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Car Buying

How to Prepare for a New-Car Test Drive

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author photo by Nick Palermo May 2013

Shopping for a new car can be an exciting adventure. For some, however, it can be a difficult chore fraught with an overwhelming number of choices, crowded dealerships and a test drive that's just not helpful. That's why it's a good idea to have a solid plan in place, one that's made of a series of simple steps and ends with new wheels in your driveway and keys in your hand.

Once you've done your research and narrowed your choices to two or three models, you're ready to get behind the wheel and find out if that new car is as good in the real world -- your world -- as it is on paper.

These seven tips will help you make the most of the time you dedicate to test driving the vehicles you're considering. Follow them and you're likely to have a rewarding and informative experience without too much hassle.

Plan Your Day

How many vehicles can one person drive in a single day? That depends on many factors. Generally, however, shoppers will be hard-pressed to complete more than three thorough drives in a single day. Regardless, you need to be thorough, so don't try to do too much. If you want to drive four models before making a decision, try to split the test drives into two days. If you can't dedicate all day to visiting dealers, plan several afternoons when you can visit one dealer at a time.

Because you don't want to rush, make sure you don't plan your dealer visits when you have an important engagement later in the day. Planning your drives ahead of time also will give you confidence in your mission. You'll be more mentally prepared for the task because you'll know what you need to do.

Tell Them You're Coming

Give the dealer a call and let him know you plan to stop by for a test drive. It will help to expedite your visit, giving you more time in the vehicle and less time waiting around. Calling ahead also will help the dealer see that you're seriously considering one of the models he sells.

If you've already chosen a specific trim level or options that you think will suit you, tell the dealer when you schedule your drive. He can then make sure that the vehicle you drive is equipped like the one you're considering.

Come Prepared With People and Stuff

Your test drives should mimic closely the way you use your car in day-to-day driving, so you need to bring the people and items that typically ride with you. If you have a family, take them along. Try a child safety seat to see how it fits. Throw your golf bag in the trunk. See if your lanky teenager can sit comfortably in the backseat. If you're single and typically drive alone, bring a friend. You'll need the help of a sidekick anyway.

Obviously, driving a new car is more fun that heaving your gear in and out and asking your family or friends to spend the day car shopping with you. But you won't regret spending time with the parked car or testing it for its practicality. Be patient before starting your drive. Sit down, adjust your seat and mirrors and familiarize yourself with the controls before setting out. Have your sidekick take notes on any advantages or drawbacks you mention.

Check the Key Features

Some features of a vehicle attracted you to it, which helped that vehicle make the cut for a test drive. Take some time to examine these, whether you do so when parked or while driving. Ask the salesperson to explain or demonstrate them if things are not totally clear to you. Try them yourself, too. Think about how often you might use a particular feature. If that feature is optional, think about whether or not you think it will be worth the extra money in the long run.

Drive a Variety of Roads

Most dealers or new-car salespeople have routes that they like to use for test drives. Some are good, with a comprehensive mix of roads and driving conditions. Others are too short or offer too little variety. You don't have to suffer an unsatisfactory drive route.

Drive on a variety of roads, dividing your time between surface streets, highways and neighborhood lanes. If possible, drive on the roads that you typically use. If the dealership is not close to where you live or work, try to find roads that are similar to ones you frequent. Experience the vehicle in both light and heavy traffic. Park in a tight space and try backing out. Be sure your sidekick is ready to record your observations.

Be Patient and Expect the Same

If you rush this process, you may make an ill-informed decision when buying a car. Execute it correctly, though, and you'll largely eliminate any regrets you might experience. So you need to be patient when test driving vehicles.

The test drive isn't the final step in getting a new car. You'll still need to make a decision on which model is best, choose trim and/or options and negotiate a deal, so it's best to approach the task with patience. You want to be thorough, not quick. You don't need to make a decision until after you've completed all the test drives you planned.

You should expect the same from the dealer and salesperson. If necessary, remind them that you need their patience as you test a vehicle. Most will be accommodating. If you feel like you're being rushed, find another dealer with the same model or scratch that model off your list.

Stick to Your Plan

It's possible that the first vehicle you test drive is the best vehicle you've ever driven and that you'll be happy owning it for years. It's not too likely, though.

More likely is that you'll need to comparison shop, which means driving each model on your list. Stick to your plan and spend the necessary time looking at each model you're considering. Even if that first vehicle you drove turns out to be your favorite, the other drives aren't a waste of time. They'll help you to be certain that you've made a good decision.

If you've already narrowed down your list to a few vehicles that you find attractive and affordable, start preparing your test drives. Invite your friends and family. Make a day of it. You'll make a better car-buying decision, and you'll probably have some fun behind the wheel, too.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
How to Prepare for a New-Car Test Drive - Autotrader