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What you should look for on a test drive

Patty is a mom, daughter, wife, niece, grandmother and auntie, Patty is young, old, married, single, an experienced driver, a new driver, a race car driver , a hot rod driver, a classic car driver, a mini van driver, a truck driver, a lu...

Test it before you buy

So you've done all the research and you know what type of car you want or maybe even the exact model, but you haven't tried it out. Don't you dare pluck down that cash before you take a test drive!

Woman at Car Dealership

Ask Patty has put together some tips for you to take with you to the car lot. Jot down these questions or print them out and make sure you skim through them before driving off into the sunset. Make sure to check out our Find Your Dream Car page!

Before you go on that test drive, check how well made the vehicle is. Are the gaps even between the hood and the fenders? Is the paint smooth? Under the hood, is the wiring neatly bundled and are the metal edges smooth?

Initial sit test

  • Is the car easy to get into and out of?
  • Make sure to sit in the back seat. Will there be enough room for your passenger's legs, bags, etc?
  • Is there room for a child car seat if you need one?
  • Does the driver's seat support your thighs and the small of your back? It is very important to note this because it might not bother you on a 10 minute test drive, but the first long drive or traffic-filled commute will tell you if the support here is lacking, so check now!
  • Can you comfortably reach all the controls?

The Wheel Check

Once you are behind the wheel check these things:

  • Are the gauges easy to read?
  • Does the steering wheel obstruct your view?
  • Must you change position to see any gauges?
  • Does glare make them hard to see?

The dashboard

Check it before you leave the dealer's lot.

  • Make sure all lights turn on and knobs/buttons work like they are supposed to.
  • Can you reach all of the controls without moving far out of position?
  • Are there any protrusions that would be dangerous if you were thrown forward in a sudden stop?

Visibility While Driving

This can be difficult to judge, but these quick tests will point out danger spots.

  • Is the top rim of the steering wheel lower than your shoulders? If it isn't, it may interfere with your line of sight.
  • Squirt the windshield-wiper fluid, run the wipers and look for any areas that the wipers don't reach. They might reduce your vision at night and in bad weather.
  • Once you're on the road, check the passenger-side mirror for blind spots. Does a car passing on the right disappear momentarily from the mirror, only to suddenly reappear seconds later by your side?

Things to look for while test driving

You should feel comfortable and safely in control of the car at all times.

  • Notice how soft or hard the ride is and make sure it is what you prefer.
  • Does it hurt or jar your back? Are uncomfortable in any way?
  • Remember that you can expect a somewhat stiffer ride from a sporty or performance car.
  • When you reach a quiet parking lot, try a few sharp turns at low speed. Make a right, a left and a U-turn. Does the car lean too much from side to side?
  • Check the vehicle's turning circle. Can you make a U-turn on a residential street in one continuous motion?
  • Does the car "dance" over rough or bumpy surfaces?

Steering

A slight turn of the steering wheel should elicit a quick response. The car should be easy to steer and provide enough power to eliminate hard work but not so you feel you aren't in control. On a straight stretch, relax your grip on the steering wheel. The car should remain on a steady course.

Parallel parking

The steering wheel should turn easily and sharply. Note the number of turns it takes from wheel lock to wheel lock. A tip: the fewer the turns, the better.

Brake test

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) are standard on many cars. They electronically prevent a car's wheels from locking up on slippery or dusty surfaces and let you continue steering to maintain control of your car. It will feel weird when it is engaged... read on to test it.On an empty road with no obstacles and no other car in sight, step on the brake pedal as hard as you can. The ABS should bring the car to a controlled stop. You may feel some "Catching" or push back on the brake pedal when you do this and this is normal. It will feel strange, but if the car locks up or skids, this is not a good thing.

Power and transmission

Now find out whether the car is powerful enough around town.

See how easily you can merge into traffic from the interstate ramp. Can you reach highway speed easily and maintain that pace? Do you feel safe doing it?Is there enough power to easily pick up 10 mph and overtake the car in front of you? With the air-conditioning on high, do you still have enough power to pass? Most people forget to check this.

How quiet is it?

You want a car to be as quiet as possible, but noise is hard to judge. Check out this test:

  • Before you get on the highway, close the windows, slow down to about 20 mph and turn on the radio so it's at a comfy level--no loud thumping. Note how many times you have to turn up the volume to keep the same sound level as you accelerate to 55 mph. In a quiet car, you shouldn't have to increase the volume more than once or twice, and then only slightly.

When you finally get back to the dealership, do a final rundown of the car's comfort and convenience features. With all of this detailed research you will definitely know if this is the car for you. If you need help narrowing down your vehicle choices, check out our Find Your Dream Car page!

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