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How to do a Proper Test Drive

You’ve done your homework and narrowed down your next potential car purchase to a select few. Now it’s time to get behind the wheel to see how your shortlist stands up to your needs and wants. But buyers beware – it’s easy to become overwhelmed on a test drive because it’s an exciting new experience, and there are so many things to consider. This is your opportunity to gauge how well the vehicle suits your lifestyle and a chance to catch any warning signs before you make a big investment. So before you shift the car into drive, here are 10 tips to help you get the most out of your test drive.

1. Enlist a friend.

Bring a friend or family member along with you to the dealership. This person can be an extra eye to help you spot any red flags throughout the process. They can also take notes for you during the test drive and provide a little extra comfort. If your spouse, partner, child or other individual will be driving the car you purchase, it’s important they get a chance in the driver’s seat as well.

2. Decide what’s important to you.

Come up with a list of wants and needs for your next car. Maybe you care more about comfort, or you’re looking for a vehicle that can provide you with reliable handling in rough weather conditions. Detail which inside features you require and bring a checklist with you to review on your drive to see how well that vehicle measures up.

3. Plan your route.

Research where you’d like to take the car during the test drive. This is especially important if you’re travelling to a dealership in a town or city that you’re unfamiliar with. You want to try out the vehicle in different environments such as stop and go traffic, highway driving and smooth and bumpy road conditions to see how the car reacts to each surface. As you navigate through the route, check for any strange noises or uncomfortable vibrations.

4. Take some time before you leave the lot.

You’ll of course want to inspect both the exterior and interior of the car before you leave the lot, but the test drive is a great time to get a feel for the vehicle. Get in and out of the car a few times – is the entrance uncomfortably high or low? Play around with the car’s accessories before you hit the road so you aren’t distracted during the drive and ask the dealer to describe any special features now so you’re not distracted out on the road. Can you reach the radio, temperature, seat and mirror controls without having to lean forward? Do the pedals and seat adjustments suit you? Test the car’s air conditioner first and then pump up the heat to see how quickly it takes to reach the maximum temperature. Try out the vents and look around at the accessories you’ll use daily – cupholders, lights etc. Finally, see how much gas is in the tank: you won’t be able to do a proper assessment if you’re worried you won’t make it back to the lot.

5. Drive it realistically.

Try accelerating, decelerating, passing and merging. What’s the engine’s power like? Does it accelerate fast enough for you? Or does it have extra power that you don’t think you need? Does the vehicle upshift and downshift smoothly and at the correct time? When you’re in a highway or high speed mode, listen to the noise of the airflow around the vehicle – is there a humming or squealing noise that would annoy you?

6. Evaluate how the car feels.

Is the steering wheel comfortable for you? Is it sensitive to the touch or is there a lag when you turn? Does the vehicle require constant adjustment while you drive? Make a variety of left and right turns to see how the car reacts.

7. Hit the brakes.

Take the vehicle to a safe setting where you can test out the car’s stopping power. Fill your passengers in on what you’re planning to do so they can brace themselves for a hard stop. Brake both hard and soft – did the car’s anti-lock brake system kick in as promised? Take note if the car pulled to one side or if you have to push the pedal to the floor in order to make the stop – these will be things you’ll want to bring up to the dealer and your mechanic during a pre-purchase inspection.

8. Put it in park.

At some point during the drive, try parallel parking the vehicle. This will give you another perspective on the angles of the car and the potential blindspots you could face on a daily basis. Also, get out of the vehicle and take a look at the car when it’s not on the lot. Different lighting and a new environment could help you spot something you missed on earlier inspection.

9. Try it again.

There are certain elements of the vehicle that you won’t see in the daylight. If you want to test out the car’s headlights and experience how it drives at night, ask your dealer if you can book an appointment for later that evening. Also, don’t be afraid to take the car for another test drive if you have questions or if another family member wants to weigh in on the vehicle.

10. Don’t rush through the process.

A good test drive can take up to 30 minutes so take your time. You’re making a big commitment and the test drive is when you decide whether or not the car is right for you. Once you arrive back to the lot, write down your observations. This will help you compare vehicles and it will pinpoint issues you want to ask your mechanic during a pre-purchase inspection. It’s also a great idea to test drive a few different cars so you can see what you like in a car.

Tips for Winter Test Drives

The winter can be a great time to test drive a car because you likely won’t face a dealership lot crowded with other car shoppers. It’s also the perfect opportunity to put the car through realistic winter driving conditions. Here’s what to keep in mind if you take a vehicle out for a drive in the winter months:

  • Bring a change of shoes so you don’t get the interior of the car dirty. A pair of sneakers can also give you a better feel of how the vehicle moves, compared to bulky winter boots.

  • You should still drive the vehicle at both high and low speeds, but if the road conditions are icy or snowy, consider an empty parking lot for brake tests or any risky maneuvers.

  • Even though the temperatures are chilly outside, you’ll want to test the car’s air conditioning as well as the heat and defrost.

  • If the vehicle is covered with snow, ask the dealer if you can scrape off some of the snow or take it through a car wash, so you can check out the car’s exterior.

Get more tips on buying a used car in our free, downloadble Buying Guide!