Test Driving a Car: Three Tricks to Get the Most Out of It

Whether you’re shopping for a new or used car, these test-drive tips can be the difference between going home with the wrong car or finding the perfect fit.

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Test-driving a car can sometimes feel like the most rushed aspect of the buying experience, but it's a critical step in finding your next car, truck, or SUV. Spending a reasonable amount of time in a vehicle, preferably on roads you drive every day, can tell you more about whether it's the right one for you than any internet review possibly ever could. If you can, take your time. This is a big decision, and you may need to spend a half-hour or more to examine a vehicle on roads of your choosing.

How do seasoned car buyers deal with the typical high-pressure tactics of many salespeople, who, let’s face it, would rather capitalize on your initial interest in a vehicle than let you consider if it fits your needs? Here are three insider tips to keep in mind the next time you set out for test driving a car.

Make Sure You're Testing the Car You Want

Before stepping into a dealership, you should prepare yourself for the inevitable push by sales staff to steer you into a vehicle other than the one you have in mind. Do your research and figure out what you want to try, so you can arrive with confidence. If you have an options package or trim level in mind, save any purchasing decisions until you have the chance to test it out.

At the very least, it’s important that you test drive a car with the same engine, transmission, wheels, and tires as the car you’re thinking of purchasing. These components have a significant effect on how a vehicle drives. A salesperson may try to lead you to other vehicles with the promise that they're cheaper, better, faster, or more plush. Stand your ground, repeat the specifications of the vehicle you're looking to buy, and don't waste precious road time driving the ‘special of the day’ unless you truly intend to buy that exact vehicle.

Scope Out Your Route

If you let the salesperson navigate, you'll likely end up on a low-speed route consisting mostly of 90-degree turns on local streets that wraps in 10 minutes. This may give you enough time to fiddle with the infotainment system and gauge how comfortable the driver’s seat is for grocery-store runs, but it won't tell you much more about the vehicle than you could have gained from the brochure.

So come prepared with a planned route of your own design. If the dealership is close to where you live, drive a loop that incorporates roads you tackle every day. That way, you won't be worried about where you're going and can devote all your attention to evaluating your prospective ride's strengths and weaknesses. If you're too far from home for that to fly, use an online map to scope out roads near the dealership. Before you arrive, take a few passes around your plotted course to get familiar with it.

Make sure to test drive both in-town driving and highway cruising, especially if you’re looking at a used car, as potential problems may reveal themselves at high speed. A well-rounded route includes on-ramps so you can accelerate hard; empty back roads so you can evaluate the brakes with quick stop; and both smooth and rough pavement, so you can get a feel for the suspension.

Bring a Friend

The salesperson wants you to leave the lot with a vehicle, so you should expect that they're going to use every second of your time together to sell, sell, sell. This can be a huge distraction when test driving a car since you should be paying attention to how well the car handles bumps and potholes, or how much wind noise infiltrates the cabin on the highway. One solution is to bring along a smooth-talking friend who can distract the salesperson and give you time to adequately evaluate the vehicle.

With a friend running interference, you can scope out the interior and exterior for any potential issues such as rust or evidence of accident damage without someone breathing down your neck. And during the test drive, as your gregarious friend bombards the salesperson with questions, you can listen and feel for any clunks, rattles, or other strange behavior that could indicate there's a problem with the vehicle — particularly important when it comes to buying a used car.

What’s more, your friend can give you their honest take on how comfortable the back seat is. And you can try out the car's tech and features — some of which may be new to you — without feeling as if all eyes are on you.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.