The newer the car, the more likely you are to find advanced safety features. For instance, in some newer vehicles "pretensioners" rapidly take slack out of the seat belt and hold the body tighter in a crash, after which "force limiters" play the belt out slightly as you press into it to avoid pressure injuries. Most cars older than five years don't have these features. In general older cars are also less reliable. "That's a safety issue too," says Jennifer Stockburger, program manager for vehicle and child safety at Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center, in East Haddam, Connecticut. "You don't want a teen stranded on the side of the road." Yet buying new is the ultimate in poor economy. "The biggest cost of ownership is depreciation," says Stockburger. As soon as you drive a new car off the lot, the vehicle's price -- what the dealer would pay to buy it back -- drops from retail to wholesale. On top of that, cars lose about 20 percent of their value every year.
Look for used cars that are exceptionally reliable -- and therefore hold their value longer. Japanese brands stand out: Seven-year-old Toyota and Honda cars are on par with three-year-old vehicles from most other makers in terms of mechanical problems, according to Consumer Reports. When trolling used-car lots, identify cars with ESC (those made within the last decade) by checking window stickers for system brand names that play on the words "stability," "track" or "control," such as StabiliTrak (General Motors), Dynamic Stability Control (Mazda), or Vehicle Dynamics Control (Subaru). Look on the steering column to make sure a used car is actually equipped with the front air bags the dealer says it has. For side curtain air bags, check the top of the pillars framing the side windows for the word "air bag" or the letters SRS (supplemental restraint system). Give preference to certified vehicles with a dealer warranty (manufacturer warranties don't always transfer to second owners), and get an inspection from an independent mechanic before sealing the deal.