How to Test-Drive a Car: The Feel Behind the Wheel

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A test-drive is a little like trying on clothes — but instead of wondering, “Does this shirt fit?” you have to ask, “Do I fit in this car?” That’s a big question, one filled with both practical considerations and touchy-feely impressions. Choosing a car you like is a highly individual decision. There’s no right or wrong answer.

Besides giving you a chance to experience the look and feel of the car, the test-drive also has a very specific purpose — to see whether it will meet your needs.

Test-driving new vs. used cars

It’s important to realize that test-drives come in two flavors: new cars and used cars. Let’s take a quick look at the different scenarios.

Test-driving a new car: A test-drive at a new car dealership shows you how the car looks and drives, and answers questions about whether it meets your needs. It’s also a great time to check the cargo capacity and play with the car’s features such as the sound and navigation systems.

Test-driving a used car: This can take place at a dealership, an independent used car lot or, if you’re buying from a private party, at the owner’s house. It’s quite similar to a new-car test-drive, except you also need to check the car’s condition, and you should have a mechanic do a complete inspection later.

New-car test-drive steps

  1. Call first to schedule the test-drive: If possible, do your test-driving during the week when it isn’t busy at the car lot. Call the dealership and ask for the internet department. Give the internet sales manager the year, make and model of the car you want to drive. Set a time and ask to have the car pulled out and ready for your test-drive. This saves time and also builds a relationship with the salesperson. If you don’t like how you’re treated on the phone, consider contacting a different dealership.
  2. Inspect the car: When you get into the car, don’t just fire it up and blast off. Take a moment to see whether the seats are comfortable and can be adjusted to your liking. Explore the controls and see whether they are easy to operate. Set the mirrors and check for blind spots.
  3. Pick a good route: Car salespeople usually suggest a route that is a series of right turns that brings you back to the dealership. This is convenient for the dealership, but not for you. Instead, you should drive the car for at least 20 minutes under different conditions: on side streets, on the highway, up hills and over rough pavement.
  4. Put the car through its paces: We’re not saying you should do doughnuts or a smoky burnout; you should see how the car accelerates, handles and drives. Check the following points:
  • How is the visibility? Are there any blind spots?
  • Acceleration and cornering: Does the car have enough power? Is the steering nicely weighted to your feel? In tight corners, does the car lean dramatically, or is it still composed?
  • Do the brakes feel responsive? Do they grab too quickly or feel mushy?
  • Can you read the gauges without taking your eyes off the road for long? Are the controls in easy reach?
  • If you’re test-driving a used car, listen for any unusual noises or vibrations that could indicate worn suspension parts or tires.
  1. Reinspect the car: Back at the dealership, you can expect a pitch from your salesperson. Instead of accepting the invitation to “come inside and run the numbers,” check the back seat legroom and open the trunk or hatchback to inspect the cargo capacity. Some people bring golf clubs or large items to see how they fit. Families with children should bring a car seat to see how it attaches. It’s also an excellent time to blast some tunes and see whether your phone connects via Bluetooth.

Making the final choice

If you are test-driving several cars, be sure to make notes about your impressions. Use your smartphone camera to snap a photo of any feature you want to compare with the competing vehicle. Later, review your notes and pictures to help you make a final choice. However, it usually doesn’t come to a long deliberation — often, the choice is clear based on driving impressions and the vehicle’s utility.

In some cases, you might finish all your test-drives and still not have a clear choice. If you have the time, you can begin the research over again. Select one or two new candidates and take another round of test-drives. It may be time-consuming, but because you will probably have the car for years, the extra effort will be well worth it.

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