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How to Test-Drive a Car

Things to Keep in Mind Before and After the Drive

(updated April 21st, 2017)

Have you ever bought a pair of shoes that looked great in photos but weren't quite right once you actually tried them on? Car buying is a lot like that, only the stakes are higher given that the return policies aren't nearly the same.

This is why the test drive is one of the most important aspects of choosing a car. Based just on photos or reviews, a car can appear perfect for you, but once you sit inside it and feel it on the road, you might feel entirely different about it. With this in mind, here are some tips on how to test-drive a car from beginning to end.

Test-drive a car only after you have done some preliminary research and have found one that's likely to fit your needs and your budget.

Test-drive a car only after you have done some preliminary research and have found one that's likely to fit your needs and your budget.

Research and Make a List

First, you need to do some preliminary research before you even go near the car dealership. Read Edmunds' road tests and new car ratings on the vehicles that interest you. Come up with a short list of three or so cars that you want to drive. Ideally, you'll want to schedule the test drives back to back, so that the impressions are fresh in your mind. Having another appointment will also give you a valid reason to leave one dealership if you end up with a salesperson who might want to transition to the buying phase too quickly.

See Edmunds pricing data

Has Your Car's Value Changed?

Used car values are constantly changing. Edmunds lets you track your vehicle's value over time so you can decide when to sell or trade in.

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Make an Appointment to Avoid Delay

Why is it important to schedule an appointment? Because there's a good chance the car won't be on the main dealer lot.

There is a finite amount of space at a car dealership. Cars are often double- and triple-parked to hold the entire inventory, and many others will be on satellite or "overflow" lots, which could be miles away. If your car is on one of those lots, the salesperson has to locate the key, get to the car and move the ones that are blocking it. Once the car is located, the battery may be dead or the car may be so dirty that it needs a quick wash to ensure it makes a good first impression. Did you want to test-drive that nice car you saw in the showroom? Even more complicated: The dealership is going to have to open up the showroom doors and move other cars that are in the way.

Here's what to do to avoid all that: Call ahead and make an appointment for a test drive. If you don't want to talk numbers yet, let the salesperson know that you're still in the research phase and aren't ready to buy. When you arrive for the test drive, the car will be out front waiting for you. You've cut the wait time to zero. If you're considering a showroom model, ask if there is a comparably equipped car that might be more accessible.

Before the Drive

  • Color: Does it look good in person? Paint colors can sometimes differ from how they appear in photos. If you are shopping at night, remember that the vehicle's color can look very different under streetlights. You might want to come back during daylight hours before you make a final decision. Also, take a look at your second choice color. You'll have more flexibility with pricing if you don't limit yourself to one hard-to-find color.
  • Child seat and cargo space: Do you have a child seat in your current car? Bring that in and test out how much room you have to install it in the new car. Similarly, if you regularly have to carry a large item for your job (musical instrument, massage table, real estate signage, etc.), bring it with you to test how well it fits. Is there a pass-through in the trunk opening for long items? Do the rear seats fold down?
  • Measurements: Do you have a small garage, parking space or driveway? Measure your old car and bring the tape measure with you to the dealership. Don't forget to include the mirrors when measuring the car's width. If you live close to the dealership and ask nicely, the staff might be willing to let you take the car home to see exactly how it fits.

Once you get settled in for the test drive, ask yourself a few questions to help you define your feelings about the car:

  • Entry and exit: Is it easy to get in and out of the car without stooping or banging your head?
  • Seating and driving position: Is there enough head-, hip- and legroom? Remember to sit in the backseat, too. Is the driving position comfortable? Do you sit too low or high in the car? Can you tilt or telescope the steering wheel for a better fit? Is the seat comfortable? Is it easily adjustable? Is there a lumbar support adjustment? Do the pedal positions work for you, based on your height and the length of your legs? If not, are the pedals adjustable?
  • Gauges and controls: Are the gauges easy to read? Do the steering wheel buttons feel intuitive? Is there a volume knob or do you have to tap on a screen? Can you adjust the climate control easily?
  • Visibility: Can you see out of the car? Modern cars have larger pillars for added safety, but these can often create blind spots. Check the view from all the mirrors and turn your head to see the view from the rear window.

Before you start driving, adjust the seat, the seat belt and the mirrors. Turn off the radio so you can hear the engine and concentrate on the driving experience.

During the Drive

The salesperson may tell you to drive along a predetermined route, using a series of right-hand turns that lead back to the dealership. This is not necessarily the best way for you to evaluate the car. Tell the salesperson what kind of test drive you want (within reason) and you'll probably get it.

Basically, your test drive should match your driving requirements. If you regularly drive into the mountains, find a hill and see how the car climbs. If you have a highway commute, get on a freeway and see how the car accelerates into traffic and performs at higher speeds.

Once you are driving, evaluate these specific points:

  • Acceleration: Does the car downshift quickly and smoothly? Is there enough power to pass on the highway or to go up hills?
  • Engine and road noise: How does the car sound when you strongly accelerate? Is there a lot of noise from the tires? Is the cabin quiet?
  • Braking: How is the pedal feel? Do the brakes "grab" suddenly?
  • Steering and handling: Is the vehicle responsive? Can you feel the road through the steering wheel?
  • Suspension: Is it stiff or soft? Does the vehicle ride comfortably on a rough road?

During the test drive, the salesperson may point out features about the car or ask how you like it. No matter how much you love the car, remain noncommittal and stay focused on learning all you need to know from the test drive.

When you're back at the dealership, recheck anything else you might have noticed on the test drive. Remember that little things you spot now could be major annoyances later, so don't discount any of your reactions.

Test the Tech, Too

A modern vehicle's technology interface can easily be a determining factor in your buying decision. Automakers have varying opinions on the best and safest way to interact with the infotainment screen. Some use control knobs, others use touchscreens, and some have mouse pad-inspired controls. Make sure you are comfortable with the interface and also consider these other items:

  • Bluetooth: Pair your phone and test calling and audio streaming.
  • Infotainment screen: How easy is it to use? Can you perform basic tasks such as changing the radio station or switching audio sources?
  • Smartphone apps: If Android Auto or Apple CarPlay is a deciding factor for you, make sure you test out a model that has it.
  • Backup camera: Does it have one? Is the view grainy or clear? Does it have sensors or lines to indicate distance?
  • Steering wheel controls: Do you like the layout? Is it intuitive or is it confusing?
  • Navigation: How detailed is the map? Are the street names legible? Is it easy to input an address? Does it have traffic data?

After the Drive

At the end of the test drive, the salesperson will probably invite you into the dealership to begin negotiations. If you're not ready to buy, this is where having an appointment for another test drive pays off. But even if you love the car you've driven and have already made a decision, it can be smart to take some time to think about it before beginning the deal-making process. A good night's sleep will give you some perspective. Thank the salesperson, take a business card and leave. If you've followed our advice, you may have other appointments to get to. You will be in a stronger bargaining position if you wind up liking more than one car, so keep an open mind. Plus, you can always talk price over the phone or via text at a later time. This is an easier and less stressful way to negotiate.

If you do a bit of research first, you'll be fully in control of your test drive. And it will likely answer your remaining questions and help you buy the car that's right for you.

Another Kind of Test Drive

In this story, we've focused just on the test-drive process. However, it is also important to qualify any salespeople you might encounter before you commit to doing business with them. For more information on this, see "Test-Drive Your Car Salesperson."