The test drive is an extension of the inspection process. It's your chance to see how the vehicle performs and whether you can detect any problems with its drivetrain, steering, suspension, brakes, or other important system.
You should try to drive any vehicles you're considering all on the same day so you can more easily compare them. Spend as much time as possible behind the wheel--at least 30 minutes--and drive it over different types of road surfaces and in various driving conditions. Plan your own driving route before you visit the dealership or seller, rather than rely on a salesperson or the seller to tell you where to drive. Their route may hide or minimize problems with the vehicle.
Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Many dealerships will let you do the test drive by yourself, but some still insist on sending someone along. A private seller will almost certainly want to be present. Because the last thing you need is someone jabbering in your ear while you're trying to concentrate on the vehicle, have a friend or relative engage in a conversation with the salesperson or seller.
Following are some of the major things you should concentrate on during your test drive. Remember that all cars have different personalities, and it's important to find one that matches yours. Little things that might seem insignificant now, such as uncomfortable seats, could become major irritants later.Ride comfort.
Is the ride soft, harsh, or somewhere in between? Does the suspension isolate you from the road, or do you feel every bump and ripple? Some softer suspensions feel comfortable over bumps but tend to be floaty, wallowing up and down a bit after a large bump. Look for a vehicle that feels tight and controlled over bumps, but not harsh.
Ride comfort is determined by a vehicle's suspension, tires, and even its seats, but it's certainly one vehicle attribute that's measured by personal preference. Sporty cars and some family sedans have a firmer ride, which is a trade-off for their better handling characteristics. This may not be for everyone. Some buyers who excitedly bought a sporty car regretted it later because of the stiff ride that seemed to accentuate every little bump in the road. To confirm your preference, we suggest you drive several comparable vehicles to evaluate the differences in ride. Be sure the ride you experience during your test
drive is one you can tolerate for the life of the car.
Make sure that the engine provides adequate acceleration when starting from a stop and that you can merge safely into highway traffic.
Acceleration depends primarily on the engine power, but it is also closely linked to the transmission. A great engine coupled with a mediocre transmission will deliver less-than-stellar performance. Conversely, a fairly small engine can appear much better in combination with a modern, well-designed manual or automatic transmission.
One of the real benefits of a test drive is to see if you like the powertrain you've selected. If so, that's great, but if not, now is the time to change your selection or keep looking. During your test drives, be sure to try quick acceleration from a stop and a rolling merge into fast freeway traffic.
Do the brakes feel responsive without being too jerky? Braking is a vehicle attribute that's hard to evaluate thoroughly without professional help, but you can do a basic assessment. Feel how the vehicle responds when you depress the brake pedal, both softly and with more force. The braking should be nice and smooth, and it should be easy to get just the amount of stopping power you need without the car stopping too quickly or not quickly enough.
Steering and handling.
Does the car respond well to quick steering maneuvers? Does it track well when driving straight ahead on the highway, or does it need small, continual corrections? Does the car feel relaxed or too darty to be comfortable? And does it stay relativelycomposed on rough roads?
Since vehicle response to quick steering maneuvers is a key factor in avoiding emergency highway situations, it's important that you're comfortable with the way your vehicle responds. It should be easy and controllable to maneuver along the road--not so quick that it feels darty and not so slow that it takes a lot of turning to make a maneuver. You should also get good feedback through the steering wheel about what the car is doing on the road; some steering systems feel numb and disconnected from the road. Many vehicles have variable power steering, which makes them feel one way on the highway and another at slow speeds, such as when trying to maneuver into a tight parking space.
An important note: You won't be able to test a vehicle at its handling and braking limits to see how it would respond in an emergency situation, such as when you're trying to avoid an accident. For this see Consumer Reports' road-test reports
. We tell you how each car responded to our braking and emergency-handling tests and give individual Ratings for overall braking and emergency handling.
Is the sound of the engine annoying during heavy acceleration or highway cruising? Can you hear noise from the tires or wind noise from side-view mirrors? Are there any squeaks or rattles?
Quietness includes engine, wind, and road noise, as well as squeaks and rattles. During your test drive, turn off the radio and close all windows so you can hear what else is going on.
Engine noise has a lot to do with the quality of the engine, but it's also related to the engine size and configuration. Four-cylinder engines are the noisiest because they are built to be economical and are usually installed in low-priced entry-level cars. If your four-cylinder test car seems too noisy, a V6 version may be better. If any engine sounds coarse and loud under heavy acceleration or at highway speed, it could become more annoying later. Engines don't get quieter with age.
Wind noise is the next biggest annoyance, and side-view mirrors are the major culprits. Poorly designed mirrors roar and whistle, unlike better-designed ones. You should have little trouble telling which is which during your test drive.
Like mirrors, roof racks vary in engineering quality, and some cause more noise than others. Listen at highway speed for wind noise coming through the roof. Much has been done to eliminate noise from the radio antenna, but some may still make a whistling sound at higher speeds.
High-performance tires on sporty cars and off-road tires on SUVs and pickup trucks create the most tire noise. It can be annoying, but buyers who want those kinds of tires are usually willing to put up with the noise. The test drive is a good way to find out what your tolerance level is.
Do you get a good panoramic view of the road ahead? Do the mirrors give you the kind of side and rear view you need? Or do wide pillars or a small rear window restrict your view? When backing up, is the rear visibility good and can you gauge the length of the vehicle? Visibility takes into account a number of design factors, such as seating position, vehicle configuration, mirror effectiveness, and body design. Visibility can vary greatly, even among similar vehicles. Several back-to-back test drives will tell you quickly which ones have the best visibility. And don't forget to check rear visibility when backing up. (See our reports on the problem with blind spots
and auto backup systems
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