Before you start shopping for a used car, you need to decide exactly what it is that you're looking for in your next vehicle. Do you want a small, fuel efficient alternative to the SUV that you normally drive? Do you need a larger vehicle that can facilitate family vacations and soccer practice pickups? Or do you simply want a sporty departure from your current set of wheels? There are literally hundreds of different models of pre-owned automobiles available on the market, each with its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. This can make narrowing a field of potential candidates difficult. Rather than spending weeks shopping blind, you should expedite the process by researching various models to figure out which ones best meet your needs. For instance, here are some of the most important things you'll need to consider when choosing a used car.

Features
You won't have the ability to customize a used car like you can with a new vehicle, but there should still be a large selection of trims for any model that piques your interest. These can range from a few small touches to comprehensive luxury packages that feature heated seats, aluminum wheels and in-dash entertainment centers.

SEE: 5 Tips For Dealing With Car Dealers

There's nothing wrong with investing in creature comforts. In fact for some of you, the prospect of driving under an open sunroof may be the main reason you're shopping for a new car in the first place. That's all well and good. Just remember that every bell and whistle is going to come at a premium, even on used cars, and not all of these upgrades are worth the higher sticker price. For instance, here are some features that we found to be useful and some others that are just a fancy way for you to throw away money.

Invest In
Auxiliary Jacks
Everyone has an iPod or some sort of mp3 player these days. An auxiliary jack will allow you to connect that music device directly to your car radio. As a result, you can play your favorite songs without burning dozens of CDs or investing in one of those fizzling radio adapters. If you prefer listening your own playlists instead of the Top 40 billboard, this little outlet is definitely worth looking for.

Adjustable Interiors
All car seats can be adjusted backwards and forwards for leg length, but good car seats can also be lifted and lowered to accommodate different driver heights. The same goes for telescopic steering wheels and adjustable foot pedals. For tall drivers, adjustable components like these can make owning a fuel efficient subcompact feasible. Therefore, they get our official seal of approval.

Heated Seats
There's nothing quite like a warm car seat to heat you up after a sudden rainstorm or during a frigid winter commute. Though heated seats used to be considered a top-shelf feature, they can now be found on vehicles in all price categories. As a result, you may be lucky enough to stumble across a model of your dream car with this technology installed.

Keyless Entry
Remote-control key fobs have been around for so long that there's really no excuse not to have one for your next vehicle. We may be spoiled, but there's no denying how convenient keyless entry devices make accessing and securing your car. If you've ever tried to manually unlock a car with your arms full, you know what we mean. If your car has those new doors that automatically unlock as soon as you approach them with your key, that's even better.

All Wheel Drive
If you live in an area that experiences heavy snowfall in the winter or has a lot of dirt roads, some form of four-wheel drive is a must. All Wheel Drive tends to be the most popular and affordable manifestation of this technology and can be found on many small SUVs, crossovers and sedans.

Don't Invest In
Multimedia Systems
Those little in-dash touch screens are certainly cool, but they're also very expensive. Additionally, their software can't be updated so the chances are good that your platform will be obsolete by the time the car is passed to you. You can get the same basic functionality for less with an aftermarket GPS like a Garmin or a TomTom.

Sunroofs
If you can afford it, there's nothing wrong with sunroofs. Our only warning is that these are often part of a "premium" package and you're going to be charged for additional accessories you might not want or need.

Paint protection
Dealers charge a high price for "paint protection" that's little more than a protective coat of wax. Don't bother with this service. If you're worried about your paint fading or chipping, take your car to a professional detailer and let them do it – or just buy the proper products and do it yourself.

In the end, features are purely a matter of personal preference. These are simply some of the most and least useful ones that we've found in our own experience. However, we emphasize that your budget – not your desire for luxury – should dictate how much you spend on your next vehicle.

The Drive Train
After you decide what features you need to have and which ones you don't, you need to start considering what you'd like in your drive train. Loosely defined, the drive train is the collection of components that makes a vehicle go. This includes the engine, the transmission and more. The varying sizes and setups of these parts can determine a vehicle's performance, handling and fuel efficiency, so the drive train is a pretty important thing to consider for anyone buying a used car. Here are a few things to think about before you start your search.

