After a couple of dicey years, the U.S. car market is growing again, with about 14.5 million cars going out the door in 2012. Suddenly, everyone seems to be doing well. But the law of the jungle still holds that any car sold by Chevy is one that's not sold by Ford and vice versa, so car companies are constantly scheming for a bigger share of the pie – a boon for buyers because vicious competition begets lots of cool choices.
It wasn't long ago that your major car-buying decision amounted to whether to get a big engine or a small one. Now an everyday VW Jetta offers five different engines, including a hybrid and a diesel. There are at least 10 different Mustangs (more if you count variants, like the GT500 Super Snake), and Porsche currently sells the 911 in 12 flavors. What bounty! Now how the hell do we make sense of it all? I have a few ideas, some of them learned the hard way.
Beware of the killer deal.
This is the model that exists to get you in the door, but won't be the one you actually want to buy. Consider the Jetta, which has a headline-grabbing base price of $17,515. That's for a model with the 115-horsepower four-cylinder, a motor that wasn't particularly impressive when it was first offered – in the 1993 Jetta. You'll want to spring for the 170-horsepower five-cylinder, the diesel, the turbo, or the hybrid. (A hybrid SEL Premium rings in at $31,975.) So be prepared to negotiate on one of those instead of the base model, which they won't have anyway.