The physical act of car shopping hasn’t changed much through the years. Go to the dealership, poke around a car, test-drive said car and purchase, and repeat every few years. The city of Naperville, Ill., is changing the way the test drive is done: It has developed a closed track for tire kickers.
The plan came together as a partnership between dealerships and the city to reduce test drives through public neighborhoods, opening in 2006.
Click here for a full list of participating dealers
Naperville isn’t far from Cars.com’s headquarters in downtown Chicago, so we checked out this unique car-shopping tool. Shoppers can visit 11 participating dealerships in the area that use the facility; a list is available on the city's website here. The local Toyota dealership, Dan Wolf Toyota of Naperville, is the most frequent user of the track, and the one that took us for a tour. It turns out the track isn't all smooth roads and easy turns.
The course is roughly the size of a large mall parking lot, allowing us to reach speeds of 40 mph on the straightaway and acceleration sections. There are different road surfaces to simulate road conditions, including a railroad crossing, a hill with a 10-percent grade, cobblestone road, emergency braking area and a section of suburban driveway.
The emergency braking area is one of the most valuable sections of the track. It allows drivers to slam on the brakes without worrying about what’s behind them. We did so with sprinklers spraying water on the braking zone, activating the antilock brakes. When shoppers do this, they’ll get a sense of what the antilock braking system feels like. It’s an odd sensation for anyone who hasn’t experienced the pulsating brake pedal in an emergency stop.
There’s also a rock-filled strip of road for trucks and SUVs. Although it’s not exactly duplicating the Rubicon Trail, it has the feel of obstacles encountered in a construction site. Our guide said he only takes truck-based vehicles on this section.
Aslam says track-goers feel more comfortable on the course because they’re in a new, unfamiliar car and don't have to worry about other drivers and obstacles. As car reviewers, we can attest to that sometimes-uneasy acclimation to a new car.
The course is a fairly comprehensive way to test a car except for one driving style: highway driving. There isn't enough real estate to get a feeling for highway manners or wind and road noise. The track is a great opportunity to test the vehicle in ways that cannot always be done safely on public roads, but should be combined with a more traditional route for a complete test drive. We wish there were more of them out there.