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Dec 092013
 December 9, 2013  Posted by  Cars, Features, Hot Deals

A test drive is as important as the price of the new or used car you are in the market to buy, and it begins before you turn the key in the ignition.

Making the most out of a test drive could save you from making an expensive mistake, because little things you think you can live with in the showroom or dealer lot can grow into major problems down the road.

First, everybody in the family who will be driving this vehicle should take a turn in the driver’s seat. Recently, my college student son and I checked out a sporty coupe to replace his Old Breakdown.  I loved it; he hated it.  My five-foot-one body easily cleared the steeply sloped windshield, but his six-foot body didn’t, so it was thumbs down on living with a car in which you keep bumping your forehead.

Answer these questions in the showroom or dealer lot:

  • Is it easy to get in and out of the car without stooping or banging your head?  Is it easy to lift little ones into their car seats?
  • Are the seatbelts comfortable?  I can’t tell you how many vehicles I’ve tested where the seatbelt cuts into my neck.  Check the door pillar for an adjustment pillar to raise or lower it.
  • Are gas and brake pedal positions comfortable for everybody? If not, the pedals adjustable should be adjustable.  Ditto the steering wheel.
  • Is the seat comfortable and easily adjustable? If you have lower back issues – don’t we all – is there a lumbar support adjustment?
  • Is there enough head-, hip- and leg-room? Remember to sit in the backseat too.
  • Are the gauges and controls easy to read and use? Try out the on-board entertainment and navigation system, which may be more complicated than you expect.  That means it will take a while to learn, and in the meantime, you will be driving distracted, which is dangerous.
  • How is the visibility? Check both the rearview mirror and the side mirrors to look for potential blind spots.  If you are short like me, pay special attention to how much the rear seat headrests block your visibility through the rear window.
  • Check the trunk space and cargo area. Is the vehicle easy to load? That’s especially important if you will be juggling squirming toddlers. Is there a pass-through in the trunk opening for long items? And five-foot-one little me wants either a strap or a keyfob control to lower a tall trunk lid or cargo door.

Now it’s time for the actual test drive. Here’s how to learn the most from your drive:

  • Turn off the radio so you can hear the engine and concentrate on the driving experience.  Manufacturers spend a lot of R&D money to eliminate wind and engine noise, but unless you are test driving a Ferrari sportscar or similar, you should not be hearing the horses under the hood.
  • Make sure the test-drive route incorporates your specific driving requirements. If you regularly drive into the mountains, find a hill to test climbing power. If you have a highway commute, get on a freeway and see how it accelerates into traffic and performs at higher speeds.
  • Check for sun glare.  Digital dashboard read-outs on some models disappear in bright sunlight, or the top of the dashboard can reflect distracting shadows onto the front windshield.  Better to find that out before you sign the contract.
  • Drive home, and see how the vehicle “fits” in your driveway.  I’ve bottomed out more than one test drive model pulling into my daughter’s hilly street.
  • Test the brakes.  Are they firm or soft?  Firm means they engage with a bare touch, soft means you have to press harder.  Which type of braking is more comfortable for you?

Find more tips on how to get the most out of your test-drive at

Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn Kanter is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting on good deals, and warning about bad ones, for longer than she cares to admit publicly. A native and lifelong New Yorker, she helped launch the “Sales and Bargains” column in New York Magazine, and was the first consumer reporter for CBS News and for WABC TV “Eyewitness News”. She’s the author or editor of more than a dozen travel guidebooks and apps, including Peaceful Places New York City, and owns and operates NYC On The Cheap and EcoXplorer. A long-time tree-hugger, Evelyn also writes about green travel, green cars and saving the green in your wallet, for national and regional magazines and newspapers, including a column syndicated by Motor Matters.

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