25-point checklist for new-car test drive

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Buying a new car without a thorough test drive would be like getting married before your first date: Use this checklist to make sure you have some real-world experience before making that big commitment. 

In both cases, the better prepared you are for the initial encounter, the more beneficial it will be. To help assure your new-car purchase is a match made in heaven, use this 25-point checklist to make sure you have all the bases covered.

Before leaving home

1. Get prepared. While still at home, make a list of the trade-offs you may be willing to make. For example, list the colors you’re willing to accept in descending order from “to die for” to “could live with.” Another list should be the options or special features you just have to have, and those you’d like to have, but can live without.

2. Reach for the top. Call the sales managers at all the dealers in your area that sell the make of car you want. Get the name of the dealership’s best salesman and describe the vehicle you’re looking for to make sure they have at least one on the lot. Make an appointment.

3. Arm yourself with photocopies. Make sure you have photocopies of your driver’s license and proof of insurance. You’ll see why later.

On the lot

4. Remember who’s boss. Regard the salesman as someone who’s working for you. If that person seems distracted, is trying to rush you or doesn’t seem to know much about the vehicle you want, fire him and walk away.

5. Don’t talk trade-in. Inevitably, the salesman will ask if you have a trade-in. The best way to maintain control is to say you haven’t made that decision. Many dealerships will ask for your keys to have your car evaluated while you are on your test-drive. Don’t allow that to happen. That way, when the test-drive is over, you’re free to shake hands with the salesperson and leave. You won’t have to wait while someone “finds” your keys.

6. Don’t get trapped. For similar reasons, never surrender your driver’s license — give them a photocopy if you’re asked.

At the car

7. Drive what you want. Always try to test-drive a version that is as close to what you want as possible. There is no point in driving a vehicle with a V-6 if you are shopping for one with a four-cylinder engine or driving a sedan if you want a convertible.

8. Get a demonstration. Before beginning the test drive, ask the salesman to demonstrate the vehicle’s features as if delivering the car to its new owner. Let him show you the finer points of the audio and heating and cooling systems as well as navigation, rear-seat entertainment system and any other special features. And don’t forget the cup holders.

9. Check under the hood. Ask the salesman to point out the oil dipstick and where oil is added. Is the battery easily accessible?

10. Locate the spare. Is it a full tire or a doughnut? Is it reasonably accessible? Do you think you can operate the jack?

11. Size up cargo space. Is the trunk is large enough and properly configured for any special needs you might have, such as golf clubs or a toddler’s playpen?

12. Sit in every seating position. Will passengers be comfortable? Because of insurance requirements, the salesman will probably accompany you on the test-drive and even drive the vehicle off the lot. If so, take that opportunity to check out the backseat.

13. Test the in and out. Enter and exit the vehicle, ensuring that you can do so easily and without hitting your head or banging your shin.

14. Get behind the wheel. Make sure you can find a position that allows you to reach the pedals and steering wheel comfortably. Is there enough headroom? Are all of the controls within easy reach?

Behind the wheel

15. Get out and about. A test-drive restricted to motoring around the block isn’t a test-drive at all. Test the car in the same environments in which you will drive it — on the expressway, stop-and-go traffic, crowded parking lots and on hills, if available.

16. Map out a test course. If you don’t know the area well, tell the salesman the types of driving you want to do and ask him where to go. If he seems unwilling to allow you the 30 minutes minimum you need for the test drive, politely ask him if there is another salesperson with more time. Remember, you are the boss!

17. Drown the sound. You listened to the audio system earlier. Now turn it off. Use the quiet to judge outside noise seeping into the passenger compartment. Unless you are spending big bucks on a luxury car, there will probably be some ambient noise, but is it excessive? Listen for wind noise around the outboard mirrors or window seals, as well as the hum of the tires. There will probably be some increase in engine noise under hard acceleration. Can you live with what you hear?

18. Smooth sailing. Concentrate on the smoothness of the ride. Does the suspension absorb minor bumps, such as railroad crossings, without drama or does it feel like a stagecoach bouncing over the Chisholm Trail?

19. Can you see clearly now? From the driver’s seat, check visibility. Do you have a clear view of the traffic around you? Are there blind spots?

20. Step on it. In stop-and-go traffic, does the vehicle keep up with other cars? How much runway does it require to merge onto an expressway or pass another vehicle at speed? Do you feel safe doing so?

21. Getting shifty. If the transmission is automatic, concentrate on the smoothness of upshifts and downshifts. If it’s a manual transmission, does the gearshift move through its pattern fluidly? Do you feel comfortable with the operation of the clutch and the amount of effort it takes to depress it?

22. Steer clear. Is the steering responsive? Does the vehicle track straight when the steering wheel is held in its center position or does the vehicle wander?

23. Handle with care. Does the vehicle feel stable when cornering?

24. Tight spaces. Find an empty space on the street and parallel park the vehicle. Can you see or accurately judge where the corners of the vehicle are? Does it fit easily in a normal parking space?

25. Hit the brakes. Do the brakes stop the vehicle smoothly? If you can find a safe place, such as an empty parking lot, brake hard from about 40 miles per hour; is it a controlled, straight-line stop?

When the test-drive is complete, remember: Driving the car was not an implied agreement that you will buy it. If you are not ready to buy, there’s no reason to re-enter the showroom. Ask for the salesman’s card. He’s invested at least an hour with you, so if you do decide to return and negotiate, it should be with him. You might even ask for his next week’s schedule. Be polite, but firm. Thank him for his time, and leave. If you took our earlier advice, your car keys and driver’s license are in your pocket.

Find out when is the best time to buy a car.