Get the most from a test-drive

9 smart moves before you buy

The Internet has made it easier than ever to research vehicles, find the best prices and read others’ opinions. In fact, a study conducted by Los Angeles-based Maritz Research found that more than one in 10 drivers are so comfortable with what they learn online that they're buying a new ride without ever taking a test-drive. That’s a risky proposition. There's just no substitute for getting behind the wheel of a car or truck before you commit to buying it.

Indeed, test-driving your two or three top choices is the best way to find the ride that's right for you. Our suggestions can help you check everything from power and comfort to cargo space and high-tech gizmos, and ensure that your expectations are met. Asking these questions now can reduce the chance of a nasty surprise down the road that leaves you filled with buyer's remorse.

Plan your trip to the dealership

Every vehicle has its own feel and personality, but differences can be subtle. Schedule test-drives for your top few contenders back-to-back on the same day. That way, your impressions will be fresh. If you’ll be sharing the car with a spouse or family member, make sure he or she can come along. If not, bring a friend. You’ll have someone to bounce ideas off and another set of eyes to notice things you might not. Bring a notebook, smartphone or camera, and take notes and pictures. Also take along everything you use on a regular basis. If you have children, bring the car seat and stroller. Athletes should bring their sporting equipment. Frequent travelers should show up with their suitcases. It may seem like a schlep, but you won’t have to guess whether the things you use most often will fit.

Check out the exterior

Once you’re on the lot, look at the car you’re considering from every angle. Do you really like it? After all, it will be yours for a long time to come. Consider not only whether the car looks good, but how practical it will be. Does the color you want show dirt easily? Black and dark colors are notorious for showing every speck. Decide whether you’re willing to invest the time and energy to keep it looking clean, or opt for a lower-maintenance color like silver, beige or white. Fancier, more intricate designs look better but could also be more costly to replace in an accident (large wraparound tail lamps that are integrated into the rear bumper or quarter panel, for example). Do the wheels look like they’d be easy to accidentally scrape when parking? Also look at the tires. Low-profile sport tires, run-flats and low-rolling-resistance tires are all more expensive to replace than traditional all-season tires.

Drive the closest thing to what you want to buy

Some dealers use fully loaded cars for test-drives to wow potential customers in an attempt to maximize sales. Or they’ll put you in a car they want to get rid of. Don’t get sucked in. Do your research online ahead of time to virtually “build” the car that fits your needs and your budget, and ask to drive the closest thing to what you want. This includes the trim level (usually designated with letters, like S, SE, LX or SEL), powertrain and interior options. Sometimes the exact configuration you want won’t be available, so at least insist on driving the model with the same engine and transmission. Also ask if other cars on the lot have examples of the features you’re looking for. The car you drive might not have the stereo system you want, but there may be something else at the dealership that does.

Get comfortable

Once you’ve found the perfect specimen, open the door and get in. Notice how easy it is to sit down. Is the seat low to the ground, or do you have to contort yourself to get into the driver’s seat? How does the upholstery feel? Is it soft enough, and does it look like it would be durable long-term?  Are the seat adjustments manual or power, and do they offer enough range of support?  Notice the seat size. Are the cushions wide and long enough or. conversely, are they snug enough to hold your body without sloshing around? The California Department of Motor Vehicles says to keep your body 10 inches from the steering hub for maximum safety. To this end, steering columns that telescope have a better range of adjustability. Smaller drivers may also want to consider a vehicle with power-adjustable pedals so they can still comfortably reach the controls while staying a safe distance from the wheel.

Explore the technology

Before you drive away, spend some time figuring out how to use the gadgets. If the vehicle has Bluetooth, test how easy it is to pair with your phone. If there’s a navigation system, set it to take you to a nearby destination. That way you can test how easy it is to program and how accurate the route is. Also try out voice activation systems; some are helpful, while others are horribly frustrating. On the road, if the vehicle has advanced safety features like blind spot detection, radar cruise control, lane departure warnings and others, make sure to test them all. Although these functions should be relatively intuitive from the get-go, also remember that, like new phones and computers, all in-car systems have an initial learning curve. So don’t dismiss something right away; you could end up loving it over time.

Evaluate the power

Automakers are switching to smaller, more efficient engines for better fuel economy. Someone who hasn’t shopped for a new car in a while might not be sold on a four-cylinder engine, but small doesn’t mean wimpy. In fact, while you do want a car with enough power to feel safe, most people don’t need a ton of horsepower for commuting and everyday driving. When it’s time to drive, don’t just gun it off the lot. Take the vehicle on a variety of roads and test at a variety of speeds. You can do the stereotypical 0-60 mph run, but also try 25-50. Does the car comfortably merge and pass? When you give it some gas, does the engine respond right away, or does it hesitate? Does the acceleration feel smooth? How does it feel when the gears shift? Does it feel comfortable or rough? If possible, take the car up a hill or other steep grade like a parking ramp. Does it strain, or does it feel like it has enough oomph?

Ride and handling

Notice how composed the car feels when you’re driving.  Drive over railroad tracks or find a bumpy street. Suspension tuning depends on personal preference, but think about whether the car feels too floaty or too harsh for your liking. Pay attention to the steering weight. Don’t just jiggle the wheel back and forth; go on a freeway on-ramp and take a curve quickly. Does it take a lot of effort to turn the wheel, or does it feel too easy? Does the vehicle have adjustable settings for steering and suspension, like a sport mode? Also notice how quiet the cabin is, and whether there’s wind or road noise. Test low-speed maneuverability in a parking lot. Pull in and out of a parking space. Pay attention to how far you have to crank the wheel to get around the corner as well as the turning radius of the car as a whole.

Practice stopping

Try out the brakes at a variety of speeds and circumstances. Go somewhere quiet and away from traffic. Pick a stop sign or a tree. and use that as a measurement point. Get the car up to 25 mph, and when you cross your measuring point, hit the brakes. You can try it again at 45 mph or even 60 mph, if it’s safe to do so. You can do a full panic stop (where you slam the brakes as hard as you can), but also try braking like you would while driving normally. Notice how much distance it takes to stop at various speeds. Also try a deceleration test, like 50-30 mph, to see how the car slows down. Do the brakes feel comfortable and confident? Some vehicles have a very firm pedal feel, while others are more soft and mushy. Brake pedals on hybrids and electric cars tend to feel much grabbier than those on their nonelectrified counterparts because of their regenerative braking systems.

Check out the interior and cargo space

When you get back to the dealership, note any blind spots or visibility issues you had while driving. Are these deal breakers? Then get out and sit in back without adjusting the seats. Can you fit behind yourself? Does your head hit the roof? Look at cupholders and cubbies to determine whether storage is adequate. This is also the time to open all the doors, pop the trunk and fold down the seats to test out all the stuff you dragged along. Does the trunk lid or hatch open on its own, or do you have to do all the lifting? How easy is it to close? Practice loading and unloading all the stuff you brought along to not only make sure they fit, but to make sure they’re also easy and comfortable to access.