Making the Most of Your Test Drive

The test-drive part of the test drive is probably the simplest part. While you don't spend much time under the hood (or under the car), one thing you probably do a lot is drive. So give the car a good drive, but don't just drive around the block. Put it through all the paces you'd put your own car through:

  • Parallel park a few times and back out of a driveway or two; how's the visibility out the back?
  • Get on the highway and accelerate into traffic. Does the car have enough power to get you into traffic safely? Does the transmission shift smoothly or jerk and whine? Pay attention to the road, engine and wind noise. Do any of these sound wrong or just too loud?
  • Does the car drift to the left or right when you take your hands off the steering wheel? Drift could mean an alignment is needed.
  • How's the ride? Find some rough road and see how the car handles it. Does it bounce you around too much? Do you feel that you're still in control of the car? Drive over some bumps and dips. Does the car continue bouncing after the disturbance has passed? If so, new shock absorbers or other suspension work may be in order. Excessive leaning during sharp turns may reflect the same problem.
  • How well do the brakes work? Are they firm or spongy? Does the car pull to one side or the other during hard braking (a sign of trouble)? Do they squeak? Brakes are designed to squeak when the pads need to be replaced, and that's a costly repair. Does the vehicle pitch forward dramatically when you brake hard? This, too, could reflect worn suspension components.
  • Test the cruise control, if the car is so equipped.
  • Before you end your drive, pay attention to the seat. Is it comfortable? Does it seem like it would be for a long trip? (Don't just look at the number of controls; I've sat in some car seats with 15 electronic adjustments and never was comfortable. On the other hand, I've sat in simple seats that only moved forward and backward and felt fine.) Does the seat give you enough thigh support? Does it hold you in place during sharp turns? What may seem minor now could become a major — and irreparable — annoyance if the car becomes yours.
  • Leave the engine running for some more checks.
  • As you get out of the car, note the headroom. Make sure there's enough room in there for you, and that it's simple to get in and out of the car. Likewise, you don't want to own a car that's too big for you to drive comfortably and safely.

With the engine still running, pop the hood. You're ready for some more tests.

© Cars.com 4/30/13