BUYER’S GUIDE: 10 Things To Look For When Test Driving A New Car

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According to DealerRater, the car buying public is basically ignoring the opportunity to test drive cars now. “55 percent of car buying consumers only test drive one car before they make the decision to buy. Another 22 percent drive just two — essentially equaling the entire population of consumers that test drive three or more,” the dealer rating site notes.

In all honesty, test drive is probably the worst way to figure out if any car’s right for you or not. You get a short window of time, you’re unfamiliar with the car and where all its controls are, and you’ve often got somebody along for the ride you’re not familiar with. The test drive isn’t really conducive to understand how that car is going to work for you in daily life.

Because I write about cars for a living, I get to spend a little more time with cars — typically a week — to figure out where they work and where they don’t. Things that annoy you the very first day might be things that you never have to do again. Things that don’t seem like a big deal can bother you to the point of distraction a week later. Time in a car provides perspective.

No dealership is going to send you home with a brand new car for a week. But there are strategies you can employ to quickly understand whether the car is the right one for you.

Before You Drive: Do Your Research Up Front

By the time you test drive a car, you should have already narrowed your search down to two, maybe three cars maximum. Anything more than that and you’re going to have a hard time keeping those cars straight.

Chevrolet pickup trucks and SUVs are seen at a dealership in Silver Spring, Maryland

Online research has essentially replaced multiple test drives in the buying process. According to J.D. Power, new car shoppers are spending an average of 14 hours online researching which cars they want to buy. You should be doing that, too, reading reviews, using our competitive comparison tool, and reading up on whatever you can get your hands on.

Get In and Out Multiple Times

This is something you don’t even need to be on a test drive to do. You can do it on a dealer’s lot, or at a new car show nearby. Especially for senior drivers, ingress and egress can be a challenge, and if you’re spending a lot of time running errands, you might get in and out a half-dozen times in an hour.

2016 Ford Explorer Platinum InteriorIf you’ve put yourself behind the wheel a bunch of times and it becomes uncomfortable to do so, you might consider a different car. There might be another vehicle from the same manufacturer, in a similar price class that works better. For example, if you’re looking at a $16,500 Nissan Sentra and find it uncomfortable to get out of, for another $500, you can be in a cube that makes a lot more sense.

Use All the Adjustments

There’s a lot of subjective things about buying a car: how it looks, how you like the color, the way the radio sounds. But there are quantitative things you’ll want to get a handle on when you’re test driving, and the most important is whether you can easily adjust everything to your liking.

Mercedes-Benz C300 DoorDon’t just concentrate on the seats. There are plenty of adjustments there to pay attention to, but don’t forget to adjust both the driver and passenger mirrors, the interior mirrors the steering column and even the pedals in some cars.

You’re looking for comfort, of course, but it also gives you a chance to see what the visibility is like. Is there a massive blind spot over your left rear shoulder? Can you see around the rear headrests when using the inside rear view mirror? Do the rear headrests lower from a button on the dash?

Get on the Highway

Predetermined routes for test drives are the pits. Drive the car in a mix of city and highway routes to learn how it accelerates up an on-ramp, how it accelerates from 65 to 80 miles per hour (passing on the highway, for example), how the brakes feel as you slow for an exit, and how the transmission shifts.

If you haven’t driven a car with an eight- or nine-speed transmission or a continuously variable transmission (CVT), feel how those operate.

2015 Dodge Grand Caravan Plus SXTIf the car has a range of driving modes, try them all. Sport modes can completely change the nature of how a car accelerates, steers, rides and handles, so before you make a hasty decision on how the car feels, make sure you’ve tried out all it has to offer.

Understand Features That Weren’t in Your Last Car

Car shopping used to be called “kicking tires,” because that was about the extent of everybody’s evaluation process. Every car has tires. Every car also has a steering wheel, turn signals and a hazard light switch.

2014 Honda CR-V EX-L AWDWhat your current car might not have is stability control or a navigation system or a communications system that integrates your phone. Safety features like advanced cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assist probably weren’t in your last car. Spend some time understanding how those features work, and whether or not you want to pay extra for any optional features.

Leave the Kids. Then Bring the Kids

On your first experience with a brand new car on a test drive, you should be as distraction-free as possible. Hauling the whole family for the test drive can be an exercise in frustration for both you and the dealer. You’re better off being up front with the dealer about what your goal is for that initial test drive: to see if the car works for you on your commute.

Wi-FiThen, take a second opportunity to drive the car with the kids. They’ll spend a lot of time in the back seat, so buying it without at least having them ride it in is a recipe for family friction.

Going back to a dealership is a pain, though. That’s where the next step comes in.

Take it Home

More and more dealers are offering to throw a set of plates on a car and have you take it home for the weekend. It serves a couple of purposes: First, you get to experience it the way you would on a daily basis. Take the family out for dinner, or take it over to your office so you can see what it’s like on the commute. Secondly, from the dealer’s perspective, you’re probably a lot more likely to buy a car after you’ve taken it home for a few days than if you just ran it around the block once.

shutterstock_80924221It’s also the perfect time to find out whether that sweet new SUV is going to fit inside your garage and still allow you to open all the doors.

Attach the Car Seats

Parents with small kids: Take the opportunity of a test drive to see how the car works with the child seats you already own. LATCH anchors made attaching car seats a lot easier, but there are some manufacturers that make it much harder than others to reach those LATCH points. If it’s difficult in the dealer’s lot, it’s going to be difficult at home, too.

The Excellence Child Safety Seat ConceptAlso, make sure that with the seats in place, there’s ample room for the passenger in front of the car seat. Smaller cars are great in terms of fuel efficiency, but if you’re squashed up against the steering wheel with a rear-facing car seat behind you, it’s going to be a long few years until you move that car down the road.

Pair Your Phone

If the car you’re looking at has Bluetooth functionality — and most will now — get a primer on how to pair the phone while you’re on the lot. Some cars make it a snap, and the functions to make it happen are clearly marked and obvious.

Bluetooth pairingSome manufacturers hide the pairing function under sub-menus and you could sit there in the driveway for a week trying to figure it out.

Check Out the Cargo Area

It’s hard to compare the trunk volume of one car and another until you’re packing the trunk for a week’s vacation. But take a good look at the cargo area and try to estimate if it’s going to give you the room you need, and whether it’s going to be easy to lift items in and out.

2014 Dodge Journey cargoIf you regularly carry specialized items like pet carriers, ski bags, or kayaks, you’d probably be wise to bring them along and see how they fit if the size or shape of the cargo area is questionable.

For more tips on car buying, visit our Buyer’s Guide section.


Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at