The numbers on dealership window stickers can often been misleading.

The numbers on dealership window stickers can often been misleading. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

10. Cupholder counts

America is a thirsty nation, as evidenced by the proliferation of vehicle cupholders and the marketing thereof. Nowhere is this more evident than in minivans, where cupholder counts hover around 20. Not all of these cupholders are as useful as others. Shallow depressions in folded seatbacks are the worst offenders, simultaneously adding holders while evicting passengers. When will the madness end?

9. Audio speaker count and wattage

A lot of speakers in a car seems impressive, but does it sound that way? A high speaker count doesn't guarantee quality; in fact, the addition of speakers complicates the design and can muddy the sound. Would you rather eat one good apple or 18 mealy ones? The actual performance is all that matters. Likewise, high-wattage amplifier ratings don't guarantee sound quality or volume. Lower-efficiency speakers can require amps with twice the wattage or more. A loud car can overcome a powerful system where a quiet one can get by with modest power. The only solution is to drive and listen.

8. Wheel and tire sizes

OK, these numbers don't really lie; a 20-inch wheel measures 20 inches in diameter, but more isn't necessarily better. Wheels have grown in the past few years because they look better, they can improve handling and, as usual, higher numbers look more impressive in advertisements. Unfortunately, large wheels come with skinnier tires, which tend to firm up the ride quality, trading comfort for handling characteristics many people won't appreciate. Even worse: Large wheels and tires are more expensive to replace -- a reality owners are only beginning to recognize a few years into this phenomenon. Check into replacement costs before you go large.

7. Seating dimensions

The published seating dimensions are close to what you could call standardized, but the problem is they are a dumbed-down representation of three-dimensional space. For example, two car seats with the same dimensions can feel very different to the occupant: One seat can feel like a high chair with little kick room, while the other feels like sitting on the floor with one's legs sticking straight out. The only way to know if a car suits you is to try it on for size -- or in this case, for shape.

6. Transmission gear counts

Since the last time you purchased a car, the number of gears in automatic transmissions has increased and may have even doubled. Five-speeds are becoming passe, and six-speeds are already giving way to seven-, eight- and, soon, nine-speeds. The higher counts provide a theoretical mileage and performance advantage, but what if they're balky and unresponsive? All that really matters is mileage and how the car accelerates. Don't be swayed by impressive numbers.

5. Horsepower ratings

Automakers frequently advertise horsepower ratings to suggest superiority over competitors, but power ratings mean little when taken alone. One vehicle can have 10 horsepower more -- or even 200 hp more -- than a competing model and still accelerate more slowly, and it can definitely guzzle more gas. Weight plays a major part, as do the transmission and overall gearing. The bottom-line characteristics are acceleration and mileage. You'll need to investigate mileage ratings and drive the car yourself to know for sure.

4. MPG advertising emphasizes fuel economy, but shoppers shouldn't view mileage ratings casually. The advertising of EPA estimates is tightly regulated, but nothing stops manufacturers from pitching their most efficient model and posting an asterisk next to it. You might find that the most efficient model is the least desirable, the least available, is limited to a particular transmission type or requires a higher trim level or option packages at higher prices. Times have changed, and the most affordable version isn't necessarily the most efficient.

3. Financing advertising

Offers of zero-percent financing and other low rates do a great job of attracting shoppers, and that's their purpose. Listen closely to the commercial or look for the fine print and you'll see the disclaimer "for qualified buyers." A fraction of buyers qualify, and the interest rates tend to increase as consumers' personal credit ratings decrease. These deals might still be attractive, but you'll have to budget for the reality, not the best-case scenario.

2. Price advertising

Similar to the MPG caveat, be aware that automakers may advertise as a model's starting price a version that's stripped down to the bare minimum of features, and the more desirable versions typically cost thousands of dollars more. Even if you want the base model, you might find it hard to come by. Such a car may be designed specifically to set a low price with no expectation of selling them in volume.

1. Seat counts

Most vehicles on the market are five-seaters. But are they really? Just try to fit three people across the backseat of any car. Even kids struggle to fit. And how about child-safety seats? They're as large or larger as kids in some cases. Subtract 1 from every seat tally for a better idea of how many passengers will actually fit. Beware the third-row seat, which typically is for kids, and don't get us started on "2+2"coupes, where the "+2" refers to two cupholders masquerading as a backseat. It's more like "2+0.5."

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