You’re about to spend a big chunk of your annual salary on a new car, so you better make the most of that 15-minute test drive. Right? Actually, not so much. You can save a lot of heartache when shopping for a car, if you follow these four common-sense test drive rules:
1. Ninety percent of your research should take place before seeing the car.
With 300 or so new car models available to an American consumer, selecting your top few choices is better handled in front of a keyboard rather than behind the steering wheel. Roadster.com and other websites can help winnow down the field to a particular segment—like a three-row SUV versus a sporty coupe—or a favorite automotive brand with hot new styling.
Peruse the photos. Read the reviews. And study the specs. You’ll learn more from a few reviews by trusted publications that drove the car for several days than you will from a few minutes spinning around the dealership’s neighborhood.
As much as you might want to rush to a dealership and mash the accelerator to test performance or slam the brakes to test safety, it’s not prudent. More importantly, you won’t really learn much. Not when the horsepower and torque rating are in the specs. Not when The National Highway Safety Administration publishes safety ratings based on extensive road testing. The same holds true for virtually every other aspect of a car’s driving dynamics. Here’s the reality: you are unlikely to uncover any previously undiscovered flaw that is not widely reported online.
- You don’t need to put the car in motion to see if you like the car.
With online research under your belt, it’s time to see the goods in person. But before you approach the showroom, memorize these words so you’re ready when approached by a sales associate:
Thanks for offering to help. But I’m very early in the shopping process. I just need a few minutes on my own. Thanks!
Now that you have some breathing room, walk around the car you are considering. Does it look as cool as it did in the photos? Imagine the car in your driveway. How’s it feeling? Open the trunk or hatch. Is there enough room for your gear?
Now it’s time to get inside. Take a good look around the cabin. Does it feel like someplace you want to spend your time? Are the materials aesthetically pleasing or annoying? Don’t just sit in the driver’s seat. Sit in every seat, and each time, make all the necessary adjustments to evaluate if you and your passengers will be comfortable. How’s the head- and legroom? Are the seats comfy or cruel? When you settle into the driver’s seat, adjust the seat position and mirrors. Take a good look around. How is the visibility straight ahead, to the side, and to the back? How big are the blind spots? Reach out to the various driver controls. Do they feel easy to access?
At this stage, you should know a lot more about how the car feels to you, without even leaving the showroom floor or dealership lot.
- Expect the salesperson to use the test drive as a sales pitch.
Okay, it’s time for the actual test drive. The sales guy or gal will probably ask you for a copy of your driver’s license. That’s a fair request, but if they ask for a phone number or email address, expect to be contacted in the future.
When you get behind the wheel, double check your seat position and mirrors. Ask the salesperson for simple directions, but mostly respectfully request a few moments of silence. And then drive normally. Keep the radio off.
Arguably, more than anything else, the sound of the engine and road will send a signal to you. Do you like the engine’s quiet purr or throaty roar (depending on the model)? Is it luxuriously quiet in the cabin or do you hear every turn of the tires?
While continuing to drive normally, it’s finally time to evaluate the feel of the accelerator and brake pedals in action—as well as the ease of movement from the steering wheel. This is the most subjective part of the entire experience. Some drivers like taut steering and an aggressive response from pedal action. Others want supreme comfort and ease, as if floating on air. There’s no right or wrong—only a hard-to-capture sense of whether or not this car is for you.
4. Keep emotions out of it.
Getting a new car is exciting. Finding the exact model that has all the options you want is an even bigger thrill. Nonetheless, stay calm. Your excitement could signal to the salesperson that you are ready to start dealing. Giddiness will show that you’re ready to make concessions to bring home your dream ride. That’s the worst time to make a big financial transaction.
Expect these lines from the salesperson, none of which require a quick response:
- What’s it going to take to get you into this car today?
- What payment are you looking to make each month?
- There has been a lot of interest in this car, you should be prepared to move quickly.
Remember: As with the initial research, you are much better off conducting business from home. If you think you found your desired model at a local dealership, then it’s quite likely that there’s another identical one—offered somewhere else with a better price and better terms.
But that has nothing to do with the test drive. It can wait. There’s no reason that a positive test drive experience has to immediately lead to a sit-down discussion, and certainly not a rapid-fire transaction or pressure tactics from a sales associate.
Feel good that you learned all you could from the test drive. And sleep on it, so you’ll be ready for an entirely different phase of the car buying process: the financial transaction, which is all about calmly and rationally studying the terms of a deal.