Diesels are bad for the environment. The Prius is good for the environment. Bigger is safer. American cars are junk. As someone who constantly gives advice to people who want insight before they buy a new vehicle it's amazing how stunningly wrong people are about the state of modern cars. Correct your assumptions or risk getting screwed.
Some of these wrongheaded beliefs are encouraged by car companies and marketing experts, while others are earnest biases formed by years of experience that are nevertheless out-of-date.
If you're an enthusiast you know all this and can just refer friends to this article. If you're going to buy a new car I've decided to address the most common misapprehensions below.
Japanese/German Cars Are Good, American/Korean Cars Are Bad
Would that the world were that simple.
Here's a fact that will blow your mind: The worst new car you can buy in the U.S. today is a Japanese car. While Mitsubishi was once a great car company, the 2012 Mitsubishi Galant (still for sale at some dealerships) is absolute crap. The new Mitsubishi Lancer isn't that much better. And the Mirage? Don't get me started.
The same goes for storied nameplates. Cars like the new Civic and Corolla aren't bad, exactly, but there's a similar or better American or Korean alternative in nearly every class of car you can imagine. Want an Acura? You may be surprised that Buick actually makes the car you probably you want.
Yes, a few mediocre American cars like the Chrysler 200 remain, but post-bankruptcy the American automakers have all vastly improved and are now often exceeding their competition.
While it was true not long ago that Korean cars were mostly junk, both Hyundai and Kia have invested huge sums of money (taking advantage of a purposefully spiked currency) to build cars that are great performers as well as stellar values.
German cars, once the best in luxury, now have real competition as well. The Cadillac ATS is just a bit as good as the BMW 3-Series and we'd rather have a new 2014 Cadillac CTS than an Audi A6. That doesn't mean German cars aren't amazing, it just means you'd be foolish not to cross-shop them.
I had to push hard to convince a fellow journalist she'd be ok in a Cadillac as opposed to a European luxury car and, eventually, she listened. The car is great, she's happy.
A Hybrid, Especially The Toyota Prius, Is Good For The Environment
No cars are good for the environment, just accept that. There's not a magical tree in Northern California that drops little fully formed Teslas from its branches to be collected by elves and shipped to rich environmentalists. The construction of any car not made from mud is a dirty process.
At best, you can get a car that's less bad. If you really wanted to help the environment you'd drive less, move to an urban center, take public transit, get a bike, and compost.
Don't think that buying a Prius will exempt you from your behavior, I don't care how many ads they show with it shitting rainbows in a magical forest. If you lose a car that gets half the mileage of a Prius but drive twice as much the impact is the same. It's also probably going to be a long time before you save any money considering the premium that exists for many hybrid models (5-10 years, on average two years ago).
Edmunds found that a normal driver would need 7.5 years to make up the cost difference between buying a Toyota Corolla as opposed to a similar Toyota Prius.
If it's a reasonable time for you to get a new car and you can't (or don't want to) keep your older car running and you have no choice but to commute a long distance into work then a hybrid might be a good option, but it's also possible there's a gasoline-powered car that gets similar mileage, is much cheaper, and isn't full of batteries (which aren't great for the environment).
Diesels Are Bad
It's a common misconception amongst some that diesel vehicles are slow and polluting. This comes partially from our history with diesels in this country. GM produced some truly awful vehicles in the past, tis true. Europe is full of diesels, which tend to be more efficient than their gasoline counterparts and use filtration technology to keep particulate matter out of the air (the one area where they do pollute more).
And while your grandma's 1970's Mercedes sedan was slow as a tractor, a modern Audi diesel, for example, provides stellar power and great gas mileage. I just drove a full-sized Audi A8 TDI about 400 miles round trip and averaged in the 30s. According to the EPA it gets 36 MPG highway, compared to 28 MPG for a comparable gasoline version.
Power is great, propelling the massive land yacht to 60 mph in the mid-5 second range.
As with hybrids, you'll have to decide if the mileage advantage makes up for the cost premium, but for individuals who spend a lot of time commuting on the highway these can make more sense fiscally and environmentally than an equivalent hybrid.
Bigger Is Safer
This is tricky as there are factors most people don't consider.
Yes, if you're in a Miata and someone else is in Suburban that's going to be worse for you. There's no getting around that.
As the IIHS says:
Smaller, lighter vehicles generally offer less protection than larger, heavier ones.
But let's go deeper into those physics. Force = Mass x Acceleration so the bigger and heavier your car, the more force there will be in the accident. Two Suburbans crashing into one another at the same speed as two Miatas doing the same creates a lot more force on account of there being more mass.
Overall, your best defense against dying in a car accident is not getting into one in the first place and the bigger and heavier your vehicle is, generally, the harder it is for you to avoid a crash.
If a couch falls in the middle of the road that Miata is probably going to be able to out-brake or out-maneuver the Suburban.
Picking a bigger or heavier vehicle purely to be safe is like wearing two condoms when you have sex with prostitutes if you want to avoid getting an STD when really: Just stop having sex with prostitutes.
Hatchbacks Are Cheap And Undesirable
This seems to be mostly centered around older individuals who associate a trunk with wealth and a hatchback with thrift. Understandable if you lived in the '70s and '80s (or watched a lot of Frasier), but it's more likely for the inverse to to be true now.
It's a matter of personal preference whether or not you prefer a hatchback body style (I do), but I don't see how anyone looks at an Audi A7 and thinks it isn't gorgeous.
For most new cars, the hatchback'd alternative is actually more expensive on account of offering more space and more usability.
An example, the new Ford Focus starts at $16,130 for the sedan and $18,625 for the hatchback.
These are just a few of the most obvious ones. Please include your favorite misconceptions below.