How to Test Drive A Car

Key items to consider before and after taking a car out for a test drive at the dealership

Getting Started

Sitting behind the wheel of a new car is a fun experience for most people as they imagine the comfort and drivability of the vehicle. And even if you are still only at the preliminary evaluation stage, veteran sales people know that a test drive is their most effective sales tool. "The feel of the wheel will seal the deal," a mantra for new car sales staff, means that, if they can convince you to test-drive the car—feel the steering wheel—your excitement over the experience will cause you to want to buy that model car.

If you are excited about a particular model and are pleased with your test drive, the sales person will try to close the sale before you leave the dealership (“What can we do so you can drive home this car today?”).

So, the first step you’ll want to follow when you test drive actually needs to occur before you step behind the wheel: make sure you choose a car that fits in your budget and meets your needs.

If, after careful consideration, you decide that a vehicle is affordable and suited to your needs, only then should you take it out for a test drive and risk inhaling that intoxicating new car “smell.”

Prioritizing Your Needs

Where to begin? Considering your needs is probably the best way to approach car shopping. Think of how you will use the car and you will quickly build a list of qualities you must have in your new car. Keep this list handy.

Next, you might consider what things you would like to have on your new car. Make a wish list. Think of your top color choice, second choice and then the colors you don't want. Other extras should be considered if the price allows. Add these features to your wish list. Make certain that the features on this list are just nice to have, and that you really can live without them if they don’t fit in the budget.

Next, before visiting the dealer’s lot, arm yourself with the facts. Use the CarQuotes.com Research Tools to consider makes, models, prices and evaluations. Read up on the cars that interest you. When you have a few models in mind, it’s time to consider price.

Using CarQuotes.com, build each of the models you selected. Choose the color, body styles and options you want. CarQuotes.com even allows you to compare models side by side. When all your selections are complete, take a moment to appreciate your good taste—but not too long.

Now, the reality test. Take a good hard look at the price. Can you really afford the car you are pricing out? Consider any incentives or rebates offered. And remember, you still have to pay sales tax and license fees, plus insurance, gas and regular maintenance costs.

Narrow your choices down to one or two models, and obtain a CarQuotes Vehicle Pricing Report for each.

Visiting the Dealer

Now, and only now, is it time to head to the dealership. You are ready to see if the car you have chosen "on paper" is really the right car for you.

As you can see from this discussion, a large part of test-driving a car is done before you even turn the key. For instance, sit yourself behind the wheel and ask yourself: is it a good fit, am I comfortable? People come in all different sizes, and just like new clothes you’ll feel good about your choice for a long time if you have a good fit.

Does the car fit you well? Good! Now ask yourself these questions to make certain that the new car “aroma” hasn’t already overwhelmed you:

  • Is it easy to get in and out of the drivers seat comfortably without bending too far over or hitting your head? Understand too, what entering and sitting in the vehicle will be like for your passengers by doing the same for all the passenger seats.
  • While sitting behind the wheel, consider the headroom. Are the seats and the legroom comfortable for you? Can the seat be adjusted to give you the room you need?
  • Look out over the hood. Do you feel too low or too high in the car?
  • Can you tilt or telescope the steering wheel, or make other adjustments, for a better fit?
  • Are the controls easy to read and use and are they conveniently located?
  • How is the visibility? Any blind spots? Check the rearview mirror and the side mirrors.
  • Can you reach the pedals, and switch easily between the brake and accelerator? If not, are they adjustable to suit you?

Ask the salesperson to drive the car off the lot for you so you may evaluate the car from a passenger's viewpoint. While he is driving, you have your best opportunity to consider road noise and general visibility.

Behind the Wheel

Once behind the wheel, your salesperson may want you to drive along a predetermined route using a series of right-hand turns to lead back to the dealership. Such a test-drive may be convenient for the dealership, but it's not the best way for you to get the best feel for the car.

Ask to test drive over the roads you would typically drive. If you drive into the mountains, find a hill and see how the car climbs. If you have a highway commute, see how the car accelerates into traffic and performs at highway speeds.

Before you start driving, adjust the seat, the seatbelt and the mirrors so you are most comfortable. And even if your test vehicle has the best stereo on the market, turn it off. You need to concentrate on what it is like to drive the car.

Now that you have a chance to “feel the wheel,” you need to consider several specific aspects of the vehicle, such as:

  • Acceleration into traffic
  • Road and engine noise
  • Passing acceleration (does it downshift quickly?)
  • Hill-climbing power
  • Braking (do the brakes "grab" suddenly?)
  • Steering (Is there any play in the wheel?)
  • Cornering (does it "hug the road" or does float around?)
  • Suspension (how much of the road, bumps and ruts are you feeling?)
  • Rattles, squeaks and other noises

During the test drive, the salesperson may begin asking you leading questions such as the classic, "What do I have to do to sell you this car today?" No matter how much you love the car, remain noncommittal and focused on what you need to know and discover about the car.

Once again, back at the dealership, make the salesperson give you a complete tour of the car. This time, consider the trunk or cargo space, the location of the spare tire, the location of the dip stick, the location of the windshield washer fluid reservoir, etc. What are the routine service requirements? Remember that the little things you spot now could be major annoyances later. So, don't discount any of your reactions at this point.

Final Considerations

Finally, make sure you view the car in daylight since the color can look very different under streetlights or parked under garage lighting.

At this point, the salesperson will probably try to get you inside to begin the purchase process. Don't go there. Resist offers of coffee or discussions about "what kind of payments we can put together." Don’t sit down to consider anything until you’ve driven another model. It's good to drive them back to back while your impressions are fresh. The differences between the cars, and your differing impressions, will begin to be very clear. And, who knows? You might like more than one car.

Once you’re certain you know the model you want, you can buy with confidence since you have in hand a CarQuotes Vehicle Pricing Report with your pre-negotiated price guaranteed.

Remember to do your research first so that your test drive will be more meaningful. Then you won't fall prey to the new car “smell” or the sometimes misleading "feel of the wheel." Instead, put yourself in control of the test drive—and buy with the confidence of knowing you’ve selected the car that's just right for you.

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