TCC’s Ten Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Your Test Drive

July 16, 2010
Fifteen minutes might be enough time to quickly mouse-click through basic specs and prices and comparison-shop a few models; but it’s not long enough to test-drive a vehicle that’s likely going to be part of your daily life for years.

According to data from J.D. Power & Associates’ Mystery Shopping program, the length of the typical test drive is a scant 10 to 15 minutes—barely enough time to make a few innocuous right-hand turns and back around to the lot. And despite all the time Americans spend on the Interstate, roughly half don’t even include freeway driving.

In addition to assessing how the vehicle drives, performs, and fits your overall needs in such a short time, shoppers have another time-consuming (but potentially fun) task: putting the all technology through its paces. Interiors can now include sophisticated navigation systems, Bluetooth hands-free calling, portable audio interfaces, and complex screen-driven menu systems.

We’ve come to want to so much more out of our interiors than we did just a few years ago; besides safely following your driving inputs, today’s models can function as mobile offices, go-anywhere jukeboxes, smart traffic advisors, daily planners, and even entertainers for the kids in back. And you want to test out those abilities when possible.

Whether you're shopping for something as ubiquitous as a Toyota Camry or as exclusive as a Bentley, making sure you get a long enough test drive, along with the attention you need when you have questions, is an excellent way of testing out a dealership as well as the vehicle. The more a dealer is willing to help with the shopping process, the more likely they are to pull through after the sale, when you might have special service needs. But remember, keep shopping separate from dealmaking; don’t talk payments and prices on the test drive.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking up close at a number of aspects—aimed at helping you get more out of your speed date with a new vehicle—in a series called Test Drive In Detail. In the meantime, here are ten must-read tips for getting the most from your test drive:

iPhone

iPhone

Call ahead.  Hopefully by the time you’re ready for the test drive you’ve narrowed your list down to just one or a few models. It’s best to drive all the models you’re considering on the same day, and to make sure that you can get in the exact model you want for a long drive. Ideally, tell them you want to spend a couple of hours in the vehicle. Some dealers will balk at that length, but take that as a test. If they resist, go elsewhere.

Driver behind wheel, from Ford Sync Rock On ad

Driver behind wheel, from Ford Sync Rock On ad

Go it alone.  Take the test drive alone or with a companion who’ll help you evaluate the vehicle, but try to leave the salesperson back at the showroom if at all possible, so that you concentrate on the car rather than make small talk.

Cadillac CTS Recaro seats

Cadillac CTS Recaro seats

Do you fit?  Don’t forget the ordinary details. Position the seat and steering wheel to find the most comfortable seating position, and don’t forget to telescope the steering wheel if needed. How is entry and exit? Can you get in and out easily? Can you see the gauges? If you’re a taller or larger driver, do you have enough legroom, and does the seat provide enough support? Make sure you or your companion check the back seat space as well, considering how it might be used.

Volvo safety test driver, 1959

Volvo safety test driver, 1959

Put it through the paces.  Whether you're shopping for a Nissan Versa or a Porsche 911 Turbo, measuring the ultimate performance capabilities of a vehicle on the test drive might risk the safety of you and others, and is best left to the experts. But you should pay attention to the way the vehicle responds to your inputs. Once you’ve driven for some distance, can you accelerate quickly and smoothly? Is it responsive enough for hills and passing? Do the brakes stop the vehicle confidently, without the pedal feeling either too touchy or soft? If you like a vehicle with crisp handling, does it respond quickly without feeling too nervous? And does it track securely on the highway? Also, try parallel parking. Is it easy to maneuver into position, and can you see the corners?

Escape Delivers on Cargo Space

Escape Delivers on Cargo Space

Space to spare.  Stop and get a coffee or whatever you normally might in your routine. Does it fit in the cupholder? Are there adequate cubbies and spaces for your smartphone, iPad, media player, purse, and toll change? Walk around to the back of the vehicle and pop the trunk or the hatch. Is it spacious enough, and deep enough for grocery bags? Cargo nets and compartments are a plus. If it’s a hatch, does it go up far enough to not subject your forehead to sharp edges? And don’t forget to try folding down the seats, if that’s important, without the salesperson’s help, to make sure you have the reach and strength.

The new exhaust promises more aggressive sound at the press of a button

The new exhaust promises more aggressive sound at the press of a button

Listen up.  This one is tricky. Try to drive on a variety of roads and surfaces, and make sure, especially on coarse surfaces, that the cabin isn’t too loud—as it can be in some sporty cars. How quiet is the interior? Don’t necessarily rely on traveling familiar routes, as it’s likely the new car is quieter and smoother than the one you have.

Old Driver

Old Driver

Think about comfort. As you near the end of your test drive, is your back hurting? Was your knee up against the center console? Were you craning your neck because you can’t quite see that blind spot? Any issue like this doesn’t bode well for the future, and you should probably move on to the next model.

MyFord Touch

MyFord Touch

Use the technology.  Now that you’ve covered the basics, pull back into a safe place—maybe the back corner of the dealership lot—but don’t leave yet. Now’s the time to play. Listen to the sound system. Try pairing your Bluetooth phone with the system. Try entering an address into the navigation system. Hook up your iPod and navigate through the files. Do some functions rely on a complicated menu system, and does it seem intuitive? Does the navigation system have real-time traffic info and rerouting, or other useful info? Do the voice commands respond to your voice? If anything’s vague, or you’re unsure how to access any of the features, ask the salesperson right then and there.

Tibaldi Bentley pen

Tibaldi Bentley pen

Take a step back. Bring a pen and notebook—or the smartphone of your choice—for quick note taking after the drive, and take pictures of anything you should remember when weighing the options and various models. Trust your instincts and write them down when they’re fresh.

Cadillac dealership

Cadillac dealership

Walk away. As tempting as it might be, don’t buy right after the test drive. Right after the drive, the salesperson has just invested time in you and is less likely to offer a deal, while you may be more excited about the vehicle and likely to settle for a higher price. Go home, reassess, and get ready to negotiate.

Stay tuned for more. In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking up close at a number of aspects—aimed at helping you get more out of your quick date with a new vehicle—in a series called Test Drive In Detail.

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