost more than $100, and they could save you a bundle. If some notable problems are uncovered, that gives you more negotiating leverage with the seller -- and if there are a lot of problems, you can walk away from that car and know that you just saved your future self a lot of time, money and headaches.

Don't Get Too Hung Up on Reputations for Reliability

If you're going to buy a used car, keep in mind that cars are generally quite reliable these days. It's not like the old days, when supposedly only a Honda or a Toyota would do. But the market is still stuck on those legendary Japanese names, which means that prices are often inflated for those brands -- and there are therefore bargains to be had on rival models. We strongly recommend Hyundai and Kia, for example, because they've got something to prove in terms of quality, and they also back up their rhetoric with lengthy warranties that transfer to second-hand buyers. If you shop around, you can find some incredible deals on brands that aren't quite as mainstream.

Don't Let MPG Rule Your Life

It's easy to be seduced by claims like "best miles per gallon in class!" What those ads don't tell you is best by how much -- or which mpg rating they're talking about. The reality is, the market's so competitive right now that there's usually a cluster of high-MPG at the head of each vehicle class. First of all, you'll want to look at the combined number from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a real-world projection. And if the car you want is off the pace by a mile or three, well, do the math and figure out how much extra you'd be paying per year. If it comes out to something like a couple hundred bucks, you can weigh that sum against all the things you really like about the car. There's more to MPG than meets the eye.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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