What to Look for When Test-Driving a Car

Allison Kade

When you’re shopping for a car, there’s a lot to consider. Do you want a new car or a used car? What features or technologies are important to you? And how will you know when you’ve found the right car? Thankfully, you can answer these questions, at least in part, by test-driving your options.

Here’s how you can get the most out of your test drive at the dealership.

Make a Plan

Think about what you want. If you’re planning to replace an old car, list what you do and don’t like about it. How are its handling and performance? Are there any features you have but never use? And are there other features you wish you had? Write these things down and use this list to figure out what’s most important for you to have in your next car.

Stay focused. If you’re looking for a standard four-cylinder car that will get you from point A to point B, don’t let yourself be persuaded to test drive a similar model with a six-cylinder engine or upgraded features. You don’t want to find yourself attached to a too-fancy model that costs way more than you budgeted for. It’s better to skip the test drive and avoid the potential disappointment.

Plan your own route. The salesperson who’s accompanying you on your test drive will likely suggest a driving route that’s car-friendly–one that won’t stress the engine or suspension too much. For a more realistic sense of the car’s handling, plan your own, more vigorous route in advance. Include different types of roads, various driving surfaces and so on. It’s also a good idea to take your current car out for the same ride beforehand so that you can compare and contrast the experiences.

Don’t skimp on your test drive. After all, this is your chance to test out the vehicle before you buy or lease it. Take the car out for 10 miles or more so that you can get a feel for it and check whether any issues arise once you get it warmed up.

Take notes immediately after you return. Write down your thoughts on appearance, performance and any perks or flaws you notice in the car. This will help you remember each particular vehicle when the memories of the test drives start to meld together. If you take a spouse or companion with you for the test drive, that person can take notes for you while you drive.

Establish a test-drive routine. Maybe you always try out a U-turn and a K-turn, fiddle with the side mirrors, test out the seat warmer, plug your phone into the car charger and listen to the same radio station. Whatever it is, if you follow the same routine every time you take a car out, it will be easier to compare across test drives.

Driving Dynamics

The car’s handling should inspire confidence, so pay attention to steering responsiveness, predictability and feedback. The brakes should bite quickly and bring the car to a stop within a predictable distance. Listen for any brake noises. Do they squeak, or feel jumpy? Take notice of how the brakes respond during normal use and if you come to a sudden halt.

Acceleration should be smooth and provide enough power to pass other people on the road with ease. If you can, test the car both on the street and the highway, and try passing a couple of other vehicles on the road to see how the car handles.

If you’re testing a manual transmission, shift into each gear. Bear in mind the ease of the transition and the clutch sensitivity.

Creature Comforts

Make sure that the driver’s seat provides a good view of the road and your surroundings. Does the rearview mirror capture everything you need to see? Are there any big blind spots?

If you frequently have passengers, test out both the passenger seat and the back seat. Bring someone with you and have that person adjust the passenger seat, recline and gauge the general comfort. Make sure the back seats have enough headspace and legroom.

Get in and out of each door, particularly when parked next to another vehicle. Is there enough clearance for your head? Can you squeeze out if the door is partially opened?

Place your personal items in the car as if it were your own. After all, not having enough interior storage spaces or cup holders could become a nuisance in day-to-day life. Are you attached to having an armrest next to the driver’s seat that opens up into additional storage? Check the trunk and think about what you might need to pack away in there and how much space it’ll require.

Pay attention to road noise, especially at highway speeds. Make sure the radio is off while you do this. And check the climate control features. How quickly does the vehicle cool down and heat up?

Smart Tech

Think about how techy you like your vehicles. Some people love the features and gadgets, whereas others become frustrated by excessively complicated control panels when all they want to do is turn on the A/C. Test out all the high-tech features during your test-drive, leaving nothing out, so that you know what you’re getting into—and paying for.

Bring any devices you might want to connect via Bluetooth, WiFi or a jack. How easy is it to link your device to the car? Is the connection strong or does it drop? If you and your spouse will share the car and you both plan to link your devices to the vehicle, try linking one device, disconnecting it and then linking another to see how easy the transition is.

