How to Test Drive a Car

How to Test Drive a Car

After twelve years of test driving over 500 new cars for manufacturers, I’ve come up with a checklist that I feel can make the test driving process thorough and easy. These hints come from my book “A Woman’s Guide to Buying a Car without a Guy†but they are great guidelines for anyone, especially first- time buyers. The vehicle test driving suggestions come in two installments. This month is Before you Leave the Dealership; next month Road Test when the tires meet the pavement.

• You will have to give the dealer your license so they can make a copy for their records and your safety. Upon your return ask for the copy to be destroyed or take it with you.
• Test drive the exact model or models you have discussed with your sales associate. If you are looking to spend $19,000 on a new sedan, make sure you are driving that one, not the L or LS model which might be significantly more expensive. Your sales associate can discuss the upgrades with your during the ride or after.
• Bring a friend to be the designated “test drive†passenger (they too have a responsibility). Have them take photos or notes so you are free to concentrate on the drive and how the car functions. In fact, your passenger can hold this checklist and pencil in your comments. Don’t hesitate to let your sales associate drive too, this way you can evaluate the comfort and amenities from the passenger’s perspective.
• Twenty minutes is the average time a dealer allocates for each test drive; you may need or want more. Just let them know.

• Walk around the vehicle with your sales associate; ask questions about any new upgrades or features on the model you’ve chosen.
• Does the overall look of the car and the color say “That’s me?†The color you choose, depending on where you live, can have a bearing on your choice. In a hot climate, a black car will be at least 10 degrees hotter inside when parked outside compared to a white car.
• Can you get in and out of the car easily? If you are the driver make sure you can effortlessly maneuver yourself in and out. Think about how you are normally dressed and your footwear. Some outfits and shoes require a little more finesse when entering or exiting a SUV or truck for instance.
• Is the upholstery choice cloth or leather? Do you have children who like to eat in the car and possibly fling a sippy cup now and then? Will the upholstery clean up easily after pets or other spills?
• Are the seats comfortable? Check the leg room and head room. Maybe you are five feet two inches but your significant other is six foot six. Find a tall person in the dealership and ask them to sit in the seat to verify.
• Do the seats adjust to your liking? Remember that the minimum distance between your chest and the steering wheel should be ten inches, but eighteen inches is recommended. Is the head restraint in a good place for you? If not, adjust for the test drive.
• Are the seat belts comfortable? Ask your friend in the back seat if his/hers is. Are the seatbelts easy to pull to the right three point safety requirement?
• Ask your sales associate where the airbags are located and ask about the safety ratings
• Check rear view mirror for visibility and ease of adjusting. Also check for general visibility in the driver’s seat. Are there any “blind spots†that would make you uneasy changing lanes? Check side view mirrors to see if too big or too small.
• Are the placement of the pedals and the steering wheel good for you? If manual transmission, is the gearshift easily accessible?
• Is the dashboard easy to reach without taking your eyes off the road? Are the knobs in a stack in the middle? Do you have a safe reach with your right hand and arm? Push button touch screen?
• How does the audio system sound? Check to see where your charger would go and how it accommodates your technology. If a CD player is on your “wants†list then check to see if this make and model has it. Is a navigation system part of the package? Bluetooth for hands free dialing, voice activated commands, OnStar or similar, back up camera (they will be mandatory soon). What is included in the Navigation package?
• Check out the backseat, ask your passenger friend. Grab handles, dry cleaning hooks, rear climate controls, cup holders, armrest that has a pass through and more goodies inside the armrest?
• If the car is a convertible, how easy is it to open and close the top? Has the sales associate shown you how to operate it and try it yourself? Test drive with the top up and then down. Too noisy or too much hair blowing?
• How many child safety seats will fit, if applicable? If you are planning on have more children or grandchildren, will the backseat accommodate your growing family?
• Is the cargo area ample for your lifestyle? You should have a mental list of the items you might want to transport, vacation with or need for sports and children, or even a wheelchair when applicable. If there is an open cargo area, is there a cover? Is there a safe place to store your purse under the rug or in the spare tire well when you are parked for long periods of time?
• Do the backseats fold to increase trunk/cargo space? If you are a skier for instance, can they fit top to bottom using the pass through spot or along the passenger seat side? Do you need roof racks for your hobby such as a surfboard?
• Is there a full spare tire or donut tire (small inflatable tire that gets you approximately ten miles)? Are there tools to fix a flat? Less and less new vehicles come with any spares. Manufacturers are leaning towards run flat tires and inflator kits for your flat.
• First Aid Kit? A first aid kit is not standard in all makes, but I suggest having a well-equipped safety kit in your car based on your geographical area, medical needs, climate and driving habits.


Now you are ready to leave the dealership for the next part of the test driving process. Next month in the Tattler look for the test drive checklist for the ROAD TEST or go to and click on resources.

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