The Right Way to Test-Drive a Car

The test drive is one of the most important steps to picking the right make and model for you. Follow these tips.

The first time I bought a car by myself was a disaster.

I started off great, doing loads of research, comparing true market values, reading up on negotiating tactics. But when it came time for the test drive, everything went wrong.

I drove the car I was looking at a few blocks and then bought it. I didn’t take the time to test-drive the car properly, and ended up regretting the purchase a month later.

If you’re planning to buy a new car, don’t make the same mistake I did. Test-drive the car thoroughly. Here’s how:

Inspect the exterior

Test-driving a car isn’t just about driving. Start by inspecting the outside of the car.

Body. This is particularly important when you’re buying a used vehicle. Look for differences in paint color, dings, rust spots and nicks. Be sure to check around the wheel well for rust and chips and on the roof for sun and hail damage.

Wheels. Inspect the condition of the rims, making a note of any chips or marks. While this may not matter to you, it can be a bargaining chip if you decide to buy the car. And don’t forget to properly inspect the tires.

Hood. Open the hood and test to see if it stays securely open. If you can get away with it, do a quick check of the fluids and a visual inspection of the engine. Close the hood and make sure it stays securely in place.

Trunk. Inspect both the trunk lid and the trunk for damage. Lift the carpet inside the trunk and check for a spare tire, tire changing kit or any tools that should be included with the car. Close the trunk and make sure it closes easily and securely.

Inspect the interior

My biggest test-driving mistake was not giving the interior a proper inspection. Once I owned the car, I realized that none of the knobs, vents or even the mirror was in the right place for me.

Interior fabric. Inspect the seats, floor boards and roof for damage, burn marks and strange smells. Lift the floor mats.

Seats. To test the seats properly, you’ll need to sit in all of them, even the back seat. Check for adequate headroom, working seat belts and working position controls.

Mission control. From the driver’s seat, test the radio, air conditioning and heat, and the window locks. Make sure you can comfortably reach the controls from your preferred seating position.

Drive the right model

If you’ve picked out a specific model before going to the lot, make sure that’s the model you test-drive. Car and Driver explains why:

Because certain options and powertrains can greatly alter the feel of a vehicle, it’s important to drive the particular model and trim level you intend to purchase.

On the road

Once you’re ready to start driving, the salesman may recommend a certain route, but that may not be the best way to test the car. Instead, recommends a more tailored test drive:

Basically, your test-drive should match your driving requirements. If you regularly drive into the mountains, find a hill and see how the car climbs. If you have a highway commute, get on a freeway and see how the car accelerates into traffic and performs at higher speeds.

While you’re driving, check for:

  • Acceleration. Does the car have the speed you want?
  • Braking. Does the car brake easily and quickly?
  • Ride. Does the car have a smooth ride or can you feel the road?
  • Noise. Can you comfortably talk to the salesman or is the road noise drowning out a normal conversation?

Finally, see how easily you can park when you return to the dealership. Instead of simply pulling up front, try to park in a space or parallel park.

Stacy Johnson

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  • Seems like it.

  • 3rdjerseyman

    I sold cars and trained salespeople for years. The author is correct. You should never buy a car without driving it. There is a Mars-Venus element to this. Many women are reluctant to drive. This is a real mistake. A well trained salesperson will always drive first. They should demonstrate the car and all its features. In part this is salesmanship, but it is also for safety. a client should never be expected to simultaneously drive an unfamiliar car and learn its controls. Also, the sales rep should take the client to a safe place to start driving. Too many dealerships are on hyper-busy roads- not the best place for the first drive in a strange car.
    If the car doesn’t “feel” right, it probably isn’t right. One pet peeve: many of you smaller people were never shown how to adjust your seats. Almost all car seats can go up and down. You don’t need to see the world through your steering wheel! You drive with your eyes, and safety starts with good visibility- good visibility starts with proper seat position and mirror adjustments.
    Everybody wants to avoid the sales rep and buy their car online, but if you get a good salesperson, they really can help you buy the right car and use it properly.

  • Marcia McMullin

    I’m 65 now and one thing Daddy taught me was to drive across a railroad track at speed–and listen for rattles and check accuracy of steering. My first husband was surprised by that one, as was my second. It helped avoid problems that weren’t apparent just driving on smooth roads.

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