Chances are, the dealership where you're shopping has a cramped back parking lot. Instead of waiting for the sales associate to bring the car our front, ask him or her if you can drive it out yourself. If you aren't comfortable navigating a lot full of new cars in an unfamiliar vehicle, go to a shopping center instead. Pull in and out of a parking space. Go up and down a few aisles. Pay attention to how far you have to crank the wheel to get around the corner, as well as the turning radius of the car as a whole. Also notice visibility. How well can you see out of the back and side windows? If the vehicle is equipped with a backup camera, spend a few minutes getting familiar with the display.
Acceleration and Braking
Take the car to a safe, quiet (non-residential) street or large empty parking lot. Accelerate normally and pay attention to the available power and torque off the line. Turn around and do it again. This time, punch the throttle and see if it feels any different. (Keep in mind that doing the latter on a regular basis will take its toll on MPG.) Next, test braking distance and pedal feel. Choose a visual landmark to be your braking point (a tree, pole, sign, etc.). Speed up to a comfortable, safe speed. When you reach your braking point, brake normally. Pay attention to how firm or soft the pedal feels, as well as how much physical effort is required. Also make note of how far you are from your braking point. Now do it all again. This time, do a "panic" stop. Slam on the brakes as hard as you can and notice how the car responds, as well as how far you are from your braking point (typically most people find their braking distances are shorter than they expect them to be). Obviously, that the faster you're going, the more distance it takes to stop. If you have the space and it's safe, practice these panic stops from several speeds.
Next, take the car on the freeway. Notice acceleration time and pedal feel as you attempt to merge. Once you're at cruising speed, hit the accelerator again as if you're attempting to pass. Does the car pull away smoothly, or does it hesitate or strain? Do the gears seem short (shift quickly from one gear to the next) or tall (longer time period between shifts)? Do you get enough torque to pass quickly?
If you drive hilly or mountainous roads, find some some steep terrain. It could even be as simple as a series of parking garage ramps. Notice how the vehicle handles the inclines. Do you get enough power? Is it easy to find the proper gear? If you are testing a vehicle with an automatic transmission, experiment with manually shifting into a lower gear.
Next time, we'll talk about suspension, ride quality, and at-speed handling.