2014 Toyota RAV4
(Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.)

Test drives are one of the most important parts of the new car buying process but studies show that many Americans are skipping them. Automotive marketing company DMEautomotive recently found that one third of shoppers test drive just one vehicle prior to purchase and 16 percent don’t test drive at all. Studies also show that the number of dealers a consumer visits prior to purchase has gone down substantially in the last several years.

Driving multiple vehicles is a great opportunity to make comparisons before you sign on the dotted line. According to Edmunds.com, “The best way to eliminate the possibility of buyer's remorse is to research and test-drive your target car's competition.”

[Check out the U.S. News Best Cars Rankings to see how models stack up against each other by class.]

Kelley Blue Book recommends driving two versions of the same car to make sure your experience is consistent.

Gregg Fidan, founder of RealCarTips.com, told U.S. News Money that novice car buyers should test drive at least seven vehicles. Those who have already purchased a car should take at least four out for a spin, he said. A test drive is a good way to size up a vehicle’s performance capabilities and ride quality, but it’s also an opportunity to get a feel for the interior, including tech features and seat comfort.

Also important is the amount of time you spend on a test drive. AutoTrader.com recommends spending at least 45 minutes behind the wheel. However, AutoTrader.com found in a survey last year that roughly half of car shoppers thought 30 minutes or less was enough time to test a vehicle. "What strikes me is that people are doing only cursory evaluations of a vehicle that they will end up driving for some amount of years," said Rick Wainschel, vice president of automotive insights at AutoTrader.com. 

In addition to passing up test drives and spending less time behind the wheel before purchase, shoppers are also visiting fewer car dealerships. According to J.D. Power and Associates, the average number of dealerships consumers visit during the process of shopping for a new vehicle has dropped from 3.5 in 2010 to three at the end of 2013. 

“The reason for the slight decline in the number of dealerships visited is attributed to an increase in leasing and shoppers doing more of their research online before visiting the showroom,” says Chris Sutton, senior director of automotive retail research at J.D. Power.

Another reason shoppers are bypassing the dealership could have to do with consumer perceptions. The DMEautomotive survey and a Gallup poll from last year suggest that consumer trust in dealership salespeople is low. DMEautomotive found that more than half—56 percent—of those surveyed said that dealers were “untrustworthy.” 

In the market for a new car? Check out the U.S. News rankings of this year’s best cars. Then, look for a great deal on a new vehicle by checking out this month’s best car deals. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.