test driving a car
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In today’s technologically advanced society, going mobile is quickly becoming the first step toward buying a new car. Just consider AutoTrader’s 2015 Automotive Buyer Influence Study, which reported that the number of car shoppers doing research with multiple mobile devices has nearly doubled since 2013, rising from 24 percent to 42 percent. No matter how many websites you visit on your smartphone or computer before buying a new vehicle, the one thing you can’t get from the virtual world—at least not yet—is the experience of a real-word test drive. 

An important starting point that can be easy to overlook comes from J.D. Power, the same company behind consumer-based automotive research like the annual Initial Quality Study and Automotive, Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study. The tip: J.D. Power reminds test drivers to adjust the vehicle controls, mirrors and seats while still parked at the dealership, and not only for safety’s sake. Doing so also allows you to spend more of the drive concentrating on how the features work and waste less time on setting them up. 

Additionally, be sure to talk to the salesperson about your test-drive route beforehand, so you’ll be able to experience the vehicle in a mix of different operating conditions. 

Once you’re ready to hit the road, remember: 

A Short Test Drive Can Have a Long-term Impact 

In most cases, a test drive is the first chance for you to experience a given vehicle in person. Thus, as pointed out by Jared Allen of the National Automobile Dealers Association, this is the initial opportunity “to size up the vehicle, see how the vehicle handles on the road, and learn more about safety and other related features.” 

Car shoppers are advised to pay close attention to the basics at this time, keeping in mind that you're likely to be living with your new vehicle for quite awhile. A study by R.L. Polk in 2012 showed that U.S. drivers held onto their new vehicles for an average of nearly six years. More recently, an Experian Automotive report published in June found that the average new-car loan term was 67 months, which was a new all-time length. Either way, that can be a long time to live with uncomfortable seats, a harsher-than-expected ride or even minor irritants like noisy windshield wipers. 

Be Sure to Meet Your Basic Driving Needs 

It’s much the same story when it comes to the actual driving experience. That is, it’s best to begin with the basics. For example, make sure the vehicle accelerates fast enough to meet your expected driving needs, whether it’s in the city or on the highway. But also check for confident stopping power, with supportive brake feel and smooth operation, along with comfortable steering that quickly and accurately responds to your commands. 

Further, you can often use the test drive to gauge a vehicle’s real-world fuel-economy performance, because so many entries now have eco indicators that keep track of MPG as you drive. To be clear, the accuracy of those features will vary, but they do supply some amount of valuable data for drivers who focus on fuel efficiency. 

Listen Carefully When it Comes to Technology 

High-tech, voice-controlled infotainment systems are becoming increasingly popular, even in mainstream cars and trucks, but frankly, the functionality of those systems hasn’t always kept pace with demand. Automotive News reported in June on a Nielsen/SBD survey and specifically indicated that “infotainment features available now typically score low in owner satisfaction.” 

That means these technologies should get a rigorous workout during the test drive, according to Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com. He tells drivers to ask themselves: “Does the voice command system give you the results you want as you drive? Or does road noise or the ventilation fan interfere with the voice command function? Similarly, how does the audio system sound? Is it the experience you want for the next five years?” 

Check Safety Systems Before You Need Them 

Safety is a top priority for many car buyers as well, and while your opportunity to evaluate all the latest occupant protection measures hopefully won’t occur during a test drive, you should be sure to check what you can. A rearview camera system, blind spot monitor, lane keeping system and more can all be simply and safely used during a vehicle’s test drive, and you should test them for both capability and ease of use. 

Drivers also will want comfortable, easy-to-position safety belts and, per KBB.com Analyst Akshay Anand, “Now is the chance to floor it, brake hard (but not too hard), and get a feel for those elements that you might need at a critical, last-second reaction type of point.” You might want to tell the dealership representative beforehand, though. 

Go Beyond the Driving Experience 

J.D. Power says that car shoppers also will do well to convert the test drive into a test “ride” for some of the trip, putting the dealer representative behind the wheel. This way, you can spend more quality time with the vehicle’s comfort and infotainment features—and asking the salesperson questions—but without being distracted by the nuts and bolts of the driving process. Also, don’t forget to look in the vehicle’s trunk or cargo space to verify it has the carrying capacity you’re going to need for your daily driving adventures. 

Finally, the new-car test drive process also lets you put the dealership to the test. During the drive, salespeople should be ready to answer questions about the vehicle's features and performance, and not be pressuring you to close the deal. You can expect a sales pitch afterward—that is their job—but you should be just as comfortable with the new-vehicle dealership as you are with the new vehicle. If you’re not, KBB.com’s Anand reminds shoppers, “There are multiple new cars, multiple new car dealers, etc. Walking away is one of your biggest tools. Use it if necessary."