Test-driving a vehicle is a major part of the buying process. But people often only test-drive the car they've set out to buy and so are potentially missing out on a vehicle that will better suit their needs. Buyers who take the time to test-drive the cars that compete with the model they have in mind can see key differences among vehicles, so they might discover a car that's a better fit or — better yet — also less expensive.

There's always a possibility that you might end up choosing the car you already had in mind, but if you've test-driven some competing cars, you'll be able to honestly say you gave the others a chance and eliminate any doubt from your mind.

Avoid the No-Test Mindset

Of course, there are a few types of buyers who fall prey to the no-test mindset, a complete unwillingness to think very hard about the vehicle that they want to buy. See if these descriptions remind you of yourself — or a car shopper near and dear to you.

The impulse buyer will rush to the dealership on a whim and purchase a vehicle with little or no research. Impulse buyers might or might not test-drive the car. And if they do, it would most likely be the model they are already intent on buying.

The jalopy owner typically rejects test-drives because he's had it with his old car. Anything new is going to feel better than what he's currently driving.

The loyalist typically purchases the most current model of the one he already has, without giving any other car a second look.

Know the Competition

The impulse buyer and the jalopy owner are skipping a basic car-buying step. The loyalist, on the other hand, could be cut some slack: There's nothing inherently wrong with adhering to a brand that's proved its worth. But as a car naturally evolves from its introduction as an all-new model until its replacement several years later, what was once the best car on the market might no longer be as competitive in its segment. The best way to eliminate the possibility of buyer's remorse is to research and test-drive your target car's competition.

If you're not sure what that competition is, Edmunds has a number of resources. Start out with the New Car Buying Guides. These guides are updated annually, list all vehicle types and offer a number of recommendations in each category.

For example: A person who sets out to buy a Toyota Camry might be surprised to see that it didn't make our recommended sedan list for 2012. Instead, our editors recommend the Kia Optima, Ford Fusion or Volkswagen Passat. The Camry might be the sales leader in its segment, but in recent years, its competitors have offered more standard features for less money. For instance, the Kia Optima LX offers a more powerful engine, better fuel economy, a longer bumper-to-bumper warranty, standard Bluetooth and satellite radio. This example isn't intended to pick on the Camry, but as one of the most popular midsize sedans, it has become the safe bet for many people who aren't willing to try out other vehicles.

If you're interested in a used vehicle, take a look at the Edmunds' used car Best Bets. Pay close attention to the prices and compare the must-have features. Some brands might offer those features standard, while others may bundle them in expensive packages. This is one way to narrow your search.

Take a Closer Look

Once you've whittled down your list, it's time to check out the cars in person and take them for a spin. A test-drive isn't just a test of the car's performance. You'll also be able to spot differences in the features, build quality and interior space. There are numerous factors to keep in mind on a test-drive, but here are a few key things to notice:

  • Performance: Does the car have enough power to pass other vehicles or merge onto the freeway? Is the brake pedal firm or mushy? Do the brakes react quickly when the pedal is engaged?
  • Interior: What are the noise levels like in the cabin? Do you hear excessive noise from the tires or the wind? Are the materials inside the cabin hard or soft to the touch? Do the buttons feel solid or cheap? Are the seats comfortable and supportive? Is it easy to adjust your seating position? Is there room for a rear-seat passenger when the driver has his seat comfortably positioned?
  • Functionality: How user-friendly are the radio and climate controls? Can you operate the navigation or Bluetooth easily? What's the visibility like? Do you notice any blind spots from the driver seat? How much cargo can fit in the trunk? If you have small children, it's a good idea to bring along your child safety seats and ensure that the test car easily accommodates them.

Try to schedule comparison drives on the same day so that the experiences are fresh in your mind. You'll be surprised how the differences among cars will jump out at you. Finally, don't let the salespeople at the dealership pressure you into buying that day. Let them know you're still considering other cars. Anyway, even if you've decided on a car that day, you will almost always get a better deal by shopping online. The most important thing is to know what you're buying, so instead of guessing, get behind the wheel and take a test-drive.