What’s the first thing you should do when checking out a potential car purchase? Kick the tires? Look under the hood? Sit behind the wheel and imagine yourself speeding down the Autobahn at 90 miles per hour?

No, the first thing you should do is figure out what kind of vehicle you need and want.

“Try the vehicle on for size, before you even leave your home,” advised Matt Hehl, communications manager for Minneapolis AAA. “Does the car fit you, or whoever is going to drive it?”

That’s the best time to narrow down the vehicles you’re interested in. Take a look at what’s out there, on car shopping websites or on major dealerships’ sites, most of which offer their entire inventory online.

Decide what you’ll need from the vehicle. Will you need it to tow things, or carry multiple passengers? Will you be driving mostly for business or pleasure? Do you want a load of luxury features, or (keeping in mind that more features can mean more repairs) would you prefer a more stripped-down model?

Check the asking prices against the Kelley Blue Book, (www.kbb.com), which provides widely accepted price guidlines. Check the safety ratings with the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, (www.ihhs.org).

Make a list of cars you’d like to see, including what you like about them. Then head out and look at each one, noting the following:

• Is the driver’s seat roomy and comfortable? Check leg room, pedals, steering wheel, visibility in all directions. Are the mirrors easy to access and adjust? Are the controls within reach and easy to read?

• What’s the back seat like? If you’re going to be carrying passengers, you might want to jump back there and see what the ride will be like for them. If you’ve got a baby or small child, will car seats fit well?

• What’s the storage like? Is it ample for your needs?

• When you take it for a spin, drive it as if you owned it. Does it have the oomph to pass other cars? Does it brake efficiently? Does it handle well on different kinds of roads?

• Ask the seller if you can have a mechanic give the vehicle a once over. Many mechanics will do this for regular customers at little to no cost, Hehl said. Ask your mechanic if that particular model has any notorious problems. Have him or her check the tire treads — will they need replacing soon?

When determining the value of a vehicle, remember to calculate the “real cost” of ownership, Hehl said. So take into account not only the sticker price, but also fuel efficiency (a smaller car or engine uses less gas), whether the vehicle takes regular or premium gas, insurance rates (certain models come with higher premiums — give your agent a call for a quote), repair and maintenance costs (some cars, particularly certain imports, are more difficult to fix or require expensive parts), cost of registration, taxes and licensing.

“Our vehicles are a major factor in our quality of life,” Hehl said. “Make sure you’re buying the right vehicle.”