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Test Driving TipsNotes From The Road

Test Driving Tips
By John La Brie/

How to Make the Most of Your Behind-the-Wheel Time -
The test drive is one of the most important parts of buying a car. No matter what the car reviews say, if a vehicle doesn't fit you and your lifestyle, you're going to become dissatisfied with it long before that payment book is empty. The test drive is your opportunity to make your own personal assessment in a thorough, hands-on manner. If you're attentive to the details here, you can quickly tell whether or not you and the vehicle are meant for a long-term relationship.

The Longer, The Better
The test drive is your opportunity to make your own personal assessment in a thorough, hands-on manner. When it comes to test driving a vehicle, the more time behind the wheel on various roads, the better. If you can arrange to rent a vehicle that's similar to the one you're considering, it could be worth the cost to be able to spend several days in it. Besides helping you become familiar with the vehicle, a rental car—without the new-car gloss—can also provide a reality check by showing you what yours might be like a year or more down the road. Most often, though, you'll have to make the most of the dealership test-drive. Here are some tips:

Test Drive Tips
  • Don't rush. Allow yourself the time to do it properly. A car's true personality (the side you won't find on paper) really only shows up while driving. Also, make sure you can concentrate on the vehicle. If you feel self-conscious or distracted by the salesperson, politely ask him or her if you can drive alone.

  • Take another person to the dealership. Your friend can give you a second opinion, take notes while you're driving, or run interference with the salesperson, if necessary.

  • Start with the basics. How easy is it to get in and out of the vehicle? Some taller vehicles require a high step-up, which can be awkward for shorter people.

  • Does the car fit you? Adjust the seat and steering wheel until you're comfortable. Seats vary quite a bit from one vehicle to the next. A seat that fits one person perfectly may be contoured wrong for someone else. Over the long run, if a seat isn't just right, it can become a real annoyance. Also, can you reach the pedals comfortably without being too close or too far from the steering wheel?

  • How's the safety factor? Does the seatbelt fit comfortably across your body, without the shoulder belt cutting into your neck or riding too low? Are the belts adjustable? Is the headrest adjustable? Are there rear headrests?

  • Are the controls conveniently located? With all the other distractions of driving, you don't need hard-to-operate controls. Are the dash switches easy to reach and the gauges easy to read? Are commonly used controls positioned high enough so that you don't have to divert your eyes too far from the road?

  • Are there places to stow things? Can you fit CDs or cassettes in the center console? Are the cupholders secure and adjustable enough to fit a variety of sizes? Does the rear seat fold down for carrying larger loads in the trunk? On a minivan or sport-utility, can you open and close the rear door or liftgate easily?

  • How well can you see in all directions? Are there blind spots that could pose vision problems? Can you see the front of the hood well enough to use it as a gauge when parking? Try pulling into one or more parking spaces to see how easy it is to park.

  • Feel free to choose your own driving route so that you can take the car on a variety of road surfaces, from a high-speed highway to a patched-up back road. Is the ride smooth and comfortable or rough and bouncy? If you typically drive on hills, try to include them, too. A car that feels fine on level ground can run out of steam on hills.

  • How's the driveability? Is the vehicle easy to steer in a crowded lot without being too vague on the highway? On the road, does the car feel responsive and controlled or sluggish and wallowy? Can you accelerate onto an interstate or freeway comfortably without holding up traffic?

  • If you can find an empty stretch of road where you'll be safe, try applying the brakes hard a couple of times. How's the feel of the pedal? Do the brakes respond adequately in proportion to the amount of pressure you apply to the pedal?

  • Listen as you drive. How quiet or noisy is the overall experience? Noise typically comes from the engine, wind, and the tires on the road. Also, listen for any squeaks or rattles. There shouldn't be any in a brand new car.

  • If you'll be test driving several cars, try to do them in the same day so that your impressions are fresh. When evaluating the differences between vehicles, there's nothing more informative than being able to drive them back to back.
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