According to a recent study a large majority of people either forgo a test drive or do it very minimally. I find it strange that people will spend hours trying on clothes but not seriously try out the second most expensive purchase they make. Here are some tips that I have given my clients over the years on how to get the most out of your test drive.
Figure out what you want and find it-
This sounds obvious, but you should go online and configure the specific vehicles you are considering. Then locate the cars in your vicinity with the matching trim and options. Don't be too concerned with finding your color match at first, as you are more interested in the drive.
Make an appointment-
I can't stress this one enough. Your time is valuable, you don't want to be waiting on the lot for the next salesperson with an "up" to stroll out, shake your hand, engage in useless small-talk and "go find" the car you want to drive. Call ahead and speak to a salesperson, confirm that your vehicle of choice is in stock and make arrangements for a test drive. When you make an appointment this shows the dealer that you are a serious buyer and hopefully you will get a salesperson that knows something about the car you are about to drive.
Control the pace-
When you arrive at the dealership tell the salesperson that you are only there to drive and not to buy. Explain that you will be trying out other vehicles and will decide on a purchase once you have driven the competition. However, if they would like to give you some numbers in writing you will be happy to look them over later (most of the time they will not give you numbers to take with you). This should prompt the salesperson to dial down the pressure a little. Another good strategy is to put them on the clock. Tell them you have an appointment in an hour and that you must leave the dealership by a specific time.
Really drive it-
By "really drive it" I don't mean do your best Jeff Gordon impression. What you should do is try to simulate the type of driving you do on a daily basis. Take the car on a mix of highway and rural roads. A vehicle's feel can vary drastically at different speeds. I loved the Honda Fit until I drove it at 75mph.
If you want to push the car a little to get a sense of the acceleration, the handling, or to try hard braking, do it in a safe environment and warn the salesperson ahead of time.
Car first/ Gadgets later-
The primary functions of a car are to go, stop and turn. Focus on these operations first. Does it have enough acceleration to merge? Do the brakes feel too grabby or lack feedback? Do you feel confident in the turns? There are some features, such as navigation and blind-spot detection, that you will want to see how they operate while driving, but most of the bells and whistles should wait until you are parked. That way you can really get a feel for the interface and operation.
There is all kinds of interesting tehnology and driver aids that might take some time to learn. Ask your salesperson how to use the key features of the car. Some dealerships have product specialists on staff whose job it is to teach new customers how to use their car. These folks tend to be very knowledgeable and helpful; seek them out if available.
Be sure to inquire about the service intervals and whether or not premium fuel is recommended (you would be surprised how many dealers will lie about this so they don't lose a sale).
If you want to have some fun ask, "How often does the blinker fluid need to be changed?"
Also see if this dealership offers "extended test drives," where they allow you to take the car home overnight or for a weekend.
Bring your junk-
Do you have gear or equipment that you travel with frequently? Make sure it fits. This is especially true for parents with car-seats. Families want to be certain that there is enough room with the seats installed and strollers stowed. Many cars can "baby," few can "baby" well.
Can you find a comfortable seating position? Just because a vehicle looks like its the right size, doesn't alway mean you will "fit" just right. Is that wind-noise at highway speeds annoying? Then it's going to drive you nuts after a few months. Are there little details regarding the fit and finish that just don't seem right? For some people those details matter, especially with more expensive vehicles. It's your money, you don't have to love everything, but you should be satisfied with the overall quality of your purchase.
When you drive cars back-to-back the differences will be obvious, but you might not have the time or all the vehicles might not be available on the same day. This is why it is important after the test-drive to jot down what you liked and did not like about the car. It is hard to be objective when you are excited to get a new ride, but try to be "scientific" about it.
Sleep on it-
This one is optional and may or may not be a viable especially if you are shopping on the last day of the month. However, doing several test drives can be overwhelming it is nice to decompress and reflect on what you drove. Sometimes a drive home in your current ride and a good night's rest will bring some more clarity to your purchase.
The test-drive is really just a snapshot of what the car will be like over the course of your ownership. If you have any tips to add or want to share a test-drive story please do so in the comments below. And please keep in mind that most salespeople are not the devil and deserve to be treated with respect.
I'm Tom and I run AutomatchConsulting.com; I also write articles about car buying. If you have any questions about the car-buying process feel free to drop me a line in the comments or find me on Twitter @AutomatchTom and Facebook.com/AutomatchConsulting
Photo by Chris Kidwell