Tips for getting the most out of a test drive
Young man testing a car at a showroom

A test drive is, by far, the most exciting part of shopping for a new car. But a test drive can also be a frustrating, unhelpful experience if you don’t go in with a gameplan.

Some dealerships will deliver a car to your home for a test drive, or even let you keep it overnight. If that’s an option, go for it. But whether the car comes to you or you go to the car, here are some pro-tips on how to get the most out of a test drive — and maybe even enjoy it.

Work fast

First and foremost, aim to test drive every car you’re considering in a single day. Driving them back-to-back will make comparisons much easier. Make appointments in advance (ensuring that the dealership has the car in the trim level you want to try) and try to test drive each vehicle for 30 minutes or more. 

You’re testing the car – nobody’s testing you

For some drivers, the experience of getting into an unfamiliar car with a stranger sitting in the passenger seat might trigger a nightmarish bout of driving-test déjà vu. This time, however, there’s no reason to be nervous. The salesperson who will often (although not always) ride along with you isn’t grading your driving. You are testing the car; nobody is testing you. 

Your opinion matters most

There’s no right answer to the question of which car to buy. It all comes down to what you like. Do you love a particular colour, or enjoy the vibe of a certain dashboard design? That could be the deciding factor, but you won’t know until you test drive a bunch of cars.

What to bring to a test drive

A friend. It’s great to have a friend along for the ride, preferably a friend who’s more car-savvy than you are. Not only can they chat with the salesperson and let you focus on the car, but they can also ask any questions you might forget.

Your baggage. Take the bulky items you regularly haul: a stroller, car seats, tools, luggage, whatever.

A route. This one is optional, but for some drivers it helps to plan a test route in advance. The benefit of doing this extra work is that you’ll know where you’re going and can plan a route that includes all different kinds of roads.

Your driver’s licence. It should go without saying, but people do forget.

Test drive checklist

Bring this list with you, and don’t be shy about taking notes. We’ve broken it down into three parts:

1.     Before the drive

-        Getting in: Does it feel natural? Are you crouching down uncomfortably low getting through the door, or jumping up into the seat?

-        Get comfy: Adjust the seat, steering wheel and mirrors (in that order). Can you find a comfortable seating position? Are all the controls visible and within reach?

-        Passenger space: Sit in the back seats, if there are any. Are they roomy enough for adults, kids and/or baby seats?

-        Trunk space: Try putting your stroller in there, or whatever bulky items you normally haul. Is the cargo floor uncomfortably high? Does the trunk open and close easily?

-        Little things: Some little things speak volumes about a car’s overall quality. Play with the sun visors and the grab handles above the doors. Open and close the glovebox. Does everything feel sturdy and smooth, or loose and cheap?

-        Tech tour: Ask the salesperson for a brief tour of the infotainment system. Then do the things you normally do: put a destination into the nav, turn on some music, adjust the temperature, turn up the volume, try the heated seats. Are these things easy?

-        Turn it up: When you turn up the volume, does the stereo sound like you’re listening to music through an old phone?

-        Check the specs: Does this car have the same engine, gearbox and features as the car you’re intending to buy? Ask which parts are standard equipment and which ones cost extra.

2.     During the drive

-        Don’t be shy: When it’s safe, accelerate hard on a highway on-ramp to see what the engine (or electric motors!) can do. Find a safe place to try the brakes, stopping quickly. You’re not trying to be the smoothest driver here; you’re trying to see what this car can do — safely, within the bounds of the law, of course.

-        Steering: Get a feel for the steering by taking various corners at different speeds. Wiggle the wheel ever-so-slightly back and forth. Does the steering feel precise, or vague, or twitchy and nervous? Does it take too much muscle to turn or is it too easy?

-        Look around: Check the visibility. Are there big blindspots, or do you feel like you’ve got a good view all around the vehicle?

-        Noise: Is the cabin quiet and calm like a library, or is it loud? Turn off the stereo, put up the windows, and just listen.

-        Parking: Try reversing into a parking space. How clear and crisp is the backup camera? Is there parking radar to help you judge distance?

-        Comfort: Take plenty of time driving over bad roads, ruts, and speed bumps if you can. Does the car bounce you around, or does the suspension soak up the hits?

3.     After the drive

-        No rash decisions: The salesperson might press you to make a deal, but don’t make any decisions until after you’ve test-driven all the cars you’re interested in.

-        Take notes: If anything stood out from the above checklist, jot it down.

-        Availability: Is this car in stock, or will it take six months to order? The salesperson should be able to give you a good answer.

-        Take a card and a quote: Ask the salesperson for their card, and ask for a quote with the total price — or lease, or finance costs — including taxes and dealer fees.

-        Rinse and repeat: The more cars you test drive, the more you’ll get out of each one. Eventually you’ll get a feel for the minute differences between cars, and for what you like and don’t like.

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