First-time car buyer’s guide: Here’s what to look for

...and what to watch out for when buying your first vehicle

By George Kuruvilla

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Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 9:12 PM

‘Car buying’ can be daunting, especially for the virgin car buyer. The confusion of what to get from the sea of 500-plus vehicles is troublesome by itself. Add to that the fear of being swindled by a sales guy or something breaking down soon after purchase can be very overwhelming for first-time buyers. In fact, I’d say the experience shares a likeness with public speaking or getting married even. It’s right up there. But in a city like Dubai, it helps to have a vehicle and if you plan to own one, here are some things you should look into.

The right stuff

You could narrow down your preferences and find a vehicle that matches it as closely as possible, or you could browse the catalogue of vehicles and see what fits your fancy. I’d say the former is your better bet, considering the latter may take forever.

Do you want a sedan or an SUV? Do you prioritise efficiency or performance? Do you want a garage ornament or just a commuter? How many people are you wanting to haul? These are some of the most popular questions to ask yourself before getting started.

Budget and finances

First, you must decide how much to spend. The rule of thumb says you must not spend more than 1:10 of your salary on a vehicle. But this can be looked at from several angles. I’d say sleep over it and come up with a number that is practical, whether you’re planning to pay the whole amount in cash or make the EMIs. But always shop around, a different season means a different deal for a dealer. Also, the interest rates may vary with banks. Some smaller banks may be willing to offer a loan at a good rate and they may even serve you better. So don’t ignore them.

Also, Covid-19 has changed a few things, especially price tags. German luxury is at a new high post-pandemic. And so is Range Rover and Jaguar. Even Japanese vehicles, the most reliable of the bunch, has increased margins, but is still relatively affordable. The Korean manufacturers have upped their game and are a good alternative. And finally, the Chinese offer multiple vehicles from multiple brands, most of which you probably haven’t heard of, but they work if your budget is tight. American vehicles are something to consider if you’re muscle car hunting or SUV searching.


AWD or 4x4

A lot of vehicles come with AWD (all-wheel drive) or 4x4 (4-wheel drive). And I do admit power going to all four wheels sounds so good on paper. But in the UAE’s where there’s hardly any rain or snow, if you don’t plan on taking it off-road, then you don’t need this. Very often it makes the vehicles heavier and less fuel-efficient as well. Front-wheel drive (FWD) works just fine!

Paddle shifters

The manual transmission has died, and regardless of what people say on the Internet, no one really wants to row their own gears. Even paddle shifters, which came later, are a gimmick, and the truth is the fever dies out quickly after showing it off to your first set of friends.

Leather seats

Leather seats are a mark of luxury. It is soft to the touch, and comfortable to sit on. It is also easy to wipe clean. But the fabric options are just as good. They are not temperature-sensitive, which means they don’t get too cold or too hot with weather changes.


Making holiday and travel pics look great are sights of people peeping out of their sunroofs. But there isn’t much utility for one, especially panoramic ones. This is a luxury, not a necessity. And if you have to forgo one because it comes as part of an expensive package, just do it. And don’t feel bad your car doesn’t have one, even most Teslas don’t.

Rear seat entertainment

In the tech-laden age, we expect a screen everywhere. And with some packages, you get two 8- or 10-inch screens in the rear that you can connect to via USB. But what’s truly better than proprietary equipment is a third party device. Nothing beats the portability and functionality of a tablet or even a phone to entertain your little one.


Car showrooms are a bit like movie theatres. They often make money off you by selling you accessories and other extras. Sometimes, they may coerce you into installing high-end tint that may cost thousands. Instead, you can go to a local distributor and opt for a cheaper range. Make sure you read up on the tint specifications, especially light and heat transmissivity; the former determines how dark it is and the latter, how much heat is let through.



Some companies may pressure you into putting down a down payment and sometimes, it may even be worth reserving a vehicle, especially since vehicle stocks are limited these days. Just make sure the deposits are refundable that way, you have the advantage.

Test drive

If this is going to be your daily driver, your driving position is crucial. This means that once you get seated comfortably, you need to check whether the visibility is good out of all the windows and whether the steering wheel and pedals are within comfortable reach of your palms and feet. Make sure the acceleration, braking and handling are to your expectations and within your control. My advice, stay away from gargantuan SUVs and high-bhp sportscars.

Warranty period

Being new to driving, the learning curve will be much and there are so many things to learn about, especially in the first few months. And so, having a long warranty period acts as a safety net for those who aren’t grease monkeys. Typically, companies offer a 3-year/60,000 km (whichever comes first) warranty. But if you’re not getting something as reliable as a Toyota or a Honda, request for a longer warranty period. It may even make sense to buy extended coverage. I’ve noticed that several people confuse warranty with accident insurance. Know that warranty allows you to get the vehicle repaired or a part replaced if there is a manufacturing defect for free. While insurance — depending on the policy — covers the damage to property and people involved in accidents. A comprehensive insurance policy is your best bet.

Roadside recovery

A lot of the time ‘roadside recovery’ is offered as part of the sale, insurance, etc. But it is always good to double-check with your sales guy. This will save you a lot of trouble, in case you have a punctured tire, run out of fuel or face any other mechanical issue that is not allowing you to drive the car to safety.

Cruise control

Very often people who purchase affordable commuters also reside in affordable communities, often located on the outskirts of the city. And so especially for those people, there isn’t a better friend than ‘cruise control’. The long haul on the highway is made easy for your right foot and hence, essential in my opinion.

Rear-view camera

Again, the rear camera is a must-have in my opinion. Yes, it is good to know how to reverse your vehicle carefully avoiding walls and curbs using your own wits, but a simple device like a rear camera that shows a rear view on your infotainment screen makes things easier and is technology put to its best use. The 360 camera is nice to have but certainly an overkill.

ISOFIX mounting points for child seats

If you are a young parent, it is imperative that you carry the child in a child seat and to mount the child seat, you have to make sure the vehicle is equipped with ISOFIX mounting points — two hook-like metal pieces in the seat to keep it safe and steady.

Bluetooth connectivity

We are citizens of the digital age and space, and the phone is but an extension of our hands. We use it for calls, emails, browsing content, taking pics, and even streaming. And it is inevitable that you’d have to make or take a call while on the run, so it is best to ensure your vehicle of choice comes with the Bluetooth feature. A big plus is that it allows you to stream music too.

Service interval & charges

What is the service interval and cost? These estimates, one should be aware of. German manufacturers normally keep it at 10,000 to 15,000 km intervals, which means you only need to service the vehicle maybe once a year. But Japanese vehicles need servicing and 5k or so. So ensure you are able to make time and accommodate the added cost over the price of the vehicle.


At the time of purchase, you also want to make sure you have a place to park. Be it a personal spot in the basement, a pre-paid public space, or public parking, make sure you have one reserved. And this applies at your place of work too.

A car is a complex machine and, over the years, some aspects of ownership have been made easier. But it is important to know a few critical things and all you need to do is look up some YouTube videos to learn or understand them. In my opinion, knowing how to change the tyre, knowing the recommended tyre pressure, how to fill air in them, how to top up the washer fluid, and lastly, how to jumpstart your vehicle are my top recommendations for what you should know.

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