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.
Follow the name game.
It pays to remember that a car might pull a Chad Ochocinco and change its name midway through a model cycle. If the 2013 Audi Allroad bears a resemblance to the dearly departed 2012 A4 Avant, that's because it is an A4 Avant beneath its skid plates and Mad Max–meets-Telluride vibe. Either way you get the same punchy 211-horsepower, turbo four-cylinder, eight-speed transmission, and quattro all-wheel-drive system. So if you like the Allroad but found a deal on a 2012 A4 Avant, you could buy it knowing you're getting a car that's functionally, if not aesthetically, identical.