The Transmission
Most cars manufactured in the last 20 years come with four, five or six-speed automatic transmissions. These transmissions can and will shift gears on their own, eliminating the need for a clutch and greatly simplifying the driving experience. Manual transmissions, on the other hand, require the driver to disengage and shift gears by themselves through the use of a clutch pedal and a stick shift. Though manual transmissions are harder to operate, they possess a certain nostalgic thrill that many modern drivers appreciate. Unfortunately for stick shift enthusiasts, manual transmissions are becoming increasingly harder to find as time passes. If you're determined to buy a manual, your best bet will be to look for one in a stripped down, budget-priced sedan or a sporty coupe.

The Engine
When it comes to looking for an engine, there are only two statistics you really need to worry about – the number of pistons inside the engine and the amount of air that they displace (typically given in liters). Using this information, you can quickly determine whether a used car is a fuel sipper or a gas-guzzling powerhouse.

Fuel efficiency and horsepower share an inverse relationship. The more you have of one, the less you'll have of the other. The number of pistons in an engine will help you determine where it fits on the see-saw. Four-cylinder engines have the best fuel efficiency but generate the least amount of power, whereas monstrous eight-cylinder engines will generate more power but suffer from poor fuel efficiency.

SEE: Hybrids: Financial Friends Or Foes?

The displacement of an engine will help you determine how it performs compared to other engines in the same category. For instance, the Toyota Yaris' 1.5 liter, four-cylinder motor is less powerful but more efficient than a sporty 2.5 liter engine found in the RAV4. Therefore, if you want to you want to maximize your miles-per-gallon, you should invest in a vehicle with a small four-cylinder engine. These can be found in compact cars and small SUVs. It's not uncommon for these motors to get more than 40 miles to the gallon on the highway.

If you're shopping for anything larger than a subcompact or compact car/SUV, you'll likely be dealing with some sort of six-cylinder engine. You can expect between 15-20 miles to the gallon in the city and 20-30 miles to the gallon on the highway with one of these. Again, it all comes down to the displacement of the engine itself. Eight-cylinder engines are typically reserved for full-sized pickups, full-sized luxury sedans and performance-oriented muscle cars. Their fuel efficiency is slightly worse than their six-cylinder counterparts, but the power they can generate is significantly higher.

Fuel Type
The type of fuel a car consumes can have a dramatic effect on its drive train's power and efficiency. Though the majority of vehicles on the road consume standard unleaded gasoline, the number of hybrid electric-gasoline vehicles and purely electric vehicles has been steadily rising over the last decade.

These hybrid and electric vehicles produce can get much farther on a single tank of gas than their conventional counterparts. The only problem is that this efficiency comes at a high price. New hybrids often cost several thousand dollars more than their conventional counterparts. It can take years of efficient driving to negate this added cost. Consequently, this cost is transferred to the buyers of used hybrids as well. Electric cars cut out the need for gasoline altogether, but they also cost a premium and can only be driven about 200 miles before needing a lengthy recharge. Therefore, it's a good idea to crunch the numbers to make sure that you're actually making a good investment before you commit to buying one of these vehicles.

SEE: How Long Until Your Hybrid Pays Off

Diesel Vehicles
Diesel fuel has been around for a while as a more efficient alternative for large trucks that would otherwise suffer from poor fuel economy. Similar to hybrids, diesel engines can operate with 30-50% better fuel economy than standard engines, but at a significantly higher initial expense than standard engines. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization's discovery of a correlation between diesel fumes and cancer forces us to advise consumers against buying a used vehicle with a diesel engine. Fuel efficiency should never come at the cost of your own safety.

The Automaker
Contrary to popular belief, there is no "best" brand in the auto industry. There are certainly "best in class" vehicles, but the respective makers tend to change on a yearly basis. Since there are cases for and against every automaker in the industry, it will behoove you to use several different resources to determine which brand is best for your needs. While Consumer Reports claims that cars from Japanese companies Honda and Toyota tend to offer the best value for the money, a wide range of foreign and domestic automakers are represented on Edmunds' "Best Bets" list for 2011. In the end, it's simply a matter of taste. However, keep in mind that European cars, especially luxury models like BMW, Mercedes and Audi, tend to be expensive to maintain because their parts need to be imported.

