Test-driving a car before buying one is crucial, even if it is new. After all, no article, review or guide in the world can accurately convey what it feels like to interact with a vehicle in person. As such, your best bet is to visit a dealership and test-drive each potential purchase yourself. You can also use this opportunity to collect price quotes.
Keep in mind that a test-drive is one of the last steps in the car buying process, which means that you should already have a good idea of the kind of vehicle you want to buy and how much you can afford to spend on it. You should also have a list of vehicles that you may consider buying.
If you have all that, then here is what you need to do in order to test-drive a car properly.
Talk to the Salesperson
Once you are at a dealership, tell the salesperson what car you want to test-drive. Be sure to specify your preferred trim level because a different one may not have the same powertrain or options.
The salesperson may have a predetermined route, which would essentially send you through a series of right-hand turns around the dealership. Since this is a very “linear” route, it may not be the most ideal way of testing the capabilities of your potential vehicle, especially if you are planning to drive it in less conventional places. For instance, if you are planning to regularly drive on a highway, then you should test the vehicle on a highway. If you are planning to drive it in congested areas, then try out the car on a narrow street.
Be sure to explain your requirements to the salesperson. If your request for a different test-drive route is within reason, then they should let you go through with it.
Check the Cabin
Once you actually approach the vehicle, the first thing you need to check is how accommodating is the cabin. Try getting in and out multiple times to see if you can accomplish it without hitting your head. Then try out the seats, starting with the driver’s seat. Is there enough head, hip, and leg room? Does it feel too low or too high? Is it adjustable? Does it have a lumbar support adjustment? Check the visibility, including the rearview mirror, side mirrors, and potential blind spots.
Keep in mind that the rear seats are usually much less accommodating than the front ones, so definitely try sitting on them yourself, especially if you are planning to put adults back there. Apply the same principles as listed above. If you have someone else with you, ask them to sit next to you in the back to see how much room you will be left with. You may also want to check if it is easy to install a child seat. If the vehicle has a third seating row, be sure to take a look at it as well. Once again, if you are planning to have a full house, seat yourself at the very back and have someone else sit in the row ahead of you. If both of you feel comfortable after a few adjustments, then the seats are fine.
Check the cargo area as well. Try to imagine what you will be putting inside and see if there is a pass-through for long items. You may also want to make sure that the opening is not too high or too small. Check if the rear seats fold down for improved capacity and if it is easy to do so.
Finally, examine the little things, including the vehicle’s fit, finish and general build quality. Look at individual items like the glove box, sun visors and upholstery to see if they are of good quality. Move on to features like cubbies and cup holders to make sure they are plentiful and easily accessible. You do not want them to annoy you later on.
Test as Many Features as Possible
After checking the overall quality of the cabin, examine the features.
First, take a look at the features that pertain to your specific vehicle type. If you are buying an SUV or another large vehicle, then be sure to look at its towing features, including the trailer hitch type and height and trailer electrical connectors. If you are going for a pickup truck, then check how heavy its tailgate is and the options that improve the usability of the bed. Finally, if you are purchasing a convertible, then check how much trunk space is lost to its retractable roof.
Next, place yourself in the driver’s seat and start looking around. First, check if the steering wheel can tilt or telescope for increased comfort. Move on to the gauges, controls and display screens and check if they are easy to view and operate. Make sure features like the climate control, navigation, stereo sound, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, voice activation and others work as intended.
Finally, check how well your smartphone syncs with the car’s infotainment system. You can do so by playing music from it or using integrated apps. And while you are at it, see if there is enough room for your phone.
Once you are done looking over the cabin and features, it is time to check the vehicle’s core functionality – how well it drives. This is arguably the most fun part of test-driving, so be sure to have fun with the car during this exercise. Here are the aspects that you need to watch out for:
- Acceleration: Make sure the vehicle downshifts quickly and efficiently, particularly if you are using a manual gearbox. Feel the pedal to check if it is “tight” or "loose" since you may have a preference.
- Braking: Check how quickly the brakes activate and whether they are firm or spongy.
- Handling: Test how well the vehicle responds to steering. The best way to do so is by making turns at varying speeds. Note if the car “flies away” instead of properly hugging the road.
- Suspension: Check whether the suspension is soft or stiff. Stiff suspensions work best in sports cars thanks to their impeccable performance at higher speeds, but they will also make you feel every single bump on the road. Soft suspensions are designed to mask the bumps, which makes them ideal for commuter/family vehicles.
- Hill-climbing ability: This is directly related to the vehicle's torque level. More torque will allow the vehicle to climb hills with ease, which may also come in handy when towing heavy loads. Note that diesel and electric cars tend to have more torque than their gasoline-powered counterparts.
- Engine noise: When accelerating strongly, listen to the sound the engine makes because the louder it sounds, the more strained it is likely to be. So, if it is making a lot of noise while you are climbing a steep hill, then the vehicle is probably not intended for this.
- Road noise: Listen to the noise coming from the tires. Some vehicles have poor sound barriers, which can make enduring long trips a tough task.
What to Do Next
Once you are done testing each vehicle on your list, it is time to head home and make the final choice. Once you weigh all the options, return to the dealer that has the car you want to buy and start negotiating the price.