The test drive is a critical step in the car selection process. Yet many car shoppers find test driving vehicles to be overwhelming and frustrating. Here are my top tips for making your test drives as painless and productive as possible.

Plan out which vehicles you want to test drive. Spend some time online narrowing down the field to your top 3 choices. If you try to test drive too many vehicles, you will likely get overwhelmed and confused, as all of the cars will start to run together in your mind. (If you need advice on how to narrow down the choices, check my article on “How to Pick the Perfect Car”.) Set aside a day to test drive all three vehicles back-to-back, so you can compare them while they are all fresh in your mind. If possible, find dealerships that are located in the same area to save you time. (Automalls are great for this!)

Before you head out on your test driving adventure, make a list of the vehicle features that are important to you. For example:

  • Is there enough leg/head room in the back seat?
  • Is there sufficient storage and cargo space?
  • Are the controls and interfaces easy to reach and use?
  • Do the cup holders hold your favorite drink securely? (Bring one to test!)
  • Is the 3rd row easy to access?
  • Do the child seats fit easily? (Do a test fit!)
  • Does the vehicle have enough “umpf” when getting on the freeway?
  • Are the seats comfortable?
  • Does the steering feel nice and tight?

Thoroughly test high-tech options like driver aids (blind spot monitoring, collision mitigation, etc.) to be sure you understand how they work and to uncover any idiosyncrasies that might drive you nuts over time.

Use Google Maps to decide on a test drive route based on the dealership locations. Most sales people have a set route close to the dealership that is short and convenient for them. You should test drive the car on roads and in traffic situations that are similar to your daily driving. Test how the vehicle drives over bumpy roads, speed bumps, tight turns, and on high-speed freeways. It is best if you can test drive the vehicle for at least 20-30 minutes to get a full driving experience. If you have a physical challenge, such as back or neck problems, ask to do an extended test drive so you can assess the vehicle’s comfort for your body. Nearly any vehicle is comfortable for 10 minutes. You don’t want to wait until after you have purchased the car to discover that the seats aggravate that pinched nerve in your lower back.

Schedule your test drives with the dealerships ahead of time, and ask for an experienced sales person. If possible, schedule your drives during non-busy times at the dealership, like a weekday morning, so you don’t feel rushed. Tell the sales person up front that you will NOT be making a buying decision that day. (Repeat after me = “I will not buy the car the same day I test drive it.”) Schedule your test drives for about 60-90 minutes apart. Be sure the dealerships have the exact year, model and options you want. If you are shopping for a base model, don’t let the dealer try to show you a top-of-the-line model, as the engine, transmission, tires, suspension and even cabin noise may be very different from the model that is in your budget.

Show up on time and prepared. You will need to bring your valid driver’s license and a current insurance card. The dealer is required by their insurance company to make copies of these documents before you can drive a vehicle. Politely remind the sales person that you are only there to test drive the vehicle, and you will not be making a buying decision or “talk numbers”. Take notes on each vehicle to help refresh your memory later. (I provide my clients with a Test Drive Checklist and script to help them compare vehicles objectively and to maintain control over the test drive with any overly-eager sales people.)

Remember that buying a car is a process, not an event. A little research and planning will help you to make smart decisions and to pick the Perfect Car™ for you.