Planning for a proper car test-drive

As was noted above, a proper car test drive is not just about getting behind the wheel of the car you’re thinking about driving. In fact, the first thing you should do in planning for a test-drive has nothing to do with the car you are thinking about buying: The first step towards properly test-driving vehicles you are interested in is to grade your current car.

Make a list of the “goods and bads” of your present vehicle: ride quality, comfort, options, handling, braking, controls, etc. Is there adequate storage space for everything you need to store? Is the glove compartment big enough for you? Do you want voice-activated controls? How does it handle in the rain? Be sure to list all your concerns, whether they are large or small. By doing so, you won’t miss anything when looking at a new or used car. You can get good test-drive checklists from MSN and Consumer Reports:

Consumer Protection Checklist
Consumer Reports Checklist

Plan out your test-drive route

Once you’ve put together a rough list and graded your current vehicle, it is important to plan out the route you will take on your test-drive(s). Salespeople tend to go along with you on your test-drive and suggest a quick, well-used route that may be more “kind” to the vehicle – essentially a route that doesn’t tax the engine or work the suspension too harshly. Because of this, it is important for you to map out the route(s) you want to take so that you get an accurate and complete assessment of how the vehicle will act in real driving conditions.

By mapping out your driving routes and knowing where you want to go before the test-drive, you will have the opportunity to test-drive areas that will let you evaluate the car in a wide variety of situations on different road types and on different driving surfaces. You should include a high-speed portion of your route, as well as a winding road, and even some stop-and-go traffic on a rougher street. Each of these offer differing “stresses” on vehicles and should be included in your test-drive route. If possible, drive the planned route in your current car first.

By doing so, you will familiarize yourself with the area while also establishing a basis for comparison with any car you test-drive. You may wish to write down how your current vehicle performs on each different terrain type and establish a “checklist” for the cars you plan to test-drive. Finally, plan to spend around 30 minutes test-driving each vehicle – this should be ample time to evaluate the full performance capabilities of any car or truck you are considering.

Set up your test-drives with the dealers

Once you have all your test-drive information planned out, it is time to schedule appointments. When you call the dealerships, make sure that the vehicles you want to test-drive are actually in stock. It is not uncommon to have a dealer tell you that a car is in stock and then, when you arrive, have him or her tell you that it was just sold but that they have another “similar” car available. Further, ensure that those vehicles are equipped the way you want and not just simple “demonstration vehicles” (cars that are meant to be used as test-drive vehicles). Finally, if possible, schedule your appointments to drive each vehicle one after the other, giving yourself approximately 45 minutes or so for test-driving and evaluating each car.

Being prepared before you set foot in a dealership is another very important aspect of test-driving properly. Be sure to gather all the items you need to take with you to the dealership. The following are some items that you should bring with you to the dealership:

  • The list you put together of your current-vehicle likes and dislikes.
  • The route(s) you mapped out for your test-drive.
  • Your driver’s license and car-insurance verification information.
  • A notebook with which you can record your findings for each car you test-drive. You could also use a voice recorder to record your notes for later review.
  • A list that includes the configuration of each vehicle you want to test-drive – this includes trim, options, features, and other such items.
  • The test-drive checklist you developed.
  • If you frequently use a child seat, bring it along to ensure that it can be easily secured in each vehicle.

Purchasing a vehicle of any type is a relatively significant investment – and it is one that should be done properly. Show up to the dealership fully prepared and save yourself from buyer’s remorse in the future.

The physical test-drive

It is important to note that the physical test-drive may be the most important part of the inspection process except for an independent vehicle inspection. It should never be skipped or “short changed”. While the test drive may not be checking under the hood or in the body of the car for “visual” damage –it is a very important part of evaluating a vehicle. The test-drive is your chance to evaluate the overall performance and ride comfort of the car. By properly performing a test-drive, you have the opportunity to test and detect any problems with the engine, steering, transmission, suspension, brakes, and other important systems of the vehicle.

Eliminate distractions during the test-drive

While performing the test-drive, try to eliminate as many distractions as you possibly can. Although some dealerships will insist on someone tagging along for your test-drive, there are many that will let you test-drive by yourself. This is the most ideal situation as it really cuts down on distractions. However, if you are considering purchasing from a private seller, they will almost certainly want to be present for the test-drive. While being alone is ideal, since that isn’t a sure thing, try to be clear to anyone accompanying you that you really want to focus on the vehicle and avoid a lot of conversation. This is especially important with salespeople as they will invariably try to engage you in sales talk as part of the test-drive.

