Test Drive Strategies

Test Drive Strategies


Getting behind the wheel of a prospective new or used vehicle is the most critical step in the car buying process. Fortunately, with a little preparation you can stay on task and focused on the really important things. Most people make a list before taking a trip to the grocery store. Doing the same before embarking on your quest for a big-ticket item like a car or truck makes a ton of sense. Here are some basics to help you get the most from your test drive.

**New vehicles — **Prepare! Assuming you’ve settled on the basic make and model you’re interested in, list the trade-offs you’ll be willing to make. For example, note the colors you’re willing to accept from your ideal choice to what you could live with if necessary. Do the same for options and features — from “must haves” to “negotiables.”

  1. Identify the dealers in your area that sell the make and model you’re interested in. Give them a call and connect with the new car manager. Describe the vehicle you’re looking for and make sure they have it on the lot. Ask the manager for the name of his best salesperson and make an appointment.
  2. When you get to the dealership, remember you’re the boss. Think of the salesperson as someone who’s working for you. Expect the salesperson’s full attention and their complete knowledge of every aspect of the vehicle you’re interested in. Anything short of that, don’t hesitate to fire him/her and move on.
  3. It’s likely the salesperson will ask if you have a trade-in. It’s a reasonable question but the best way to answer is to say you haven’t made that decision yet. Some dealerships will ask to evaluate your trade-in while you’re on your test-drive. Decline that offer, too. Remember, you’re the boss.
  4. Always aim to test-drive a version of the vehicle that is as close to what you want as possible. There’s little point in driving a vehicle with a V-6 if what you want is the more economical four-cylinder engine or driving a sedan if you’re really interested in the hatchback version.
  5. Before you take it for a spin have the salesperson demonstrate the vehicle’s features and functions. Review everything right down to the cup holders. Check under the hood and ask the salesperson to point out some of the basics like the location of the oil dipstick and where oil is added. Check for things like battery accessibility and locate the spare (full size or donut?) and jack. Check out the configuration of the trunk/cargo space to make sure it’s adequate for your needs.
  6. Insurance rules will usually require that the salesperson accompany you on the test drive. Ask the salesperson to drive for a bit to give you opportunity to check out the back seat. Your future passengers will appreciate it.
  7. As you get behind the wheel evaluate entering and exiting the vehicle to make sure you can get in and out comfortably. Check your seating position to make sure you can easily reach the steering wheel, pedals and all controls.
  8. When you get on the road, make sure to test the car in situations and environments that best represent your typical driving conditions, stop-and-go, freeway, hills, etc. A good salesperson will know of nearby routes to take that will best simulate your real-life conditions. Take your time and be thorough.
  9. As you drive listen carefully for road and ambient noise from wind and tire hum. There will always be some noise but if it seems excessive when the vehicle is brand new and as tight as it will ever be consider that over time the noise will only increase.
  10. Really concentrate on the ride. Is it smooth? Does the suspension absorb bumps without difficulty? Again, if you have concerns at the outset, remember that the ride will tend to deteriorate somewhat over time.
  11. Visibility is a huge deal. Check your field of vision. Look for any distracting reflections and pay close attention to any potential blind spots, especially as you look left and right to make lane changes.
  12. Make sure the vehicle has adequate acceleration. Does it have enough spunk to safely merge into freeway traffic and to pass other vehicles at speed? Note the feel of the transmission as it upshifts and downshifts. For manual transmissions make sure the shift pattern feels smooth and comfortable and the clutch operates to your satisfaction. Check for steering responsiveness and stability when cornering.
  13. When possible, find a safe place to brake hard from 40-50 mph and look for a controlled, straight-line stop.
  14. If you regularly parallel park and provided the vehicle doesn’t park itself, make sure you’re comfortable doing it.

When the test drive is over you may want to take some time to process all you’ve learned. If you’re not quite ready to buy, simply say so. If you’ve had a good experience with the salesperson and return later to negotiate make it a point to complete the transaction make it a point to do it with the salesperson who has already invested his or her time with you.

**Used Vehicles — **Test-driving a used vehicle will involve many of the same steps associated with buying a new vehicle, especially when buying from a dealer. There are, however, a few additional considerations when dealing with pre-owned vehicles.

  1. Ask for the maintenance records. Most responsible vehicle owners will keep them. If they’re not available it’s a big, red flag
  2. Get a vehicle history report. It’s worth every penny and then some. Vehicle reports are available from a number of reputable resources. Learn more here.
  3. Make no assumptions about what works and what doesn’t. Check the AC and heater, headlights and tail lights, wipers, etc., and make sure all power options are in good working order. Make sure the spare tire and all tire changing gear are present and functional.
  4. Be more concerned about identifying potential problems and less concerned about diagnosing them. Squeaks, clunks and rattles may or may not indicate actual problems. More on this later.
  5. Carefully check the tires for proper inflation and possible uneven wear. Evaluate the tread depth to see how much life is left. One easy way is the penny test. Simply insert a penny into your tire’s tread groove with Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you. If you can see all of Lincoln’s head, your tread depth is less than 2/32 inch and it’s time to replace them. 3/32 inch means they’ll need to be replaced soon. 4/32 of an inch or more means they’re good to go for a while.
  6. Do a full walk around to check for dings, dents, windshield chips or cracks. Most used cars will have some but if they’re excessive it may indicate that the car has been driven in less than ideal conditions.
  7. Turn the key. Obvious, right? Not so fast. We’re interested in how the key actually turns and how much effort it takes to insert and remove it. Some people have heavy rings loaded with keys and other stuff. Over time this can put excessive wear on the ignition and cause problems. Also, make sure there’s an extra set and/or a valet key. They’re expensive to replace.
  8. Give it the sniff test. Remove any air fresheners before you start your test drive and check later for any unusual or offensive odors because chances are they’re not going away.
  9. Last, but certainly not least, never buy a used vehicle that hasn’t been independently inspected. It will cost you a bit to have a trusted mechanic (with no skin in the game) give the vehicle a once-over but it could save you thousands of dollars and lots of headaches down the road. Make a note of any issues, concerns, noises, etc., but leave the evaluation to an expert. Most dealerships will do at least a cursory inspection and often offer some kind of warranty. Certified used vehicles are usually a safe bet. Vehicles sold “as is” by dealers or by a private party aren’t. If you’re really interested in the vehicle make the investment and get it checked out.

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