When you are out comparison-shopping new cars, itís important that you have a strategy for the test drive. In many of todayís cars, trucks, and SUVs, there are so many more electronic distractions inside the vehicle that itís possible to just get overloaded by the light show. Here are some tips gathered from some of the top reviewers from major automotive magazines.
Itís always best to compare the vehicles youíre considering as close to back-to-back as possible. Thatís why youíll often see articles in car magazine where three similar cars are compared at the same time. Try to drive all of the vehicles you're considering on the same day so that you can compare them more equally. It's important to compare all the new vehicles youíre considering as itís likely that all of them could be better than your current car. The more vehicles you test-drive, the better the perspective you'll develop.
Plan your own driving route in advance with different types of road surfaces and different driving conditions. A salesperson or private seller may suggest routes that hide or minimize problems. Then drive for as long as possible. Try for at least 30 minutes of behind-the-wheel time.
Be advised that while some dealers will let you take the car out by yourself, others prefer to send along a salesperson to answer your questions as they arise. The best countermeasure in this situation is to bring a wingman who can chat with the salesperson while you concentrate on the drive. And speaking of concentration ask that all infotainment and navigation systems are shut off during part of your test drive. Those features can be demonstrated on the lot. The one exception is the navigation system. Have a specific location in mind when you want it turned on and off.
Most auto reviewers use the same basic checklist to evaluate a new car, truck, or SUV. Become familiar with this list and write it down if youíre likely to forget any or all of it. In fact, most reviewers carry a notebook and pencil to jot down notes immediately after the test drive.
Evaluate ride comfort on a stretch of imperfect pavement. Do potholes, seams, and cracks in the pavement seem to upset the balance of the vehicle? Or does the suspension absorb the surface irregularities providing you with a smooth ride over rough roads? Vehicles with soft suspensions feel as though they float over seams and dips but they also allow the vehicle to wallow after a large bump. The best vehicles feel tight and controlled over bumps.
Cars, trucks, and SUVs of a more sporting nature usually have a firmer ride, typically a trade-off for their better handling characteristics. Make sure that the firmness of the suspension is something that you can live with long term.
At the lower end of the price spectrum, youíll find a mix of cars, some of very recent design, others that have simply been updated slightly over the years. The newer models have suspensions that swallow up pavement flaws while those cars based on an older platform will likely transmit more road shocks and noise into the interior.
As itís not your car, truck, or SUV youíre driving, you might drive a little more delicately than normal, especially if the salesperson is in the back seat. Both the dealer and the salesperson want you to properly evaluate the vehicle so plan to encounter on your test drive a spot where you can make an acceleration run from a stop and merge into fast freeway traffic. Once youíre up to highway speeds, how is the car responding? Does it feel like itís reached itís limits just to keep up with other cars or is there plenty of reserve? Also, how did the transmission respond to the acceleration? Did it shift smoothly from gear-to-gear or was its operation clunky?
During your drive, pay close attention to how the brakes feel, as they need to be compatible with your own style of braking. Are they responsive without being too touchy? Try to get a sense of how the vehicle responds to soft and more forceful braking. It should be smooth and progressive. While hard braking (like a panic stop) is hard to evaluate thoroughly on public roads, you can still do a basic assessment. Just be sure to warn the salesperson in the back seat in advance.
Steering and Handling
Almost every car, truck, or SUV on the road features variable rack and pinion steering. Most have a power assist Ė some hydraulic while others feature newer electronic systems. The power assist has been calibrated by the factory engineers to match the type of driving they expect the owner of that vehicle to do. You may find one model of car with precise steering with good feedback while another might be geared for a customer who wants more isolation and less feedback. Itís a matter of personal choice.
While on your test drive evaluate how the car responds to quick maneuvers, which is a key factor in avoiding an accident, so it's important to be comfortable with the way your potential new vehicle reacts.
The first thing to listen for is whether there is excessive wind noise. The shape of the grille, the rake of the windshield, the size of the outside mirrors are all elements that contribute to wind noise. As do add-on items like roof rails and racks. Tires with an aggressive tread pattern can be another source of noise. Listen for engine noise during heavy acceleration and highway cruising. Every vehicle will have its own mix of sounds. Your job is to determine which youíll be the most comfortable with over the long term.
Surprisingly visibility can vary significantly among otherwise similar vehicles. And by driving your targeted vehicles back-to-back you get a good opportunity to evaluate outward visibility. And donít just check the front but also the rear visibility when backing up, and the size of the rear blind zone. If equipped check whether the backup cameras cover the area you need to observe when backing. If possible, ask the salesperson if you can take the car youíre test driving into a dark corner of the shop so you can check the dashboard for visibility at night.
If you follow these simple tips when evaluating your new car, truck, or SUV choices on a test drive youíll find that when you sit down at the end of the day your choice will be much easier to make and youíll also have more confidence in your decision.