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Buying A Car? What To Look For When You Take A Test Drive

Don't buy a car on the same day you test drive. The smell of a new car can have an intoxicating effect.
Elaine Thompson
Don't buy a car on the same day you test drive. The smell of a new car can have an intoxicating effect.

Most car buyers don't do more than the most perfunctory test drive of new or used cars. But with so much new technology and features in today's cars and trucks, a thorough test drive is more important than ever.

According to a survey by Cox Automotive only 32 percent of consumers know the exact vehicle they want when they start car shopping. But 55 percent test drive only one vehicle — the one they end up purchasing. You're likely to try on more than one pair of shoes or hat, even when they have your size and you know what it is.

Ron Montoya with Edmunds.com, the car buying website, says a lot of people think, " 'Hey, this car's new. I'm driving an old car. I don't really need to drive this new car. Anything is going to be better than what I'm currently driving.' So they don't test-drive it."

But they should. The average car on the road is over 10 years old. Technology has changed significantly in the last decade, so many of the features on that new vehicle may be unfamiliar. Things such as drive assist, lane keeping, and turn assist weren't around just a few years ago.

"If you want a certain package, if you want a certain engine, make sure you drive that one and don't drive something else just because it's closer to the lot or it can be a quicker test drive," Montoya says. "You want to make sure that it's the car you want, because that's the car you're going to buy. You're going to be spending a lot of money on it."

While driving the car, pay attention to things like how the steering feels in your hands, how the vehicle feels as it's turning and how the brakes respond, says Jean Jennings with Jean Knows Cars. "Your hands, your feet and your butt — those are the things that are most important," she says.

Jennings, who was the longtime editor of Automobile magazine, says most importantly, you should enjoy the experience: "The first person who knocks your joy down one tiny bit, walk out! How dare they! It's your money and your joy. If you're going to spend that kind of money, why would you deal with anyone who gives you any pain at all? Am I right?"

Jennings is right. Driving a car should not be painful. Here's some ways to ease the pain.

Tips For The Test Drive

  • Do your homework. What type of car works for your lifestyle? You might not want a Lamborghini for your 50-mile-round-trip commute.
  • Schedule an appointment with the car dealer. Actually, schedule several appointments on the same day. This will force you to drive several cars, and it gives you a legitimate excuse to leave the dealership.
  • Make a list of the cars and features, and check the various consumer websites for the most recent car reviews. Maybe the quality for your beloved brand has slipped.
  • Pick a day solely for test driving. Don't buy a car on the same day you test drive. The smell of a new car can have an intoxicating effect.
  • Make a checklist. Consumer Reports has a checklist of what to look at and think about when test driving.
  • Bring a buddy and your stuff. Once you walk into a dealership, the goal of the salesman is to get you to buy a car. A friend can keep you sane, and focused. Also, if you have a car seat or a bike, bring that so your know how easy it is to put your cargo and a passenger in your car.
  • Comfort is key. Can you easily get in and out? Do you actually fit in the seat? Think about your car and body in the future. That red sports car may look cute now, but will you be able to get in and out of it in, say, 5 years?
  • Bring your own photocopies of your license. To test drive, most dealerships will photocopy your license. Bring your own copy, ask for documents back, and destroy the copies. Identity theft around vehicles is on the rise. According to Autoblog.com, "In the 1990s, around 10 percent of stolen vehicles were obtained by using fraudulent applications. By the 2000s, that percentage had ballooned to 70 to 75 percent."
  • Walk around the car. Check for scratches, rust, missing pieces, etc. even with a new car. Vehicles can be damaged during shipping (and test drives) so be wary.
  • Check the tech. Can you easily pair your phone with Bluetooth? Do you know what all the beeping noises mean?
  • What's the fuel? Find out the fuel economy. Does the vehicle take premium gas or need special maintenance?
  • Drive the car. If most of your commute is on the highway, then drive on the highway. Try to drive over a bumpy road or railroad track to check how it rides.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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