If you’re trying out a vehicle with built-in GPS, bring a mount for your smartphone and test their navigation side by side. Does the integrated GPS update and reroute as quickly as Google Maps or Waze? Weigh the cost of an integrated GPS system against its benefits, and remember that most smartphones have access to free maps and real-time traffic updates. Also, check that the music volume is automatically lowered whenever the voice navigation is activated.

Some vehicles come with voice recognition systems that can dial numbers, send texts and answer questions while you’re driving. Yet for many people, this is actually one of their vehicle’s most-hated features. So if you’re attracted to this perk, test it thoroughly: Does it hear you easily? Do you have to repeat yourself a million times? Will it be a source of distraction while driving?

Some newer cars offer heads-up displays, or HUDs, which project digital images on the windshield so that you can see information like your speed, weather reports, engine data and even incoming emails without taking your eyes off the road. The idea is that this is a safer way for drivers to access the information they need without having to fuss with countless phones and GPS screens and apps.

If the vehicle you’re test-driving comes with HUD technology, definitely try it out. See how you feel. You may love having that information right in front of you, or you may find it distracting.

Other smart features include auto-parking, that is, the ability of a car to parallel park itself. If this feature is available, try it out. If it works and you’re interested in it, consider whether it’s something you actually need to improve your driving experience.

Predict which features you’ll actually use. A 2015 report from J.D. Power found that 43 percent of drivers never actually used their in-vehicle GPS systems, and that features like HUD, built in apps, auto parking and mobile connectivity went unused about a third of the time. In contrast, safety add-ons, such as blind-spot warning systems ranked very high in terms of driver use.

For Used Cars

Take your test drive and inspect the car during the day so that you can look for any hidden dings or rust. Check the underside for leaks before and after the test drive because some fluids will not flow until the car has been running.

Check the oil. Levels should be above the minimum mark and the color should be somewhere between amber and dark brown, not black or milky. When you open the hood, pay attention to any strong smells, which could indicate trouble. Have the salesperson start the car while the hood is open and listen for any hisses or knocks. Check your rearview mirror when accelerating and decelerating to look for any smoke coming from the tailpipe.

Make sure the tires are not worn unevenly, which may shorten their life and make the vehicle unsafe. All tires should be the same brand and size, and should have at least a quarter-inch tread. Purposely take the car over bumps (you may want to give the salesperson a heads up) to see how the car responds.

Open and close all doors, the hood and the trunk to ensure they operate smoothly. Also, test all of the locks and the windows to check for issues.

It’s always possible that a used car was in an undisclosed accident. To check for the plastic body filler used to repair dents, touch a rubber magnet to the sides of the vehicle. If there are areas where it doesn’t stick, this could indicate that there were repairs to the body of the car.

When the Drive Is Over

Salespeople are notorious for trying to keep you around after a test drive in an effort to make the sale. To avoid a delay when you’re ready to leave, bring copies of your driver’s license for the dealer to keep so that you don’t have to wait a long time for your license to be returned.

If you’re looking to trade in your car, the salesperson may try to take your keys in order to appraise its potential trade-in value. Resist by saying that you’re still thinking about it. That way, if you’re not quite ready to talk numbers after your drive, you won’t have to wait for the dealer to retrieve your keys or finish the inspection before you can take off.

If you bring a companion, not only can that person help you work through how you feel about the car, but they can provide an excuse to get on the road after your drive (“We have dinner plans!”), which can give you a chance to think, away from the salesperson’s pressure to close the deal.

If you’re serious about a vehicle, ask whether you can take it home overnight. Some dealerships allow potential buyers to take a 24-hour test drive. This would give you a chance to evaluate the car, without the dealer’s spin in your ear.

Test-driving a car—and deciding whether to buy—can be a stressful experience. But, it doesn’t have to be. Going to the dealership with a plan in place can help you take charge of the situation and make a smart decision.

Keep Reading: Electrics, Hybrids and Gas-Sippers: Understanding Your Green Driving Options

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