The finishing touches are being put on 750,000 square feet of automotive displays as the Philadelphia Auto Show prepares to roll in to the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Saturday (Feb. 2-10). And while visitors can snake their way among the tires and chrome — checking out well-kept vintage cars and high-end models fresh from the factory — the Auto Show also provides car buyers a practical opportunity to comparison shop in a low-pressure environment.

“Forty percent of people who come to the show will buy a new car within the next 12 months,” reports Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the Philadelphia Auto Show.

Even before I became Mr. Driver’s Seat, I always had my eye out for my next vehicle; the Auto Show was a great chance to check them out. Here’s how car shoppers can use the event to formulate a purchase plan and put it into action as they wander among the 250,000 people and 700 vehicles expected this year.

Determining a budget

If you’re one of the lucky few who can pay cash for a car, then your budget is the amount you can (or care to) spend. Otherwise, people planning payments need to consider several factors, according to Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America and author of The Car Book, an annual look at models available to U.S. consumers, now in its 39th year.

“I think first and foremost is sit down and make a determination of how often you’re going to use the car,” Gillis said.

A main car for a single person or a family might warrant a bigger budget than a second or third car. A car that travels longer distances or carries the family probably also allows for a bigger investment. Even so, Gillis advised factoring in your mortgage or rent and credit card debt costs when determining how much you can afford in a monthly car payment. The total of the three costs combined should remain below 50 percent of your monthly income.

Ron Montoya, advice editor for automotive website Edmunds, suggested limiting a car payment to 15 percent of your income.

Also, consider how long the loan term is. Five- and six-year loan terms are becoming common, but they may leave the consumer owing more than the car is worth if it’s totaled or needs to be sold during that time.

“People should always pick a shorter loan time than you think you can handle,” Gillis recommended.

Montoya agreed. “The goal of owning a car is to pay it off and experience and enjoy not paying for it,” he said. But Montoya conceded that cars are becoming more expensive, and, thus, the average car loan term in the United States is 69 months. (Mr. Driver’s Seat has raised four kids on a journalist’s salary, so these great guidelines are just that — guidelines. Sometimes faith in a higher power or even in sheer dumb luck can be a requirement for life’s bigger purchases.)

Picking a size or style

This is where an event like the Philadelphia Auto Show is handiest. Almost every car available for the model year can be found on display at the show, and people can get a sense of what vehicles are actually like to live with.

“You may see a picture of the new SUV, but you don’t know how Bobby and Cindy fit into that backseat,” Mazzucola said.

Mr. Driver’s Seat learned a lot stuffing Sturgis Kids 1.0 through 4.0 into various vehicles over the years. Mainly we learned that once everyone got bigger, only a minivan would do the trick. Even the huge SUVs don’t offer that kind of space.

And the chance to hop around without a sales pitch is a big relief.

“One thing that’s great about the Auto Show is it allows you to really take a good look at a number of vehicles without sales pressure,” Gillis said.

New or used?

Using the all-new models at the Auto Show to buy a used car may seem counterintuitive, but that’s how Mr. Driver’s Seat has always played it. Car models can run several years with only minor updates — the latest Ford Explorer first hit the market in 2011.

We’ve had pretty good success over the years; the old ideas about used cars are falling by the wayside.

“Today, buying a used car doesn’t really mean you’re buying somebody else’s troubles,” Gillis said. “[Car rental] fleets turn over cars, leased cars are turned over on a regular basis, and there are plenty of good used cars on the marketplace.”

Indeed, Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for Edmunds, said 2019 should be a banner year for used-car buyers.

“2016 was highest volume of leasing that we’ve seen,” Caldwell said. “A lot of these vehicles will be coming back in 2019 — leading to high numbers for 2019.” She expects 4.3 million vehicles will be returned from leases in 2019, up 300,000 over 2018.

Shopping for used cars has its drawbacks. Finding the smallest models can be difficult, mainly because so few are sold (and the frugal people who buy them tend to hang on to them). And new cars come with better interest rates, if you’re financing. But there are still big savings in used cars.

“You save about 50 percent on ownership and operation cost,” Gillis said. “The first owner has absorbed most of the depreciation.”

And considering leasing for a lower monthly payment? Don’t.

“Leasing is always going to cost you more,” Gillis said. “Sometimes what happens with the lease is the sticker shock doesn’t come until the end of the lease when you realize you’ve gone over your mileage limits and there’s some extra wear and tear — and then you have nothing.”

Doing your research

Though the Auto Show is a great place to get information, it’s wise to do your research in the comfort of your own home first. Decide who you are when it comes to your car: Hate dealing with repairs? Focus on reliability scores. Want the best bargain? Look at price. Have a favorite trusted brand? Stick with it.

The Driver’s Seat column (Sundays in the Inquirer) offers reviews and driving information to readers with a delightfully snarky twist, or so I’ve said.

Beyond that, Edmunds.com offers comprehensive reviews and pricing info, including what other area consumers have paid for various models. The site also has estimates of used cars for purchase or trade-in as well.

Consumer Reports is another source for comprehensive reviews, and it gathers reliability data from its members’ surveys; it’s really my go-to source for this information.

Each edition of Gillis’ The Car Book has reviews of almost every car on the market for that particular model year, with an emphasis on safety features and dependability. It goes so far as to provide a model-by-model list of prices for nine common parts that need to be replaced after the warranty runs out.

Final steps

Never buy a used car without running it past your mechanic, who will look it over and inform you of any issues beforehand. I run — not walk — away from dealers or private parties who won’t let me borrow the car to do this (and to test it for a longer term).

And on price, Mr. Driver’s Seat has always consulted Edmunds. It tells you prices people have paid for their cars in the region.

If you’re trying to get a better deal, finding a model that’s headed for a redesign can be one way to save even more money. As an example, Sturgis Kid 1.0 happened to be in the market for a small hatchback a few years ago, when the Scion brand was being folded back into Toyota. I suggested she try for her best deal there; they offered her 0 percent financing, plus cash back, plus discounts, plus a few hundred off that.

But if you’d rather have someone do the haggling for you, plenty of sites I’ve mentioned and others I haven’t will do so — even Costco offers a car-buying service. Gillis, though, recommended a site that was new to me: carbargains.org. The nonprofit site will get five dealers in your area to bid against each other.

It charges a $250 fee, so be sure you want that model first, but Gillis said the dealers know you’ve paid that fee and are serious about shopping.

“It creates a very intense bidding situation,” Gillis said.

Having dealers bid on you — a car buyer’s dream.

Now, off to the Philadelphia Auto Show!

The Philadelphia Auto Show: Feb. 2-10. Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1101 Arch St. Hours vary. $14, $7 for children 7-12, and free for children under 6. phillyautoshow.com