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.
Mind the year.
Even with new cars, model years are more important than ever. For instance, last year you might have seen a leftover 2011 Jeep Wrangler parked on the lot next to an identical-looking 2012 and thought, "What's the difference?" Oh, about 83 horsepower and an extra gear in the automatic transmission. A similar situation faced Mustang buyers last year: From one model year to the next, the engines changed so dramatically that the base V-6 was actually quicker than the prior year's V-8-powered GT. Conversely, sometimes you can score a deal on a leftover that's functionally identical to the latest model. You just have to know what you're looking at.