Forget catchy slogans and funny car commercials. Buying a new vehicle is never as easy as “Sign then Drive.” Your John Hancock can be a one-way ticket to motoring bliss -- or it can doom you to five years or 60,000 miles of on-road nightmares. To avoid making a costly mistake, you’ll need to do hours of research, comparison shopping and test driving -- all of which are essential components to making a sound purchase decision.
While you can conduct all your research, and even compare car deals and get price quotes at U.S. News’ Rankings and Reviews, the only way to truly find the best car for you is by taking your shortlist of cars on thorough test drives. Check out these five tips and tricks for getting the most out of a test drive. You might even fool pushy salesmen into thinking that they’re dealing with a pro.
1. Set Your Boundaries
Dealers know that shoppers who test drive vehicles are a lot more likely to buy than those who don’t. That’s why they push you to take a drive. Don’t, however, let them push you throughout the entire ride. Before setting off on your test drive, make it clear to the accompanying salesman that you’re not interested in hearing his sales pitch while you’re driving. Politely, yet firmly, tell him that you’d rather experience the ride for yourself, but look forward to hearing him answer any questions that you might have.
Also, just because a dealer follows a pre-selected route doesn’t mean that you have to stick to it. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. After all, if you were a dealer selling a car that handles horribly on bumpy roads, would you chart a course that takes test drivers over cobblestones? Before you get in, let the salesman know that you’re happy to follow whatever directions he provides, but would also like to take your time driving the vehicle on various types of roads. No good salesman looking to close a deal will argue with that.
2. Get in the Driver’s Seat
Once inside, take time to adjust your seat and mirrors, as well as dial in your preferred radio, climate and navigation settings. Pay particular attention to how long this takes, its level of ease, and any ergonomic quirks that you encounter. If possible, repeat this process while driving the vehicle -- but be careful. It’s not always safe to be fidgeting with complex multi-media interface systems while driving. What you’re trying to determine is whether the vehicle’s controls are intuitive enough so that they won’t be a hassle or distraction to you.
Before setting out, check to make sure that you’re in the most comfortable driving position. Throughout your drive you’ll need to ask yourself whether the seat provides enough comfort and support through twists, turns and over a variety of terrain. Be sure to test any fancy features, like heating and cooling, that your seat has. Later, take a turn sitting in every one of the car’s rear seats, and note any significant lack of legroom or headroom. If you have little kids, pop a car seat in there too. How else are you going to know if it fits? While you’re at it, bring the kids along. If they don’t like sitting in the car, neither will you. They’ll make sure of that.
At some point after your test drive, you’ll also want to check to make sure that the vehicle’s cargo bay meets your needs. Feel free to bring along a stroller, sports equipment, dog kennel, or anything else you haul on a regular basis to make sure it fits. Even if a trunk looks like it’ll do, you should still double check. A trunk’s opening or hinges could impede full use of the vehicle’s space.
3. Test Handling and Power
To truly understand how a car handles, you’ll need to test drive it through a wide range of situations and over various terrains -- within reason of course. Don’t attempt to take a Honda Accord over rocks and logs. Instead, try long highway stretches, winding back roads and both smooth and bumpy streets. And if you’re test driving an off-road vehicle, ask if it’s alright for you to take it off the beaten path. In fact, some dealerships already have off-road courses for you test on. Driving a test vehicle on roads like these will allow you to gauge its ride comfort (or suspension settings) and overall balance.
To test a vehicle’s acceleration and brakes, drive both slowly and quickly. Also don’t forget to cruise to gradual stops and make sudden ones too. On highways, try various merging and passing maneuvers on open and congested roads. While doing so, keep mental notes of anything that doesn’t feel right, like sluggish power delivery, soft brakes or poor visibility. Better yet, bring a back seat buddy to take notes for you. Not only can an extra passenger help you keep track of a car’s pros and cons, but they also provide feedback on their experience -- like road feel and back seat room.
If performance doesn’t feel up to snuff, but you still like the car, ask to test drive a higher trim. Often times, different models of the same car will provide different levels of power. If a feature is bugging you, ask if there are any options that can help overcome the problem. An optional blind spot alert system can turn an annoying blind spot into a non-issue, just as a rearview camera can solve a host of visibility issues.
4. Assess Build Quality
There are smarter ways to gauge a car’s build quality than by kicking tires. While driving, you’ll want to keep your ears tuned for any odd shakes or rattles. If you can hear too much of what’s going on outside, chances are the car lacks good sound proofing.
While inside, pay particular attention to materials quality. It’s okay if an affordable car features a lot of hard plastics, but if any knobs or buttons feel frail you should probably be wary. The same goes for its exterior. Try slamming the doors shut a few times. If they feel really fragile, note it.
While these methods aren’t foolproof, they are a good indication of a car’s build quality. Your best bet, however, is to log onto Rankings and Reviews to read up on the vehicle’s history of reliability, current recalls and even check out its J.D. Power Ratings. If you’re test driving a used car, you can also have a pre-purchase inspection performed by an expert. See our article on Used-Car Red Flags for more information.
5. Take Your Time
Lastly, make sure you test drive the car more than once and, preferably, in different weather conditions. And don’t rush it either. Buying a car is a major financial decision that requires a lot of thought and time. If you feel rushed by the salesman, take your business elsewhere. If you’ve got somewhere else to be, schedule a date when you can come back and take your time.