Buying a Car, Part 1: Using the Design Process’ Decision-Making Steps to Choose

My impending move to the countryside demands car ownership, and I just signed the papers on a new vehicle. As a city-dweller unfamiliar with the car buying process, choosing a model seemed daunting–until I approached it the way I would any design problem. Here I’ll recount the steps I took.

1. Establish Parameters

Design is about making decisions, and I needed a way to narrow down the options. As of last year there were 275 different automobile models for sale in the U.S. Ideally I wanted to get that number down to five contenders or less.

A. I started by ticking off my ideal car’s general, desired qualities:

– Utility
– Safety
– Fun

B. Then I addressed my impending geographical situation:

– Remote, rural location
– Four seasons
– Possibility of unpaved roads

C. Next I considered what I’d use the car for:

– Carrying groceries and supplies
– Carrying lumber for DIY/shop projects
– Moving interstate
– Transporting two dogs

2. Determine the Ideal Outcome

By considering everthing above, I could then drill down into the first three categories listed:


– Four wheel drive (see: Remote location, Four seasons)
– Can carry lumber and bulky supplies
– Can carry two dogs


– Reliable, won’t break down in a remote region in inclement weather
– Good crash test results
– High driving position in case of impact with SUV or truck (the dominant vehicle in the region I’m moving to)


– Stickshift
– Quick acceleration
– Low road position for cornering

3. Narrow Down Solutions Using Client Preferences and Environmental Factors

The bulk of the qualities point towards a new (i.e. reliable) SUV or truck. But there are, glaringly, two desired qualities on the list that are at odds with each other:

– High driving position vs. Low driving position

This decision was easy to reconcile, using both client preferences (ha) and an environmental factor:

1) I don’t find trucks and SUVs fun to drive.

2) The farm I’m moving to already has an SUV on the property. I wouldn’t necessarily have access to it, but it made sense to me for the farm itself to have a diversity of vehicles.

That knocks out SUV or truck. And I figured that rather than look into crossovers, which are really just baby SUVs that provide what I think of as the worst of both worlds, I’d go with a station wagon.

Station wagons have relatively low driving positions. That’s great for fun driving and terrible if I get T-boned by a Suburban. In this case I looked at the odds of having an accident vs. not having an accident, and was willing to trade safety for fun.

4. Describe the Solution in One Sentence

Now the decision-making is greatly simplified. I’m looking for:

A new, fast, stickshift AWD station wagon.

This neatly narrowed my field from 275 vehicles down to just three or four–because practically no one makes a stickshift station wagon anymore. Volvo, Audi and BMW make manual transmission paddle-shift wagons, but I’d rather drive a goddamned three-on-the-tree than tap on stupid plastic flaps like I’m pretending to be Nico Rosberg.

Next we’ll get into the incredibly lousy UX of car buying and the tricky area of aesthetics.