With so many options for car shopping online and a general disdain for the dealership experience, consumers are willing to buy a new car — the second most expensive purchase for most people – without actually testing it out first.
This is a disturbing trend, as no matter how good a car may look on paper or how well it is received by critics, consumers can still find crucial flaws with a certain car during the test drive -mechanical, personal or otherwise.
The reality is there is no replacement for testing out a car, despite having so many shopping tools at one’s fingertips.
If you’re unsure of what to do or what to expect during a test drive, here is some advice how you should evaluate a car. You don’t have to be a pro to make the right decision.
Do Your Homework
Don’t wander onto the lot to see what cars are available. By the time you show up at a dealership, you should already know what model(s) you want and what options you are interested in. Do your research ahead of time—our online buyer’s guide is a handy tool—and make the initial trip solely for the purpose of getting behind the wheel. Additionally:
• Drive your potential candidates back-to-back on the same day so you can make a proper comparison.
• Although you should press to take the vehicle home overnight—as many dealers now allow—to get comfortable with it and see if it fits in your garage, at least make an attempt to come back at night to observe how well the headlights perform and how well the interior is illuminated.
Take your time
Remember, buying a new car is a major decision that involves a lot of money. And seeing as you’ll most likely keep the car for several years, make sure to give the car a thorough test before pulling the trigger.
Drive along different roads at different speeds — city streets, highways, residential roads, etc. Basically, you should try to replicate your daily driving to get as accurate idea of how the car is going to perform under your normal driving conditions.
Too often, drivers rush through the test drive, due to schedule crunches, not wanting to be around the salesman or just plain apathy about cars in general. Trust us — take a good, long time when you’re on the road. It will pay off in the long run.
In addition to driving, it’s important to try parking the car you’re testing out.
Is it easy or difficult to parallel park? Are there big blind spots that interfere with backing out of a space? Is it maneuverable enough to meet your daily parking needs? Can you get in and out with ease? These are aspects of car ownership that a lot of people don’t think about, which can turn into issues after it’s already too late.
Car first/ Gadgets later
The primary functions of a car are to go, stop and turn. Focus on these operations first. Does it have enough acceleration to merge? Do the brakes feel too grabby or lack feedback? Do you feel confident in the turns? There are some features, such as navigation and blind-spot detection, that you will want to see how they operate while driving, but most of the bells and whistles should wait until you are parked. That way you can really get a feel for the interface and operation. Now onto the gadgets.
Play with the tech and other features
Familiarize yourself with the infotainment system. Is it easy to use or clunky and distracting? Play with the radio and see how the speakers sound. Take a minute and connect your phone to make sure the Bluetooth connection works if it’s available.
Additionally, it’s important to ask about and test out other features that you think are going to be important to your ownership experience. Find out how the luggage rack works and see how easy the seats fold down, for instance.
So much goes into driving a car in addition to working the gas, brakes and steering that you should absolutely devote some time to testing these things out.
Test the handling as the driver and the passenger
Get a feel for how the car drives from the perspective of the driver and the passenger. A vehicle’s handling can be a very important aspect of your ownership experience. Although you may love the way a certain car looks, the way it drives can make or break how much you actually enjoy having the car.
Make sure the car has the suspension you want (too tight, too soft or just right), has good braking performance, steers the way you want and has the right amount of power for you.
If you’re going to have passengers regularly, ride in the front and back seats to ensure that others are in for a comfortable experience.
Listen for anything and everything
At some point during your test drive, turn the radio off and, since many car salesman will talk throughout the drive, ask them to kindly zip it for a few minutes so you can listen for any issues with the car.
Wind noise is a major complaint for many drivers, so make sure that the cabin is well insulated from it. Additionally, listen hard for any clunks or rattles. Anything that sounds out of place should be investigated, as it could point to a safety issue or expensive repair down the line. Odd sounds should be looked at by an independent mechanic before purchasing a new vehicle
Don’t fall into a false sense of security
Remember, just because you are testing a new car does not mean that it is free from defects or other problems. You should be just as meticulous as you would testing a used car.
Look for issues with the paint and interior materials, as, even though the car may have been perfect when it rolled off the assembly line, nicks and scratches can occur when the car is transported to the dealer.
Bring your junk
Do you have gear or equipment that you travel with frequently? Make sure it fits. This is especially true for parents with car-seats. Families want to be certain that there is enough room with the seats installed and strollers stowed. Many cars can “baby,” few can “baby” well.
Can you find a comfortable seating position? Just because a vehicle looks like its the right size, doesn’t alway mean you will “fit” just right. Is that wind-noise at highway speeds annoying? Then it’s going to drive you nuts after a few months. Are there little details regarding the fit and finish that just don’t seem right? For some people those details matter, especially with more expensive vehicles. It’s your money, you don’t have to love everything, but you should be satisfied with the overall quality of your purchase.
Bring a friend
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, two sets of eyes and ears are always better than one. Bringing a friend or family member who can help you notice things that you may not catch yourself. Make sure that this person can also keep you from getting overly excited about a car and making a rash purchase.
Below is the best 18 point check to remember as you test drive:
At the starting line
Before you even climb behind the wheel for that initial evaluation, however, here are 12 important things to look for — in daylight:
1. Examine the tires individually. Does each have at least a quarter of an inch of tread? Is the wear even? Are the tires matched in size and brand?
2. If the vehicle has wheels with spokes, look through the openings on the front wheels to check the disc brake rotors. Are they scored?
3. Look under the car for fluid leaks. Do this with the engine off and again with it running.
4. Squat at the front corners of the car and look down along its sides for ripples that might indicate body repairs.
5. Open and close all the doors and the trunk. Make sure all operate smoothly.
6. Lock and unlock all the doors from inside and out.
7. Ask the salesman or owner to sit behind the wheel and operate the headlights, brake lights and turn signals as you verify that they work.
8. Open the hood with the engine running and listen for knocks, ticks or hisses.
9. Check door edges and hinges for rust.
10. Lift up the pad or carpet in the trunk and check for rust.
11. Slide behind the steering wheel and make sure the controls for every system operate properly. Does the air conditioner cool, does the heater heat, does the CD player work?
12. If there is an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror or the interior smells as though it was just sprayed with air freshener, open the doors for a few minutes and let it air out. By the time your test-drive is completed, the air freshener smell should be gone and you can get a better idea of the odors you will have to live with.
As you drive
As with test-driving a new car, you still need to focus on how the vehicle accelerates, brakes, rides, corners, parks, and steers. But with a used car, you also must listen for persistent sounds and feel for odd vibrations that may be harbingers of costly future repairs. These should be brought to the attention of your mechanic if you decide to continue on to the second test-drive.
Add these six points to your checklist:
1. Make sure you drive the vehicle above 60 miles per hour at some point. Many front-end problems aren’t detectable at lower speeds. Does the front end shake, shimmy or vibrate?
2. Does the steering wheel vibrate at any speed?
3. Are there any odd noises when you accelerate from a standstill?
4. Does the vehicle pull to one side or the other when you accelerate? Find a large, empty parking lot. At 20 miles per hour or so, let go of the steering wheel; does the vehicle pull to one side or the other?
5. Does the transmission shift smoothly?
6. Apply the brakes; does the pedal feel squishy? Does the vehicle pull to one side or the other when braking?
It’s been said that buying a used car is buying someone else’s problems. You can minimize the odds of that happening by spending a little extra time and taking a few extra precautions.