Top Car Test Drive Tips From The Pros

So you want to buy a new car? Or a car that's new to you? You'll want to test drive it first, and we have some tips on how to make the most of your time with the car.

Of course, you shouldn't just show up and expect to learn everything you'll need to know to make your purchase--there's homework to do before the drive. These are our top test drive tips, assembled from our time spent reviewing new cars for shoppers like you.

Assuming you've already narrowed your car-buying down to a handful of candidates that suit your needs, you'll want to make a list of the pros and cons of each--preferably on a notepad you can bring with you as you take each for a spin. Record your thoughts immediately after the drive so you're not trying to remember which car felt sporty and which had the really cool instrument panel.

Then set a price limit based on what you're willing to spend, and don't test drive anything more than 5 percent above that limit--it will only cause heartache. Bring proof of your car insurance along, just in case anything goes wrong--you'll be covered.

Now that you're all set for the drive, here are the key things you should do to get the most from the experience and end up with the car that's best for you.

Make sure you fit. Not every car is made for every body. You should be able to see traffic lights easily with the seat properly adjusted; you should be able to reach the steering wheel comfortably for long periods of time; you should be able to see over your shoulder with a mostly unobstructed view of the side lane; and you should have an acceptable view to the rear. 

Seats matter, too. The seats should support you at the sides and the front of the bottom cushion, and comfortably keep you in place at the backrest. The headrests should not push your head too far forward or enforce a slouched driving position.

Adjust the driver's seat to your comfort, then sit in the seat behind it--is there enough space for adult-sized humans? Does that matter to you?

Pair your smartphone--then delete it. Do you want to pay another $300-$1,000 for a phone that actually works properly with your new car?

Drive a car equipped as closely as possible to the one you want. Don't let them put you into a turbocharged sedan when you want the base coupe--or an automatic when you're shopping manuals. Even in the same body, under the same names, many cars drive so differently, they can seem unrelated.

Don't let the salesman pressure you into trying a car you know you don't like. You have the money--you're the boss. Wasting time on a car you're not going to buy just muddles the process.

Take it for an extended test drive--overnight if possible. You might not notice comfort/use issues in a 20-minute spin around the dealership.

Take it on the highway, and be sure to test acceleration on the on-ramp. Does it get up to speed quickly enough? Is it quiet/comfortable at freeway speeds?

Park it--parallel, back-in, and nose-in. How is visibility? Turning radius/maneuverability? Are there parking aids (sensors/cameras)? How tight is your home driveway/parking spot? Do you need ground clearance to get into your spot?

If you're looking at a used car, the following tips can help you find any major issues before you end up stuck with the car--and its surprising repair bill.

Pop the hood, look at the engine bay for signs of leaks (stains in the hood liner, films of oil or dirt on the engine or surrounding components). If it has obviously been recently cleaned, start the car and watch it run with the hood up for several minutes. Check under the car for drips (but don't mistake air conditioner condensation for a problem).

Swipe a finger into the tailpipe. Does it come back black/brown and dry? You're probably safe. Slightly oily? That might indicate an issue with the engine. Water? Probably just condensation, but if it's slippery water, it could signal an issue with the head gasket.

Watch the tailpipe on startup. Does it blow a little puff of blue/white smoke? Black smoke? Or is it clean and clear? Smoke on startup can be harmless, but it can also be a sign of looming engine issues.

Take it on the highway, paying attention for odd noises, vibrations, tracking, power, and comfort.

Don't be afraid to come back with a trusted independent mechanic (or to take the car by the mechanic on the test drive). Most will do this for a small fee, and it's the best way to ensure you're not buying into a fixer-upper. Specialist mechanics in your vehicle's brand/type will have the deepest knowledge base.
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