“If this car was a breakfast, it would be cornflakes on toast."

- Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear host

Since you can't go car shopping with BBC personality Jeremy Clarkson and his witty “Top Gear" crew, take your cues from the people who know what's under the hood — car mechanics.

They do their homework before buying

With so much information easily accessible online, how do you know where to start? “If you're buying a new car, Edmunds and TrueCar provide market estimates that are reasonably accurate," says Bill Kirkpatrick, an automotive technology instructor at a suburban Philadelphia tech school. “If you're buying a used car, KBB (Kelley Blue Book) is a great resource, as it will tell you both the retail value and the trade-in value."

Forums on specific vehicles help address the “quirks and qualms" associated with owning a particular make and model, says Nathaniel Persing, former automotive technician and current automotive technology instructor at a central Pennsylvania high school. And Tom Carella, owner of Furrin Auto in Tallahassee, Florida, doesn't put money down on any car until he's checked out its J.D. Power's ratings and review on Consumer Reports or Cars.

A used car doesn't guarantee savings (or advanced safety measures)

Want top safety features like smart airbags and ABS braking? Then new is the way to go, says Kirkpatrick. Used cars will have a lower purchase price, he says, but that can't be the only deciding factor. Consider all the costs when budgeting for your automobile especially repairs, insurance and gas. If a brand new BMW would blow your budget, the maintenance on a used one would likely do the same.

They carefully check under the hood

With a budget set and a car in mind, move ahead with a pre-purchase inspection from a trustworthy mechanic, says Matthew Zielenbach, president of the Pennsylvania-based Convenience Collision Auto Body Shop.

Every dealership allows a test drive, so take full advantage and swing by your local mechanic's shop for an inspection—or let him ride shotgun to the dealership—and get a total insider's perspective, says Zielenbach. “We see a lot of cars, so we know which ones are good and which ones aren't. We also know which ones hold up well in crash tests."

A sleek paint job means nothing if the vehicle isn't structurally sound. Do a buyer's check of the essentials too, says Carella. Do the lights, tires, brakes, and check engine light work? That last one is important.

Mechanics agree: When buying used, review maintenance records (via a service like Carfax) to ensure the car has never been in an accident.

Once they have a brand, they stick with it

Whether you roll with used or new, Persing suggests sticking with what you know. If your family has always loved their Toyotas, why buy a Chevy?

If you're not sure what brand you want, Kirkpatrick suggests taking it out on the road: Rent your dream car (the one within your budget, that is) for a day or two before signing on the dotted line.

They don't keep a car if they don't like it

Let's say you throw caution to the wind and you drive your dream car off the lot in blind faith. Good news: There is a return policy, and it's called buyer's remorse. “You can return the vehicle for any reason or for no reason at all," says Zielenbach. And if it's within 72 hours of purchasing, the dealership has to take it back, tear up the contract, and return any deposits paid, he says.

They turn down dealer financing

Once you've settled on your ideal set of wheels, the big question is the money. Kirkpatrick suggests avoiding the “dealership finance office drama"—no matter how tempting their 0% special interest rate. His advice: Secure your own auto loan ahead of time.

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