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Buying Used? Get data first---then take a test drive.

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Everyone looking for a new ride must begin with this decision: new or used?

Auto manufacturers have been trying desperately, through various types of discounts, to get consumers to buy new models. Ironically, those efforts make used cars more attractive as well. "The latest round of incentives has started to really depress used-car prices," says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research. Every dollar of incentives offered by manufacturers on new cars depresses prices at the "pre-owned" lot by $1.05 to $1.10, says Spinella. So, used-car prices are down about 5 percent in the past year.

Caution is important in buying any vehicle, but it's central to purchasing a used car, few of which come with a warranty. Luckily, the Internet has eased the buying process a bit, so that a consumer's primary decision isn't whether the fast-talking salesman in the plaid jacket is trustworthy or not. "There is more information about used cars and the car market at consumers' fingertips than ever before," says Rob Gentile, associate director of Consumer Reports Auto Price Service.

For a preliminary price check, start at Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com) or Edmunds.com. Keep in mind, however, that such services accept advertising revenue or referral fees from dealers, so use their data as a broad guide only.

To check a model's safety record, try the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (nhtsa.dot.gov) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (hwysafety.org). Models just a few years old won't have safety features such as side-impact air bags.

Once you've picked a vehicle and dealer, get the vehicle identification number. The VIN and $25 will get you a vehicle's detailed history, including accident information, from Carfax (carfax.com). Only reported incidents are included, of course. Consumer Reports' paid site (consumerreports.org) has much of the above information, plus ratings and reviews.

That's a great start, but only a start. It can't substitute for a buyer's own eyes and ears, or those of a professional. Many used-car dealers will let shoppers drive a car to a mechanic for a quick inspection. "The $100 you spend on a mechanic may save you thousands later on," says Gentile. A test-drive is an absolute must-not just to see or hear potential problems but to determine if the vehicle is right for a particular driver. Some cars just don't suit, say, tall people or people who don't deal well with blind spots. And though the Internet has shrunk the blind spots of used-car shopping considerably, consumers should still be wary of making sudden moves.

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