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How to test drive your next car

Don't limit yourself to just 5 minutes around the block.

Car dealerships are a high-pressure sales environment. Often the people behind the sales will try to insist you only take your prospective car for a quick spin. But stand your ground. You’re investing thousands of dollars, so you deserve to take your time on the test drive to make sure it’s the right car for you.

What should I do before I take a test drive?

When you’ve found a few cars you’re interested in, take the time to set up test drives before hitting the dealership. This can save you time and give you a chance to prep for a sales pitch — which is sure to come after the drive is finished.

Schedule an appointment

To avoid a wait at the dealership, look at its inventory online and schedule an appointment. This can save you from having to walk around the car lot and listen to sales talk.

On a similar note, try to schedule multiple test drives in one day — even if they’re at different dealerships. This can help you pick up on the differences between similar models while they’re still fresh in your mind. And don’t forget to take lots of notes about what you like and don’t like about each car.

Inspect the car

This is especially crucial if you’re buying a used car. Keep an eye out for visible dents, dings and scratches. If you notice any major issues that weren’t noted on the car ad, point them out to the salesperson and ask for an explanation. If you think the car might be worth buying after the test drive, have it inspected by a mechanic to ensure that small damage doesn’t indicate a larger problem.

Answer some preliminary questions

Once you’ve given the car an inspection, answer some less-crucial — but still important — questions:

  • How is the seating?
    If you plan on driving other people around, bring them with you so they can give their thoughts. Similarly, if you drive with a child seat, take the time to install it before the drive. The easier it is to get in and out of the car, the less you’ll have to struggle with it in the future.
  • Is there enough cargo space?
    Whether you’re into kayaking or coach a soccer team, bring your gear to the dealership to seeing how the cargo space actually fits your items. Or if that’s not your style, measure your current car and the one you’re test driving to see how they compare.
  • What types of tech are included?
    Most new cars and newer used cars have an infotainment system, bluetooth hookup and backup camera. But beyond that, you should also look for more basic features. For instance, power windows aren’t included on all basic trims, and simple luxuries like a sunroof may be the difference between a car you like and a car you love.
  • How is the visibility?
    When you’re parked, take note of any blind spots in the mirrors and when you turn around. If the car comes with a backup camera, check that, too. You’ll want to know what to expect when you’re backing out of a busy grocery store parking lot or idling in front of your kid’s school.

What should I do during the test drive?

When you’re ready to hit the road, make all the minor adjustments to the mirrors, seatbelt and seat that you need. Keep the radio off so you can hear the engine and any other sounds that might be an important indicator of quality or damage. This is the easiest way to know if the car is comfortable to drive and whether there are any issues you might need to be aware of before you buy.

Take a longer drive

The salesperson may have a quick route planned out, but experts agree that the longer your test drive is, the more you’ll learn about the car. A drive of at least 15 to 30 minutes is a good way for you and your passengers to get a feel for the car.

Try to take a route that resembles your normal commute. If you drive on the highway, see how it handles high speeds. If you drive on a lot of back roads, see how it negotiates potholes. By doing this, you’ll be able to predict how the car will handle every day — which will help you determine if it’s the right car to buy.

Evaluate how the car handles

While you don’t want to damage the car during the test drive, you should be willing to see how well it accelerates, brakes and handles.

  • Test the steering.
    How responsive is the vehicle to turning and making minor adjustments? Is the suspension stiff? How does the car handle on the highway versus a normal road? These are all aspects you should be aware of during a test drive.
  • Check the visibility — again.
    The visibility you have while stationary is much different than what you have while driving. Look out all the mirrors and check how well you can see around curves in the road. If there are any blind spots, take note of them.
  • Accelerate and brake.
    See how fast the car can get up to speed and how much power the engine has. And don’t be afraid to slam on the brakes. You’ll want to know if your car can stop on a dime — it could help prevent an accident in the future. Other features, like automatic braking, may be a good selling point if safety is your priority.
  • Read the gauges.
    Are the gauges easy to read without having to look away from the road? Are the radio controls easy to reach? Even something as simple as the steering wheel controls should make intuitive sense to you. If they don’t, compare similar models from other manufacturers to see what works best for your needs.
  • Listen to the engine.
    If the car is loud when you accelerate or makes any strange noises, bring it up to the salesperson — especially if you’re buying used. This could indicate a problem, or it may just be a noisy inconvenience when you’re merging onto the highway.

Experiment with the car’s tech features

A new car — or even a newer used car — may have technology you’re unfamiliar with. And even if you’re up to date on the latest tech trends, different manufacturers place their buttons in different places. Take the time to play around with the different features available before or after you take a test drive.

  • Steering wheel controls.
    Check how the buttons are placed along the steering wheel. Does it make sense to you? Is it comfortable for your hands while you’re driving? These will help you stay hands-free during your drive, so it’s an important detail to pay attention to.
  • Bluetooth.
    Take a moment to sync your phone with the car and test the audio. Are the voice commands easy to make? Is the sound quality good? If you’re an avid music fan or podcast listener, it can make a huge difference in your everyday life.
  • Infotainment center.
    If the car comes with an infotainment system, play with the buttons and settings. Is it easy to use? Do the controls make sense, and are you able to customize it? Like Bluetooth, the ease of use can make a difference in how good a fit the car is for you.
  • Smartphone compatibility.
    Not every car comes with Android compatibility with its infotainment system. Check that the model you’re looking at works with your smartphone, and if you’re interested in Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, confirm that the car has it.
  • Backup camera.
    If there’s a backup camera, check the view and sensors. Some will have alerts and indicators showing if you’re too close to another car or if you’re in danger of backing into something. This can be a nice safety feature and make navigating tight spaces that much easier.

Test drive a car near you

Get connected with dealerships in your area that offer upfront pricing.

What should I do after the test drive?

Whether you’re in love with the car or still unsure about whether it’s right for you, there are a few steps to take before you leave the dealership.

Avoid common sales tactics

The salesperson will likely point out features during the test drive as part of their pitch. And once you’re back at the dealership, the sales talk will continue. Respond neutrally, and if you’re unsure of the car or have more test drives scheduled at different dealerships, politely decline offers to “run the numbers.” Instead, take some time to think on your purchase. It’s a big decision — there’s no reason to let the salesperson’s rush influence you.

Continue taking notes

Write down what you liked about the car, what you didn’t like, the features you enjoyed and any potential problems the car may have. This will help you compare it to your other options, and you’ll be able to see how the little things impact your decision. If something really bothered you — like slow acceleration or some paint chips — it may become the final straw that helps you determine which car to go with.

Remember that a test drive isn’t a promise

A test drive is not a promise to buy. You should try to test drive multiple cars in one day, and there’s nothing wrong with sitting on your decision for a week — especially if you’re buying a new car from a licensed dealership. Even if the car you drove is no longer available, the dealership is likely going to have a similar car in stock. And if not, there are still other cars you can consider.

Bottom line

Test drives can be high-pressure experiences — especially thanks to salespeople who know how to make buyers feel a certain way. But following a few steps before, during and after the test drive can help you take control of the situation and find the best car for you.

Before you visit a dealership, compare your car loan options so you have an extra tool at the negotiating table.

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