What to do when test-driving a car

Woman buying a car


This is 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 drive all the vehicles you’re considering on the same day so you can compare them more easily. Drive them as long as possible—at least 30 minutes—and over different types of road surfaces and in various driving conditions. Plan your own driving route in advance. A salesperson or private seller may suggest routes that hide or minimize problems.

Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Many dealerships may insist on sending someone along with you, and a private seller will certainly want to be present. Because the last thing you need is someone jabbering in your ear while you’re trying to concentrate, have a friend or relative engage in conversation with the salesperson or seller.

Following are some of the major things you should concentrate on during your test drive. All cars have different personalities, and it’s important to find one that matches yours. Things that might seem insignificant now, such as the shape of the 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 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 attribute measured by personal preference. Sporty cars, and even some sedans, have a firm ride, a common trade-off for sharp handling characteristics.

This may not be for everyone. Some buyers who excitedly bought a sporty car regretted it later because the stiff ride seemed to accentuate every little bump in the road. To confirm your preference, we suggest you drive several comparable vehicles to evaluate the differences. Be sure the ride you experience during your test drive is one you can tolerate for the life of the car.

Acceleration. 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. 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.

Braking. Do the brakes feel responsive without being too jerky? Braking is 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. It 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 (stay on course) 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 relatively composed on rough roads?

Since vehicle response to quick steering maneuvers is a key factor in avoiding emergency 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. The steering should not be so sensitive 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.

While driving slowly, turn the wheel a little right and left to make sure there’s not a big dead space in the center. 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. You want the steering to feel light at parking speeds, with a firmer and more communicative feel at cruising speeds.

An important note: You can’t test a vehicle at its handling and braking limits on a public road 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.

Quietness. Consider engine, wind, and road noise, as well as squeaks and rattles. Turn off the radio and drive with the windows closed so you can hear what else is going on. Most cars suffer from background noises of one sort or another. The question is whether the ambient sounds are at a level you can live with.

Engine noise has to do with the quality of the engine as well as its size and configuration. Four-cylinder engines are often the noisiest; V6 and V8 engines are far quieter. 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.

Listen at highway speed for wind noise coming through the roof. Leaky sunroof trim or roof rails may make a whistling sound.

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 determine your tolerance level.

Visibility. This takes into account a number of design factors, such as seating position, mirror effectiveness, and body design. It can vary greatly, even among similar vehicles. Several back-to-back test drives will quickly show which have the best visibility. And don’t forget to check out back when reversing.  

Driving at night. It’s better to visually inspect a vehicle in daylight. But if you become serious about buying it, you should also try to test drive it at night. That’s the only way you’ll be able to tell how well the headlights perform, how and which switches, gauges, and controls are lighted for nighttime use, and whether there are any annoying reflections in the windshield.

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