You can’t put it off any longer—a trip to the car dealership is in your near future. But how can you be sure that hunk of metal, plastic, and rubber you’re eyeing is right for you? How can you best acquaint yourself with what will be not only one of your largest investments but also a trusted, long-term companion in your everyday life? A test drive, of course. Making the most of it is a simple matter of common sense, careful observation, and knowing what to look for. Read on for how to prepare yourself for this all-important experience and what to keep track of when taking a new car out for the first time.
Do Your Homework
Don’t wander onto the lot to see what cars are available. By the time you show up at a dealership, you should already know what model(s) you want and what options you are interested in. Do your research ahead of time—our online buyer’s guide is a handy tool—and make the initial trip solely for the purpose of getting behind the wheel. Additionally:
• Drive your potential candidates back-to-back on the same day so you can make a proper comparison.
• Consider bringing a friend along to keep the salesperson occupied and point out things you might overlook.
• Although you should press to take the vehicle home overnight—as many dealers now allow—to get comfortable with it and see if it fits in your garage, at least make an attempt to come back at night to observe how well the headlights perform and how well the interior is illuminated.
Once you’re at the dealership, let the salesperson know you want to drive the vehicle(s) you have in mind and then you’ll be comparing models and prices at other showrooms. Doing this should allow you to better focus on your prospective ride while communicating to the dealer that you’re prepared to take your business elsewhere if an attractive offer can’t be made.
• Because certain options and powertrains can greatly alter the feel of a vehicle, it’s important to drive the particular model and trim level you intend to purchase. If your dealer doesn’t have the powertrain you are looking for, wait, or find one that does. Take your time, and thoroughly go over the car, taking notes and analyzing how the vehicle looks in the metal versus in photographs.
• Although turning the key and mashing the throttle might be your first inclination on a test drive, instead walk around the vehicle and inspect it thoroughly.
• Observe how certain features might become irritating in day-to-day use, such as inadequate storage cubbies and cup holders, as well as a trunk that is difficult to operate or has an opening that is too small or too high. (Are the running boards necessary, or are they just going to dirty your pant leg for more money?)
• The driver’s and front passenger’s doors may be large and easy to open and close, but also examine the ease of entry and exit for rear-seat occupants, including ingress and egress to the third row of seats, if applicable, and how difficult it is to install a child seat.
• Are the rear seats adjustable, comfortable, and sufficient in size, and do they fold down for greater cargo capacity?
• Remember to review the vehicle’s safety features, such as the number of airbags, active-safety electronics, and adjustable seatbelts.
• If children will be riding in the vehicle, bring them along and let them evaluate the separate controls and amenities in the back seat (if they’re old enough to drive themselves—and you’ll actually let them—you probably should get them behind the wheel, too).
• Take note of the vehicle’s fit, finish, and general build quality. Examine certain items that serve as bellwethers for overall craftsmanship, including the quality of the sun visors, glove box, and seat upholstery, as well as the operation of the shifter and how soundly the doors close.
• Find out if the vehicle takes premium or unleaded gasoline—or if it’s a diesel and requires unique maintenance procedures.
• If it’s a convertible, how easy is it to raise and lower the top, and how much storage room is sacrificed when the top is stowed?
• For larger vehicles, you’ll probably want to review towing features and capacities and trailer-hitch type and height, as well as ensure that the proper trailer-electrical connectors are preinstalled at the factory or can be handled by the dealer.
• For pickup trucks, how heavy is the tailgate, and what options are available to improve the usability of the bed?
Going for a Spin
Now you’re ready to climb behind the wheel. Get situated, and take stock of how well the primary controls are laid out. Ergonomics can make or break a good car, and because we spend most of the time inside our vehicles, automakers are putting ever-more effort into differentiating interiors with more style, the latest technologies, and unique layouts.
• Are the primary controls easy to use (is the clutch too hard or the steering too heavy?) and adjustable enough for you and other potential drivers to be comfortable? A telescoping steering wheel and adjustable pedals can be a big benefit in this regard, as driving position is determined by not only the driver’s physique but also things such as the height of the dash and seats, the driver’s distance from the steering wheel—which should be about 12 or more inches—and the ease with which the infotainment system can be operated.
• Are the front seats comfortable and supportive (not too soft or hard)?
• Are there sufficient gauges, readouts, and display screens that are easy to view and operate?
• Don’t forget to check the climate-control system and how effectively it pumps out hot and cold air.
• As electronic gadgets play an increasingly important role in our daily lives, the vehicle’s human-machine interface should be scrutinized. Bring your iPod along to check how good the stereo sounds, along with how easy it is to control the device once it is in sync with the entertainment system.
• Are Bluetooth wireless, Wi-Fi connectivity, and voice activation offered, and how well do they function with your mobile device?
• Is there ample room to conveniently place your gadgets while driving?
• Is the navigation system intuitive to operate and accurate in its directions?
• If the dealership won’t let you borrow the car for the night, tell the salesperson you’ll get a better feel for it if you go out alone, without any distractions. If he insists on coming, make it clear that you want to drive the vehicle on your terms and experience it on multiple road surfaces and at varying speeds—don’t be coerced into a quick jaunt around the dealership on ultra-smooth roads.
• See if the vehicle has enough power to safely merge with highway traffic and if the brakes have a solid, reassuring feel to their operation—but forget about doing your Sebastian Vettel impression for the salesperson.
• Take several corners to evaluate the vehicle’s composure when abruptly changing direction over rough surfaces as well as how smoothly the transmission operates when driving spiritedly.
• Take the time to learn how to park the vehicle. Can you exit with the doors only partly open? How tight is the turning radius? Is the front end so low it scrapes on parking curbs? How difficult is it to parallel-park?
• Visibility, or lack thereof, is another factor to consider when behind the wheel. High-style sheetmetal often means a higher beltline with small, gun-slit windows and compromised outward visibility. Observe how well you can see out in all directions, particularly through the rear window. Does the vehicle have dangerously large blind spots, and if so, does it have blind-spot monitors for assistance?
• How much road noise protrudes into the cabin? Do the tires drone so much they could lull you to sleep on a long road trip? How much wind noise is there, and does the air buffet and rush into the cabin with the windows open?
Reflect On Your Drive
The salesperson knows the best time to make a deal with you is when you return from a test drive, when the new-car smell is still fresh in your nose. But don’t be swayed. Kindly avoid the salesperson’s attempts to lure you back to his or her desk, and instead go see what the rest of the dealership experience is like. As you’ll eventually have to return for service and/or parts, see how well these departments work with you and what the prices are for basic services. At this time you also should review your prospective vehicle’s maintenance schedule.
• How long are the recommended oil change intervals?
• What are the terms of the warranty, and what parts are covered?
• Is replacing expensive performance parts something you’ll have to deal with while you still own the car? Many cars now come standard with upgraded performance brakes and high-performance or run-flat tires. Although these features may be a critical element to a vehicle’s dynamic personality, they are expensive to replace and might require frequent maintenance. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
Once you’ve finished the test drive, go through the process with the other vehicles on your list, leaving time afterward to reflect on each vehicle and which one suits you best. Only after this should you return to the showroom and start the buying process. This level of preparation does not guarantee that you’ll love your new car forever, but it is due diligence for a major purchase and will likely make you more confident in your final decision.
Mike Sutton is an editor, writer, test driver, and general car nerd who has contributed to Car and Driver’s reverent and irreverent passion for the automobile since 2008. A native Michigander from suburban Detroit, he enjoys the outdoors and complaining about the weather, has an affection for off-road vehicles, and believes in federal protection for naturally aspirated engines.