AKA how to buy a car without paying too much or losing your soul.
1. FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT. I don't know you, don't ask ME what you want! But you should ask your friends, family, those folks in the parking lot.
2. DRIVE, DRIVE, DRIVE. Test drive anything you are considering. Take some time. Test drive again. If you can POSSIBLY afford it, rent one for a weekend. (At least one rental car company probably has what you want, and you will likely get your request if you rent on a non-holiday weekend.) When you pick a brand, figure out what features are important to you. Some brands have loads of options, others you pick a trim level and that's that. You need to know this for...
3. USE THE INTERNET, PART ONE. Educate the heck out of yourself. Dealer holdbacks, manufacturer's incentives, special programs. There are all sorts of tricks to make that 'dealer invoice' number THOUSANDS more than what the dealer actually paid. You will never actually find that, even Consumer Reports and Edmonds.com way overestimate how much you should pay for the car. But you can get an idea. You also need to know exactly what the manufacturer offers, and what the dealer is putting together on their own to jack the price up.
4. SET THE TONE. This is a HIGHLY competitive market. And dealers are hurting. No one is buying right now, so you are figuratively and literally in the driver's seat. I am not talking about being cutthroat. They deserve to make a living just like anyone else. But YOU deserve a fair price on a car, and any dealership that will play games, add mandatory 'appearance package' items to all its cars, or refuses to give you a straight number is not someone you need to waste your time with.
5. USE THE INTERNET, PART TWO. When you know what you want, exactly, start emailing dealerships. Ask for a quote. You want a DETAILED quote, including all taxes, fees, the base price, delivery charge, and what the 'out the door' price will be. Lots of places will give you a 'base price' that is crazy low. But then they add a jacked up appearance package, several other services and fees, and other things to drive your bottom line price up. Keep track of all the prices, I used a spreadsheet but a notebook or anything you can keep everyone straight in is fine. When you get a good price, send out a message of 'hey, I got this, can you beat that?' Be polite, respectful, and businesslike at all times. Even when you are dealing with total jokers, and trust me you will be at some of these places. Keep going back and forth until you get a good price from several dealerships that you would actually be willing to walk into.
6a. CLOSE THE DEAL, BUT ... Go to your number one choice, with an appointment with a real live person who knows exactly what you want and exactly what you have agreed to pay for it. If you need financing, you should be pre-approved with your own financial institution. Credit unions are great. The dealership will likely have a better interest rate, but if you have the money already available it forces them to 'do better' if they want your business. And you are not stuck just accepting whatever interest rate they feel like offering you. They WILL charge you whatever they think they can get away with. Do a test drive of the actual car, and then sit down with all the paperwork and make sure everything is to your liking, which leads to...
6b. BE PREPARED TO WALK. If they add extras, bait and switch, put fishy stuff in the fine print, you get up, shake their hands, thank them for their time, and walk away. PSYCH yourself up for this possibility. You buy a car once every few years, they sell them day in and day out. They are pros, and if you get a slimey one you may feel trapped into buying something. You can always walk away. And you should if they do not treat you with respect. That is what makes the internet so wonderful. If you DO walk away, you have two or three other places in your back pocket to go to. All you have lost is a couple hours of your time.
7. TALK TRADE IN. Now??!! Yes, now. This assumes you are getting rid of a car. You don't want to talk trade until the very end, otherwise it will be rolled into everything and you will never really know what you paid for the new one and what you got for the old one. Also, always remember that you are going to get more if you sell it yourself most of the time. There are good reasons not to bother, but you need to figure out what is most important in your situation and go from there.