Your first car

What you need to know to keep down the cost of motoring

There are costs you can't avoid legally no matter how determined you are

There are costs you can't avoid legally no matter how determined you are

Buying and running a car is expensive for anyone, but new drivers seem to have a particularly hard time.

There are lots of decisions to make all at once, but the most important one is to start off with the right car.  The motor trade has some very good honest dealers and some who are just crooks so make your purchase with great care.

It’s easy to buy the wrong thing, but very difficult to sort out later.  You can’t get your money back from someone who has disappeared.

There’s lots of general advice on buying a car in our car buyers guide, but remember, no car manufacturer makes just one of any model.  If the seller looks dodgy, the car is too cheap or there is anything else that makes you suspicious then walk away.  There will be another, much better example.

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Choosing the right car

If you have just started a new job and it’s some distance from home then you are going to clock up the miles fairly quickly.  There’s no point in buying a car with 180,000 miles as there isn’t much life left in it. 

If you only have to travel a few miles every day or the car is mainly so you can meet up with friends then a high mileage well maintained car will be OK.

Before deciding on a particular car, consider all the costs that will be part of ownership too.

More about choosing the right first car »

Keeping costs down once you've bought the car

Costs you can't avoid

There are costs you can't avoid legally no matter how determined you are:

  • Car insurance
  • Car tax – unless the car's in band A, electric or built before 1973
  • MOT test – the annual (after the first three years) road worthiness check
  • Fuel and tyres

Many garages charge less for the MOT than the maximum fee set by the Department for Transport, but it is more important to choose a test station based on reputation and recommendation than on price alone.


If you pick up speeding tickets or, even worse, a conviction for using a hand held mobile phone, premiums will increase and you may find some insurance companies won’t offer you cover.

MoT test

It is a legal requirement for all cars over three years old to be tested annually.

You may save some money and hassle by doing some basic checks before you present the car for test – make sure all the lights and horn work and that the engine has enough oil.  It's worth checking the tyres over for tread depth and any damage too.

The fee varies, but choose a test station where you can talk to the tester after the test and get a feel for the general condition of your car.  They can give advice on what sort of repairs you should expect, even if the car passed the test this time.


Fuel is very expensive and realistically, prices are unlikely to fall significantly. Choose a car with good fuel consumption and then follow some basic eco-driving tips to save a bit more.

Car sharing can help with costs or, if you carry passengers, you can ask them to contribute to the fuel costs.  You mustn’t make a profit though as this will affect your insurance.


Tyres are another big expense so try to get the most out of them – with regular maintenance and gentle driving you should be able to get a minimum of 20,000 miles out of front tyres on a front-wheel-drive car and around twice that for rear tyres.

  • Check pressures regularly – both under and over inflation can increase wear
  • Check for uneven tread wear – worn suspension or incorrect wheel alignment will cut tyre life.  Incorrect wheel alignment also increases drag on the tyres and so fuel consumption goes up too.
  • Drive gently – avoid hard cornering and braking

Although tyres might look like one of your most boring purchases they are your only link with the road surface so don’t be tempted to buy part worn tyres, many of which have dangerous defects.

Servicing and repairs

Regular servicing is essential, but most cars only need a service once a year so try to budget for it,  Main dealers are often expensive so ask family and friends if they know of a good independent garage.

The car should be supplied with its service history/service record and some include the service schedules which list the work which should be done at each service.

Some operations are included in the service but others will be charged at extra cost.

Timing belts

Timing belts must be changed at the manufacturers’ recommended age or mileage – whichever occurs first.  The belt tensioner must also be renewed at the same time because tensioner failure is just as likely as belt breakage.

If either the timing belt or its tensioner breaks, serious and expensive engine damage almost always occurs.

As things wear on your car you get used to the gradual deterioration, because you drive it every day.  When an experienced mechanic drives the car (as part of the service) he may pick up minor defects before they become serious which gives you some time to find the money.

Warning lights

Warning lights illuminate to tell you something has gone wrong – either in the engine management system (so exhaust emissions are affected) or the engine is low on oil, for example.

Other lights tell you the ABS isn’t working, there is a fault in the airbag system, or, on some cars, the tyre pressure monitoring system has detected pressure loss.  The vehicle handbook lists all the warning lights and what they mean.

Red means stop

A red light means stop immediately and get the fault repaired, but that doesn't mean you can ignore an amber light.  These usually mean it’s OK to finish your current journey, but the fault should be checked before you use the car again.

(updated 10 October 2014)


Flower power

Don't forget the basic checks every couple of weeks;

Fuel, Lights, Oil, Water, Electrics, and Rubber

Car safety ratings

Crash test results for popular models since 1997

Euro NCAP crash tests and car safety ratings

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