Our testing considers practicality, safety and how easy a car is to live with, not entirely on performance and handling (though we still look at that too).
With a focus on hybrids, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and electric vehicles (EVs), it’s not a comprehensive index of our entire market, but it does cover a whole bunch of commonly seen new and used vehicles that you’ll find in New Zealand showrooms.
Motor types explained
Hybrids have a small electric motor and battery that is recharged by the petrol engine, and when slowing down by regenerative braking. The electric motor is powerful enough to drive the car at low speeds, but generally it’ll run out of juice when you approach 30-50km/h. You don’t need to plug them in, and they work just like any other car you’ve driven, it’s just more fuel efficient.
The PHEV is the next step up. The electric motor and batteries are bigger; we’ve seen vehicles that claimed an all-electric range of 93km on the dashboard. The batteries can be recharged on the fly by the petrol motor and regenerative braking, but the bulk of charging is done by plugging it into the electricity network at home each day. If you can get most of your travel done on the electric motors, you will have some cheap motoring. Just remember that they still have the same servicing requirements as a petrol car.
An EV is stuffed full of batteries and a large electric motor, or motors, to drive the wheels. Mechanically speaking, they are nowhere near as complex as the other types as they have fewer moving parts. That reduces the servicing requirements for the vehicle. The main trade-offs are lack of range when compared to petrol- or diesel-powered vehicles, and a longer waiting time when charging as opposed to a quick fill of fuel at a petrol station.
What size do you need?
Getting the size right is important as going too big or small can prove to be costly, especially when dealing with new car depreciation. Buying the biggest car you can afford can seem like a good idea at the time, but you’ll have to contend with less manoeuvrability and parking restrictions when you may not even make use of the extra space.
The most popular size of vehicle at the moment is the baby SUV. They’re relatively compact to make parking easier, but they sit higher off the ground for better visibility and ease of getting in and out – on top of that, they seem to be holding their value. They do come at a premium though and a hatchback with the equivalent amount of interior space will be much cheaper.
If you’re regularly carting around passengers, you’ll need something large enough to fit everyone comfortably.
Any safety feature that will enhance the protection of the car occupants and those outside of your vehicle are what you should be looking at first. In lieu of going into the individual features, you can instead look at the vehicle’s safety rating found at rightcar.co.nz.
The more stars a vehicle has, the safer it is. Features like airbags, traction control and electronic stability control have been around for a long time and are mandatory for all vehicles coming into the country. Newer features to covet that don’t feature on all new and used vehicles include:
Autonomous emergency braking
These systems monitor what’s going on in front of you, constantly monitoring the distance to the vehicle in front. If that distance rapidly shrinks (because the car in front stops) it will apply the brakes if don’t do it first. It can be a lifesaver in cases where you might be momentarily distracted.
Front and rear cross traffic alert
This feature looks out to the sides when you’re reversing out or driving forwards out of a park, and warns you if someone’s coming. It comes in very handy, especially when you are surrounded by taller vehicles. Rear cross alerts are reasonably common while front cross alerts are a newer feature that you don’t see on all models.
Lane keep assist
These systems keep you in your lane and the best ones give gentle nudges on the steering wheel to keep you in the right place when you’re on the highway. Not all lane keep assist systems are built the same. Some do a really good job of keeping things straight and level – others are an intrusive pain. Be sure to take a car for a test drive to make sure you can work with it.
Other features to look for
There are a few things to keep an eye on that add to your experience of driving a vehicle and make it easy to live with:
Adaptive cruise control
Adaptive cruise control is one of the most useful car options available. It senses the speed of the vehicles in front and slows or speeds up your car to keep up with the flow of traffic. While you still need to pay attention, it really reduces the workload on the driver.
Be sure to take note of the limitations of the systems, especially when buying second-hand as older systems didn’t take vehicles down to a complete stop and would cut out at a certain threshold. Newer systems take you all the way down to a stop and are much better.
Front and rear parking sensors are great at giving you some situational awareness, but the 360° camera is the best. This gives you a top-down view of your vehicle and makes parking a doddle, even when getting into the tightest of spots.
The top down view usually gets collated from four cameras around the car – in the front, rear and each side mirror. Those cameras in the side mirrors have made the replacement cost of them quite horrendous, so be sure to fold the mirrors away when you park.
Head-up display (HUD)
The HUD projects important information onto the windscreen (or dedicated screen) in the driver’s eyeline. The information includes current speed, speed limit and road signs (if your car detects that) and navigation instructions. That means you spend less time glancing down at the dials or infotainment screen and more time with your eyes on the road.
The quality of these systems varies by brand and just about all of them are hard to see in bright sun when you’re wearing sunglasses. However, they do come in handy at other times.
CarPlay and Android Auto
CarPlay from Apple and Android Auto bypasses the usual setup of your car’s infotainment screen and projects a version of your phone screen instead. You can make calls on the fly, but it really comes into its own when you use it for navigation or to stream music. It’s much faster and easier to use your phone for starting navigation or selecting a playlist before taking off, and your phone’s voice assistant works with it too. Just be sure that your mobile plan has enough data to do it!
The latest and greatest versions are wireless so you can leave your phone in your bag or pocket and still project onto your car’s infotainment screen.
Manufacturers will always pack more features and accessories into vehicles to try and entice you to buy a particular model. Just be sure to think it through. If they serve no purpose to you, they’re a waste of money.
Great if you use it, but if they spend all their time folded away, you’re paying extra for an unused feature.
Off-road capability in the city
A high SUV can be nice to drive in town, but all-wheel drive vehicles tend to cost more than their counterparts. If you don’t ever venture offroad, you don’t need that capability. You can still have that high driving position that you covet, just pay less for a two-wheel drive version instead.
Luxury items and brands
Do you really need walnut trim or carbon fibre detailing? No, but it is nice though. Just go in knowing that luxury brands and accessories get smashed by the depreciation stick.
Rear seat entertainment
You pay a lot for this feature when a tablet or device like a Nintendo Switch will cover everything the screen promises and more.
Gesture control has been introduced to some luxury brands as a means to adjust certain settings in the vehicle like adjusting the volume. This tech is in its infancy and is hard to use at present.
Before making your final decision to buy a vehicle, be sure to get a quote from an insurance company first. You may be surprised at the extra you need to pay, especially when upgrading to a more expensive vehicle. Do your sums and make sure you can afford it.
Choose the right car insurer with our buying guide.
As soon as you drive a new or used car off the lot, it loses some of its value, this is called car depreciation. Luxury brands take the biggest hit.
While that’s an unfortunate cost of car ownership, you can turn this into an advantage for you when you’re in the market by buying a used or nearly new car. If you buy nearly new, you can make some really good savings.
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