Eleven Tips for a Telling Test Drive

November 21, 2009
So you find yourself at the dealer and the salesperson, after copying your drivers license, walks over to a car, explaining that you can drive it as soon as it is off their lot. For insurance purposes. Looking at the crammed in narrow lanes between hundreds of unsold sheet metal, you think this might be a good idea.

But wait before you even get in your test drive has already begun. Really? Yup, there are twelve things you must do on any good test drive and three of them should be done now.

1. Pop the Hood - Sure, you probably think that is what the service department is for, but hear me out. If you cant easily access the oil, water, coolant, battery, etc. neither can your mechanic. And that means more time and more money when it is serviced. Worse, it means your ability to check your car or do simple maintenance on it is compromised.

2. Pop the trunk - How much usable space is back there? How easy is it to reach in? Is it lined or bare? Is there a full spare or temporary in there?

3. Take a Seat - First check the rear seat, if any. Many people buy cars that feel great from the front only to discover later the back seat is useless and they needed it. Ouch.

 If you are in the passenger seat, take this time when you are not yet driving, to make sure the head, leg, shoulder and hip room work for everybody who will be sitting in it. That could be a larger or smaller adult or even a child or infant.

Are the seats supportive, adjustable to please, or slightly uncomfortable? Like buying shoes, know that a small annoyance on a short ride can mean a backache on a long one. Do you wind up doing the electric slide on turns, or are you held securely in place?

Remember, we havent even left the lot yet. Open the glove box. Check side storage. This is harder to do when you are driving.

4. Go Ergo Car - ergonomics are a good thing to check from both the passenger and driver side. The passenger side lets you do this safely, adjusting climate and audio controls to your hearts content, playing with the window switches, etc. But the acid test is from the drivers seat.

That is where the layout can spell the difference between life and death. If you have to take your eyes off the road or stretch to operate key controls, you have a problem.

5. Tranny Be Good - Okay, now you are in the drivers seat. Literally. Notice the clutch uptake and ease of finding a gear if you have a manual. If you have an automatic, listen for any clunking sounds when it shifts, and if you have a paddle shift, see if you can drive it without too much confusion between up-shifts and down-shifts.

6. Stop In the Name of Love - Is it easy to modulate the brakes? Do they grab abruptly, or require too much pressure to stop the car? After making sure everyone is belted in, warn the sales person and do a panic stop. Does the car dive? Or stop quickly and smoothly?

7. Ride Sally, Ride - Drive around local streets, preferably some bumpy ones, to check the ride. The ideal ride is somewhat subjective, but most experts say that it communicates road conditions without punishing you or losing composure.

8.  Take to the Highway -  If at all possible, check the response by merging quickly onto the nearest freeway. Now listen to the engine, and for any shakes or rattles. Some attributes only show up at higher speeds. Will you enjoy a long trip in this car?

9. Get a Handle On It - Get off the highway, and take your next corner. Fast. Does the car respond quickly, or is the steering response an afterthought? Does it squeal, or lean excessively? How secure do you feel driving it aggressively? You may be Ma or Pa Kettle but there will be times when you need to push it, and now is the time to find out, within reason, if you can.

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