Going for a Test Drive This Weekend? Make It Count

July 23, 2010
Michael Sheehan

Although that 10-minute spin around the neighborhood is supposed to tell you whether a car you're considering buying is right for you, it rarely does. This guide will help you make sure the time you spend on a test drive isn't totally wasted.

You’re in the showroom, looking at a car you might buy, when the salesperson suggests a test drive. Although this 10-minute spin around the neighborhood is supposed to tell you whether the car is right for you, it rarely does. But there are ways to make sure the time you spend on a test drive isn’t totally wasted.

Take a close look at the interior of the car before you start to drive. Make sure that this car has all the options you want and that you’re not paying extra for something you don’t want or need. Don’t waste your time test-driving any car that isn’t equipped with the same features and options as the car you eventually plan to order.

Next, get in and out of the car a couple of times -- do you feel any discomfort or difficulty? Do your legs or knees graze any part of the vehicle? Imagine yourself doing that several times a day. If getting in and out isn’t very easy, it may become a problem later on.

Now adjust the seat until you're comfortable. Are the adjustments easy? Check the mirrors, as well -- are they all easily adjustable from the driver’s seat? This is especially important if your spouse or another member of your family will also be driving the car.

Once you're on the road, don't let the salesperson dictate where you drive. Instead, follow a route that's similar to roads you take on typical drives, remembering to start out where there's not too much traffic, so you can pay more attention to how the car handles.

Check the acceleration -- it should be smooth, not jerky or sluggish. The brakes should let you come to a smooth stop and you should be able to steer on a straightaway without having to make constant changes with the steering wheel. Check the steering and suspension by deliberately seeking out bumpy roads.

During the drive, keep the stereo off -- you can check the sound system once the drive is over -- and listen for any noises the car might make. Some noises are unavoidable. For example, high-performance tires are often noisier than typical car tires. But knocking, squeaking or thumping noises could be signs of structural or engine problems. (It’s always a good idea to have a mechanic check a car for signs of wear or damage before you buy it.)

If you're going to test-drive several vehicles, bring along a notebook and jot down any questions or comments on each car as soon as you finish with the drive. Finally, walk away from any car of the seller discourages you from test-driving a car -- it’s a sure red flag there’s something wrong with the car.