Reliability
Here's a riddle for you: How many miles are too many miles for a used car? The answer is that it all depends on what model of car you're talking about. Though reliability is sure to be one of your biggest concerns when shopping for a used car, there's no golden equation that you can use to determine how breakdown-prone a particular model will be based on its mileage alone. If properly maintained, newer used vehicles can make it well past 100,000 miles before something expensive breaks. Some can even break the 200,000 mile mark. On average, though, used cars tend to be driven between 12,000 and 15,000 miles a year. This can help you determine whether a vehicle you're interested in has been overdriven or not.

SEE: 10 Steps To Buying A New Car (Without Getting Taken For A Ride)

However, it's important to remember that high mileage doesn't necessarily equate to an unreliable vehicle. A model's reputation for reliability is a much better indicator of what you can expect if you were to purchase the car. This "reputation" encompasses the average cost of repair, the annual cost of maintenance, the frequency of part failure and all other related costs of ownership. You can find historical indexes of how reliable a car is in these categories on sites like Yahoo!, Edmunds and more. This forensic analysis of reliability should influence your purchase much more than a used car's mileage. For instance, you'd be much better off buying a 2005 Honda Civic with 60,000 miles than you would be buying a 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier with only 30,000 miles. Take this into account when narrowing down your list of candidates.

Safety
Safety is the one thing that you can't afford to compromise on when shopping for a car. If you get into a head-on crash at highway speeds, your fuel economy and heated seats are going to be the least of your worries. Your car needs to be able to keep you and everyone riding with you alive and intact in the event of a crash. This is especially true if you transport children frequently. Here are some safety features that any worthwhile vehicle should include.

Airbags
Airbags save lives. They aren't optional. If you can find a used vehicle with side-curtain airbags, that's even better. Anyone with small children might also want to consider looking for a vehicle that can turn its front passenger airbag off. Though it seems counterintuitive, airbags are actually dangerous for children under 12.

Electronic Stability Control
Electronic Stability Control prevents a car from sliding sideways in a turn. This keeps the vehicle from rolling over during a swerve. For top-heavy SUVs and minivans, this feature is indispensible.

Anti-Lock Brakes
Anti-lock brakes do exactly what their name implies – they prevent your wheels from locking up and skidding during a sudden stop. While not a necessary feature - you can also prevent wheel lock by pumping the brakes – anti-lock brakes can be incredibly beneficial when driving over ice or large puddles.

In addition to these features, your car should always have a good IIHS crash test rating. Each year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety subjects every model of production vehicles to rigorous collision tests. Each car, truck and SUV receives a rating based on its performance. (L10A) Your next car should rate either "acceptable" or "good" on these tests.

The Warranty
The last thing you want is for your new-to-you car to suffer from a blown transmission a month after you purchased it. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens all the time. Even the most reliable used vehicles can suffer from spontaneous breakdowns – and that's why it's important to consider a warranty.

SEE: Everything You Need To Know About Warranties

Many certified pre-owned vehicles come with a factory warranty that covers some or all breakdowns and failures for a limited time after purchase. In order to receive one of these warranties, you must purchase your car from a certified pre-owned dealer. Additionally, most vehicles must be less than five years old with fewer than 60,000 miles on them in order to qualify. The warranties themselves can range in length from 12 months to six years, depending on the make of the car.

If you buy your car from a private seller, it won't have a certified warranty. Instead, you can pick up an extended service contract form a third party provider. But depending on how new/expensive the vehicle is, this may not be necessary.

If you're purchasing a "beater" for your teen driver, there's no real reason to spend another $1,000 on an extended warranty from a provider. This is especially true when you consider that Edmunds found that the average repair claims against a $1,000 contract come to about $150.However, if you just purchased a 2004 Mercedes then an extended warranty may very well be worth the peace of mind.

The History
There are plenty of honest used car salesmen in this country, but you can't be certain that your dealer is one of them. Before purchasing any used car, demand that your seller provide you with a vehicle history report. These reports, provided by CarFax, AutoCheck and other services, will tell you a car's history of ownership, how many accidents it's been in, how many times the airbags have been deployed and more. This will help you weed out a potential lemon before you sign on the dotted line.

However, while these services are useful, they aren't bulletproof. Vehicle history reports only show the damage that was repaired by a certified mechanic or claimed on insurance. If the previous owner of a vehicle did repairs in their own garage, they won't show up. Therefore, it's crucial that you always verify any history report with a vigorous inspection of your own.

Next: The Complete Guide To Buying A Used Car: The Inspection And Test Drive »

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