Focus on key things during the test-drive

There are a number of major things that you should make sure to focus on during the drive test. These are not exhaustive but are some of the most important:

Acceleration: How does the car respond when you step on the gas to get onto the freeway? Is it quick… or sluggish? Just because a car has a powerful engine doesn’t necessarily mean it will be quick when you need it to be. Are you comfortable with the “get up and go” of the car you are testing?

Being able to test the power and acceleration of a car is one of the great benefits of test-driving. During the test-drive, try a number of different tests – try a quick acceleration from a stop and a rolling merge into fast freeway traffic. Make sure that you are satisfied with the overall power and acceleration of the cars you are looking at – if not, change your selection or keep looking.

Handling: A car’s response time and handling in emergency and everyday situations is a vehicle aspect that you should pay close attention to. The following are some questions to ask yourself as you are test-driving potential cars:

  • How does the vehicle respond at higher speeds when turning?
  • How does the car respond when you perform aggressive and/or quick-steering maneuvers?
  • Does the car drive straight and true when driving in a straight line on the highway or does it need constant correction?
  • Does the car feel relaxed or jerky? Does the steering wheel “shimmy” or does it stay solid?
  • Does the car’s suspension and ride respond well on rough roads?
  • How does the car respond on a curving, winding road?

One thing to keep in mind: A vehicle’s ability to respond to quick and/or aggressive steering is a key factor in avoiding accidents in the event of an emergency. Because of this, it is important that you’re comfortable with the way your vehicle handles. Each car you test should be easy to control and maneuver – It should not feel out-of-control and “on the edge” nor should it feel so slow and lumbering that it takes wide turns, or lots of turns, to make a maneuver. By paying attention to the steering wheel during your test-drive, you should receive good feedback as to how the car is performing on the road.

Two things to evaluate with regard to steering: First, is the steering power assisted or not. Power assisted steering will make it much easier to steer the car versus other steering types. Secondly, many vehicles have variable power steering. Variable power steering essentially “changes” depending on the speed at which you are driving – making the steering feel one way on the highway and another at lower speeds.

Braking: How well a car brakes could save your life and the lives of people you love. Never short-change testing the brakes of any car you are considering buying. Unfortunately, braking is one of those vehicle attributes that is more difficult to truly evaluate without the assistance of a professional. That said, you can still perform a general brake check to see how the car stops under a variety of conditions. You want to make sure that the brakes feel responsive without being too bumpy or erratic. Make sure you check how the car responds when you apply the brakes in a variety of situations. You should see how the brakes perform when you apply them both softly and with force. The brakes should apply smoothly and shouldn’t make the car feel jumpy when it stops. If the car has ABS (Anti-lock brakes), the system should step in when you hit the brakes hard.

Ride and Comfort: Ride and Comfort is the general sensation of noise, vibration, and motions inside of a moving vehicle. How a car rides and the comfort it affords to car passengers have a significant effect on the overall satisfaction consumers have with their vehicle. Some things to consider:

  • General Comfort: The first impression during a test-drive is an important thing to consider when making a new or used car purchase. How comfortable is the car? The overall comfort of a vehicle can also represent the initial appreciation of a car and its brand image.
  • Safety: Ride and Comfort can also affect the safety of a vehicle. A noisy vehicle can keep you from hearing and noticing things you need to notice while driving. If the car is noisy, you may want to check it off your list. By the way, make sure you roll down the windows and drive with them open. Some vehicles are poorly designed and driving with open windows can create significant noise.
  • Health Concerns: Long-term exposure to car vibrations can cause neck and lower back problems so a smooth ride isn’t just about being comfortable, it’s about healthy living as well.

Ride comfort is generally defined as the measurement of seat and steering wheel vibration as well as interior noise. The “professional” assessment of overall ride comfort results from the following:

  • Seat Vibrations: ISO whole body vibration and general seat vibration issues.
  • Steering Wheel Vibrations: Vibrations also known as “shimmy” that arise from tires that are unbalanced and/or other problems.
  • Interior Noise: A weighted, sound-pressure level, sound metrics, and other criterion averaged.
  • General Vehicle Handling and Motion: The braking force, acceleration rate, as well as handling in general and emergency situations.

