After months of hemming and hawing you've finally decided. You know the new car you want, and as long as it feels good on the test drive, you'll take it.
Unfortunately, "feeling good" on a ten-minute cruise around the dealer's neighborhood is not the same as driving that same car around your neighborhood for the next several years.
To make sure you've picked the right vehicle, you need to understand how to properly evaluate it and how to avoid common mistakes.
At the Dealership: Before Starting the Car
The excitement of going for a spin in a brand-new car can often distract from the purpose of the test drive. As soon as you get in the car, your first reaction is to start it up and take off. But resist the urge. Some of the most important evaluation happens right there on the dealer's lot. Before going anywhere, take some time to get acquainted with the vehicle, inside and out.
Walk around the car. Take a good, long look from a number of angles. Do you like the way the vehicle looks from the front, from the back, from the side? Inspect the paint. Does it convey a quality job? How even are the gaps between body panels? Are trim pieces well attached? Poor paint, misaligned body panels and loose trim don't convey a sense of quality and craftsmanship. What about the door handles? Are they ergonomic or do you fumble awkwardly with them? Remember, you'll likely be wearing gloves or mittens when you open the doors in winter. Will those handles be even more awkward to operate then?
Try it on for size. Open the doors, trunk and/or tailgate. Are they heavy and clumsy or comfortable to maneuver? Can you reach into the cargo area without bumping your head on the trunk lid or the tailgate? Is there enough room for your gear? How high do you have to lift items to get them inside? Notice how wide-or not-door openings are. Do you brush up against the rear wheelwell on your way in or out of the vehicle? Are the seats low to the floor and require you to become a contortionist to get inside, or will you and your passengers be able to enter and exit easily? Will your grandmother need help climbing aboard? Get in and out of the seats. Adjust the seats and assorted controls. Have other drivers of the vehicle do the same thing. Imagine various scenarios you'll encounter with the car such as loading groceries, picking up the kids or elderly passengers, and getting in with heavy winter clothing. Don't forget to sit in the back seat. Pile others into the back seat, especially the kids if they're going to be riding back there. If they don't like it, they'll certainly let you know. It's better to hear it now than on a six-hour road trip across the state.
Time for tactile checks. Are the seats stiff, lumpy or comfortable for you? Will they provide long-distance support? Do you feel the upholstery stitches and seams, or simply the whole cushion of the seat as you rest on it? Is there ample headroom? Position the head restraints to see if they adjust to your needs. Do they lock in place, as safety advocates suggest? Now, position yourself in the driver seat. Take time to get comfortable. Be sure to locate yourself at least ten inches from the center of that steering wheel-mounted frontal airbag, using the seatback recline mechanism to help you. Position the steering wheel as needed. Can you work the pedals comfortably? Can you use the dead pedal-the resting spot for your left foot on the left side of the footwell that can help you brace your body during driving? Without lifting your back from the seatback, try to reach the various controls, including the radio. Are the knobs and buttons within easy reach or do you have to lift yourself off the seatback and lean toward the controls? Try out the other controls-heater/air conditioning, headlights, wipers, mirror adjustments. Are they intuitive or will they take some time to learn? How do the buttons and knobs feel in a tactile sense? Do they feel cheap or sturdy? Will you be able to operate them while keeping your eyes on the road? Is it easy or difficult to reach the door lock button and window controls? Do they snag on your nails?
Room for gear. Open the trunk and/or tailgate. Are they heavy and clumsy, light and tinny, or comfortable to maneuver? Can you reach into the cargo area without bumping your head on the trunk lid or the tailgate? Is there enough room for your gear? How high do you have to lift items to get them inside? Imagine loading scenarios. Think of the items you'd need to load such as bags for a trip, groceries, special work equipment or athletic gear. For instance, if you need to load golf clubs, a baby stroller or even a bicycle, make sure the trunk will accommodate these items. Trunks with a low lift-over height make loading heavy or oddly shaped objects much easier.
Imagine yourself driving the car. Is it your kind of car? Do you look/feel good in it? Would you be comfortable driving it every day?
