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How to Read Car Reviews and Road Tests

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Happy mid adult couple buying a new car and communicating with African American car sales person.

Imagine if, while you’re car shopping, you had a friend who was a real car enthusiast — someone you could turn to and just ask, “Hey, what should I buy?”

And what if you had another friend, someone who owned the same car you wanted to buy, and you could ask, “So how do you like your car?”

While you might not have these types of friends, you can get that same information if you know where to look. Road tests written by experts and reviews by current owners can be a great help in choosing the right car. But you need to know how to interpret the information and opinions you read.

Types of car reviews

Three types of written information about cars are useful for car shoppers:

Road tests by auto journalists: Newspapers, national magazines such as Road and Track, and some popular websites have road tests written by opinionated automotive experts. These articles are helpful to some degree but are also intended to be entertaining reading. Often, these seem written to impress other auto enthusiasts rather than mainstream car shoppers.

Expert reviews and ratings: Automotive websites such as Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book have shorter, capsule reviews written by automotive experts. These publications will sometimes use a star or letter rating system to rank the cars. The reviews are structured so you can read them quickly and find the details you’re most interested in — performance, safety, comfort or fuel efficiency. Often, these same publications compile top 10 lists that can give you ideas about which cars to consider.

Owner reviews: Mini-reviews by current owners feel personal and provide a look at what it would be like to live with the car every day. But it’s important to know that, on average, owners give their vehicles much more positive reviews than automotive journalists do.

Road tests vs. owner reviews

Now that you know a little about the types of information available, you can better understand how to digest the information the articles contain.

An automotive journalist is usually an “enthusiast,” someone who loves cars — often performance models. It’s typically important for such a critic to drive cars that accelerate aggressively and handle well, way beyond what’s needed for daily driving. Such writers hold cars to almost an ideal standard and make a mark with readers and their peers by being very critical. Many details noted by automotive journalists would be complete nonissues to the ordinary shopper. And, because these writers feel cars are of supreme importance, the issue of cost is typically downplayed.

Reviews from current owners lack the comparative knowledge of an automotive journalist. But, on the other hand, owners have spent much more time in the vehicle and can comment on any reliability issues they’ve encountered. Keep in mind, though, that owner reviews are really a confirmation of the decision they made; subconsciously, they want to prove their decision was right.

How to read a car review

Here are the key points to consider when reading about a car you want to buy:

  • Many writers have a bias; auto journalists are enthusiasts, while owners are far less critical.
  • If a writer speaks to your range of interests, give her opinion more weight.
  • Look for reviews that highlight features you are shopping for.
  • Read a mixture of road tests by experts and reviews by owners.
  • As your search narrows, read online car forums, such as the one at Consumer Reports. Use the search feature to find information about specific cars or features you’re shopping for.

Next steps

Reviews are a good way to build a list of cars that you want to test drive. As you read the reviews, make notes on what factors you want to focus on in the test drive. And don’t assume the experts are always right. The way a car rides, handles and accelerates is often a matter of feel and will get a variety of responses from different drivers.

While reading road tests and reviews can be helpful, it’s only the beginning of your research.

Philip Reed is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: preed@nerdwallet.com.