How to Do a Test Drive
Anxious about buying a new car? Learn to do a proper test drive. Don’t fret; here’s how to make the most of your time behind the wheel
By Laura Burstein
Tips for How to Do a Test Drive
Chances are you’ve looked at countless models and done lots of research. Now it’s time to narrow the field. Choose your top three future dream machines and clear a day on your calendar. Weekdays are best, as dealerships are more crowded on weekends (tell your boss you’re taking a mental health day). Find a place where the dealers of your top three are close in proximity so you can skip long travel times. Then call or email in advance to schedule your test drives. Allow a good two or three hours between each one. It’s important to drive the cars back-to-back to keep things fresh in your memory and to feel differences you might not otherwise notice. Be clear with the salespeople that you’re only interested in driving right now, and that you plan to shop around. If you’re the sole buyer, invite a trusted friend. If you’ll be sharing the car with a spouse or family member, consider bringing him or her with you.
The secret to getting the most out of your test drive is to treat your potential new car the same way you treat your current vehicle — without the dings on the doors and the crumpled wrappers on the floor. The night before, gather up everything you use on a regular basis. Yeah, it’s a schlep. But it’s better to find out what will and won’t fit before dropping the dough. Travel much? Bring your biggest suitcase. If you have pets, bring their carriers (leave the animals at home). Pack up the drum set, the toolbox, the golf clubs, and any other equipment you’ll need to transport. Parents with small children should bring the car seat, diaper bag and stroller. If you have older children, bring them too; just be sure to remind them to be courteous of other customers who might be shopping. If you don’t travel with large objects, bring anything else you like to keep in the car, like the Thermos that accompanies you on your daily commute. Also carry along a notebook, pen, camera and even audio or video recorder to capture the things you like and dislike about each vehicle.
The salesperson at the dealership may be anxious to get you on the road, but tell her to cool her jets. Sit in the driver’s seat and get out again. How easy is it? Are you too high or low to the ground? Is there anything in the way that might lead to a smacked elbow or shin? Get back in and evaluate seating position. Can your knees bend comfortably? Can you adjust the seat enough so that you can see well and reach the pedals comfortably? Notice if the steering wheel can tilt and telescope. How close does your head come to the headliner? Does the cabin feel airy or snug? Even if you always drive, move around to the other seats in the car. How does the passenger seat feel? Is there enough legroom in back? If you brought friends or family, now is the time to ask their opinions.
Drag out all that equipment you brought. First look at interior storage. Open all the compartments and notice their shapes and sizes. Where would you keep your purse, phone, sunglasses, or briefcase? Do they fit? Are they easy to reach? Also notice the cup holders. Are they big enough? Will your favorite mug or water bottle go flying across the cabin when you round a corner? Find the rear garment hooks and consider whether they’re hefty enough for your dry cleaning. If you have children, find the LATCH restraints and install your car seat. Notice how much time it takes to get everything buckled in and how much room you have.
Next, evaluate trunk space. Is the deck lid easy to open? What would you do if your hands were full? Load up the trunk with your larger items and consider the amount of effort it takes. Do you need to bend down or reach up farther than you expected? Rearrange things. If the rear seats fold down, test those too. The vehicle passes the test if everything fits well and you don’t feel the need to visit your chiropractor.
Instead of simply driving around the block a few times, take the vehicle to a nearby shopping center. Go up and down a few aisles and pull in and out of a parking space. How is the turning radius? Is the vehicle easy to maneuver in tight spots? Also notice how well you can see out of the back and side windows. If the vehicle is equipped with a backup camera, now is a good time to test it out.
Next, take the car on the freeway. How quickly does it accelerate? Could you merge comfortably ahead of that mean-looking big rig? Once you’re at highway speed, hit the throttle again as if you’re attempting to pass. Does the car pull away smoothly, or does it hesitate or strain? Do the gears shift quickly from one gear to the next, or is there a wait?
If you drive hilly terrain, find a steep grade to practice on. Do you get enough power? Is it easy to find the proper gear? Next, drive over some bumpy roads or railroad tracks. Is it teeth-grindingly rough, or nauseatingly bouncy? And when you go around corners, does the car feel stable, or do you feel a lot of body roll?
To check out the brakes, take the car to a safe, quiet (non-residential) street or large empty parking lot. Choose a visual cue to be your braking point (like a signpost, tree, etc.). Accelerate to a comfortable, safe speed. When you reach your braking point, brake normally. Pay attention to how firm or soft the pedal feels and how much effort is required. Notice how far you are from the braking point. Now do it again. This time, do a “panic” stop. Slam on the brakes as hard as you can and notice how the car responds, as well as how far you are from your braking point. This will give you a better idea of how your car will respond if you ever need to get out of trouble fast.