Let the salesperson give her pitch now. All too often, salespeople like to share everything they know about the vehicle while you're driving down the street trying to get a feel for how the car rides. This is an unneeded distraction. Have them describe special features while you're still in the dealer's lot.
On the Road: A Real Test Drive
Now the fun begins. You've checked out the car at the dealership and it's time to hit the road. Here's where you'll really get a feel for how it drives-comfort, handling, power, braking and overall character. To make the most of your time on the road, it's vital you know what to look for and how to optimize your test-drive experience.
Drive the exact model and trim of car you're interested in buying. Different engine/transmission, suspension and tire packages, trim and interior features can greatly affect the personality and drivability of a car. If possible, drive the actual vehicle you'd like to purchase. This way you can guarantee there will be no surprises.
Ask the salesperson to stay quiet.You need quiet to process your thoughts and evaluate the car without distractions. Request some silent driving time to absorb what you're experiencing with the car. But if you have questions, don't hesitate to ask them.
Choose your own road. If you know the area, request to take the car on a test route of your choosing. You know the types of driving you do and the sorts of roads you encounter in your daily routine.
Specific Things to Look For
Ride quality. Drive the car on a number of different road surfaces to better evaluate its behavior in different settings. Seek out winding roads, city streets, hills, potholes and freeway on-ramps to see how the vehicle reacts. Test it on the sorts of roads you expect to drive every day. Listen and feel how the car handles smooth pavement as well as road bumps. Are there strange noises from the suspension when you go over rough stuff? Do you feel vibrations as you ride or is the ride softer, more cushioned?
Power. Test the power in real-world situations: highway merging, passing and sudden acceleration in city driving. Is the engine power acceptable? Is it overwhelming? How quickly does the power come on when you want to accelerate? Does the car begin to slow when you lift off the gas pedal or does the car continue to coast along? Are you comfortable with this behavior? How is power affected by use of the air conditioning? Air conditioners put a serious drain on small engines. Be sure to repeat all of your tests with the air conditioning on.
Transmission. If driving a car equipped with a manual transmission, look for smooth shifter and clutch action. Do both feel precise and easy to use, or vague and notchy? If you're testing an SUV, engage and disengage the 4WD to test how easily or intuitively it operates. If testing an automatic, how are the upshifts and downshifts? Are they smooth? Does it downshift at appropriate times? Not too early or too late? Operation should be nearly transparent with no abrupt jolts or lurches during shifts.
Handling. Mix it up. Practice long turns and short turns, sudden swerves and smooth transitions. How well does the car react to changes in direction? Does it feel stable and controllable? Do you feel you could avoid an accident if you had to? Be sensitive to how you move the steering wheel. Do the car movements come quickly after you move the wheel slightly or is there a lag? Are you constantly adjusting the steering wheel to get the car where you want? Are you comfortable with the steering response?
Braking. Really use the brakes. Make sure they slow you in a straight, controlled manner. Brake softly, then aggressively to test the car's reaction to sudden braking input. Remember to warn occupants of your intentions beforehand and be sure to check for other cars around you to avoid unpleasant surprises. If the car has an anti-lock brake system (ABS), find an open parking lot where you can experiment with stomping on the pedal to familiarize yourself with the pulsing of the pedal. Practice an evasive maneuver while braking with ABS. Do this more than once.
Noise. Listen for excessive engine, interior, road and wind noise-with the windows both up and down. How much noise do you hear from vehicles around you? How much noise emanates from the tires on the road? As you travel at higher speeds, do you hear wind noise? It usually comes from around the outside mirrors and from the luggage rack. If the car is equipped with a sunroof, open it and listen. Do this at both normal speeds as well as under full throttle-excessive noise quickly becomes irritating over long periods of time.
Parking. Parallel park the car to check for blind spots or any difficulty identifying the corners of the car. While the car is parked, take a moment to get out and look at it out in the real world, away from the dealership environment. See if it still looks as appealing as it did on the lot.
To help with this process, bring along the MSN Autos New-Car Test-Drive Checklist to help guide you through your test drives. Simply print it out and bring it with you on your next trip to the dealership.
Armed with the proper test-drive techniques and your checklist, you're ready to go out and test some cars. Be tough, thorough and honest. Know what to look for and you'll find the car that suits you best.