While performing the test-drive, pay attention to the overall ride of the car: is it smooth and comfortable or bumpy and shaky, or somewhere in the middle? It’s important to note that having an overly smooth suspension is not necessarily good either.

Ride and Comfort, as determined by drivers, is generally determined based off a vehicle’s suspension, tires, and even the seats but it’s also solely measured by personal preference. Some love the more “tight” ride of a sporty vehicle while others prefer the smooth, quiet ride of a sedan.

Noise Levels: The “quietness” or noise levels of a vehicle include levels of engine, general road noise, and wind – as well as any rattles, knocks or squeaks that a driver experiences. While performing your test-drive, it is important that you turn off the radio, silence your passengers, and close all the windows so that you can hear all car noises that may be present. Some “Noise Level” questions to ask yourself as you are performing test-drives include:

  • Is the sound of the engine quiet and soft or loud and aggressive during acceleration or while riding at higher speeds?
  • Is the sound of the engine consistent, like a purr, or does it sound “rough”?
  • Can you hear noise from the tires, “knocks” or “whines” from the engine or squeaks from the suspension?
  • Is heavy wind-noise audible?
  • Does the car rattle or make other noises at times?
  • Are there any other strange sounds that aren’t coming from the road?

Engine noise can make for significant noise levels in a vehicle. Engine noise depends on a variety of factors including the quality of the engine, how it’s configured, how big it is, and what the vehicle is designed to do. Knocks and pings may have more to do with the fuel quality than the engine itself, but you can never be too sure. Whines and rumbles may indicate serious problems or may just be the type and quality of the engine in the vehicle. Interestingly, smaller, four-cylinder engines often tend to be relatively noisy (as opposed to larger cars) because they are generally built to be economical and are usually installed in low-priced cars. In the event that your four-cylinder car seems too noisy, perhaps you should test-drive some larger-engine vehicles. And remember, over time, engines tend to get noisier, not quieter, so if it’s noisy now… don’t hope for it getting better.

Aside from engine noise, wind noise is ranked the second largest annoyance people have. Poor seals, bad design, poorly designed mirrors, roof racks, and specialty add-ons are all contributors to wind noise. If the car you’re test-driving whistles at you, it’s probably not one you’re going to want.

Something to keep in mind while test-driving vehicles is that large, off-road tires on trucks and SUVs as well as high-performance tires on sporty cars often create more tire-noise than any other type of tire. Generally buyers who want those high-performance and off-road tires are not concerned about the tire noise, however, it can be annoying for some. The test-drive is a great way to find out if you’re comfortable with the extra noise these types of tires produce. If it is overly annoying during the test-drive, chances are it’ll get more obnoxious as time goes on.

Visibility Quality: Aside from the possible exceptions of brakes and tires, nothing is more important to vehicle safety on the road than visibility – how we respond to what we see, and what we can see, from behind the wheel. With the recent trends of “cool cars,” it seems as though manufacturers are more concerned with a car’s sexiness than they are with its sightlines. From tiny mirrors and sloping hoods to oversized headrests and small rear windows, it seems as though many of today’s car-designs are not designed with sight in mind.

Because of this, it is important that you pay close attention to the visibility elements of all cars you test drive. Ask questions like the following:

  • Does the car you are test-driving offer a good, clear, and broad view of the road in front of you? What about with the sun visors down?
  • Are the blind spots minimal or are you uncomfortable with areas you cannot see from the driver’s seat?
  • Do the mirrors give you the kind of side- and rear-views you need to drive safely and comfortably?
  • How is the visibility when backing up? Is it easy to parallel park because you have good visibility… or is getting into a parking space an “adventure”?
  • If the car does have significant blind spots (and even if it isn’t) is it equipped with a backup warning system or backup camera?

Visibility can be very different, even among seemingly similar cars. By taking a number of test-drives you will be able to know which cars have the best, or at least adequate, visibility. It is also important to check rear visibility of the cars you are evaluating while backing up! Perform some park and back-out parking space “pull-outs” on your test drive – even test backing into parking spaces. This will give you a firm grasp on where each vehicle stands on back-up visibility. Finally, newer cars are offering the new car feature of backup cameras. A quality article by that talks about cars with the best and worst visibility can be found here.

Get on the road today.


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