* Our road tests explained * What's behind the ratings * Written by our road test team...


7) Buying and owning
You might like the way a car looks and drives, but we realise that for many buyers the cost of ownership is also a deciding factor.

What Car?'s mission is to help car buyers, which is why we go into greater depth than many other car magazines or websites in this area, and why it plays such a crucial part in our overall ratings.

For starters, our team of Target Price mystery shoppers tell you what you can expect to pay for a car in the showroom. Each month, they shop around for the best deals, to provide up-to-date information on the kind of discounts that can be achieved.

Dealer discounts need to be weighed up against what you'll lose through depreciation. Our team of residual value experts have a wealth of experience in the used car market and constantly update our figures to provide accurate resale values for the first, second, third and fourth year of ownership.

We also source insurance costs based on a cars group rating, while our realistic three-year maintenance cost figures are provided by Lexautolease (0800 0854128).

We understand that, for many people, the cost of running a car on a company fleet is equally important. Thats why we source regularly updated contract hire rates from HSBC Vehicle Finance (0845 344 1240). We also do the maths to tell you how much youll pay in company car tax, whether youre in the 20% or 40% tax bracket.

For every car we test, all these figures are carefully studied against those of rival vehicles before we make our final judgement.

8) Safety and security
We pay attention to a cars Euro NCAP crash rating (where tested), but our overall safety and security rating is based on a What Car? points system. Marks are awarded according to standard equipment as follows:

Safety equipment (points awarded)
Driver airbag (5)
Passenger airbag (5)
Front side airbags (15)
Curtain airbags (20)
Rear side airbags (10)
Driver knee airbag (5)
Laminated side glass (5)
Traction control (5)
Stability control (20)
Active anti-whiplash head restraints (10)
Security equipment (points awarded)
Deadlocks (25)Immobiliser (25)
Visible VIN (10)
Marked mechanical parts (10)
Etched windows (5)
Locking wheelnuts (5)
Secure spare wheel (5)
Secure storage (5)
Stereo (max 10)
- fully integrated (10)
- unique fit (5)
- Removable panel (5)

How the points relate to star rating
0-40 pts =
41-80 =
81-120 =
121-160 =
161-200 =

9) Quality and reliability
Luxury cars are trimmed with some of the finest leathers and wood around, but that doesnt necessarily mean theyre better built or more reliable than cheaper models.

When making our ratings in this category, our brief is to strike the right balance between showroom quality and long-term reliability.

Were well aware that most buyers want their car to be as durable as possible, which is why we spend lots of time poring over every nook and cranny of a cars cabin, comparing its materials, build quality and fit and finish with those of its rivals.

We also realise that buyers who choose prestige brands expect a certain standard of quality, and our vast experience of the modern car market and comprehensive group tests allow us to put any car however cheap or expensive into context with its peers.

Our experience is vital, but we back up our impressions with hard facts. Every year we publish a reliability survey in partnership with Warranty Direct, the UKs largest independent warranty provider. Historical data from these surveys helps to guide us as we decide on current ratings.

We also listen to what owners have to say. The reader reviews on whatcar.com provide a wealth of information on real-life ownership that is fed back into the reviews we write.

Our annual customer satisfaction survey produced in partnership with JD Power is another valuable resource.

The 2010 survey, for instance, drew upon the combined experiences of more than 17,200 motorists, who each travelled an average of 17,386 miles per year. The entire ownership experience including overall appeal, reliability, interior and exterior quality, and dealer service is covered by the survey. We scrutinize the results achieved by both overall brands and individual models over the years when marking cars in this category.