By Kristin Varela on March 26, 2014
As one of Cars.com's expert reviewers, I keep every car I test-drive for a week on average. I can tell you there are umpteen nuisances and/or surprises that don't jump right out at you in the course of a 10-mile test drive. Look the vehicle's interior over from front to back. Take notes. Let the salesperson know you will be taking your time so you won't be rushed.
First things first. Here's your guide on how to take a test drive:
Take the initial test drive without your kids: Drive as many cars as possible the same day (and on the same route, if possible) to get an equal comparison. Just plan for a long day and hammer them out. Some cars will jump right out to you as feeling more like home than others. Be up-front with the salespeople and let them know you're going to test-drive several cars, both with and without your family, and that you will not be ready to buy a car right off the bat.
Drive the way you would drive at home: After having a salesperson with you briefly for a test drive to point out some features (they're trained on a few key points; the others you may have to uncover on your own), ask if you can take the car out on your own. This will give you a chance to talk with your significant other or friends candidly about the pros and cons of the vehicle.
Map out your own route: Include highway on-ramps and merging to test acceleration. Spend some time on the freeway to test lane changes and long-driving comfort. Make a stop at your favorite drive-through to test how the car fits and what your access feels like. Pull into and out of several parking spaces, and don't forget to take a stab at parallel parking. Squeeze in some hectic urban driving to get a feel for the car's maneuverability. Try out the radio for a bit and pair your phone to the Bluetooth system to check for ease of use, but the rest of the time keep the radio off so you can identify any obvious road or wind noise. Put the car into Reverse to test its maneuverability in that application. Don't forget you'll be backing out of your garage or driveway every morning. How's rear visibility? Is there a backup camera or parking sensors? Are you comfortable going backward in this car?
Once you've narrowed it down to two or three cars, take the kids (but feed them first): Despite the possible pain involved, take your kids and their child-safety seats along with you. Ask the dealership to pull your test vehicle right next to your current car so you can easily transfer the car seats and kids. You want to know how easily car seats can be installed, how well they fit (especially if you're trying to squeeze three seats across one row), whether the third row is easily accessible and how comfortable the kids are in the back. Kids have a completely different take on cars than you do, so take the time to ask for — and listen to — their comments. They may notice that their booster seats are difficult to buckle, or they may be thrilled with the storage compartment inside the armrest to stash their stuff. Remember that comfortable kids are happy kids, and happy kids make for happier parents. Liven things up by bringing books and non-messy snacks along for the little ones.
Climb in and out of all the seats and have all the drivers in the family drive the car: Do you hit your head jumping into the car or hurt your back bending down to get in? Will others in the family drive this car? How does it fit them? Do the seats adjust easily to fit all drivers? Do you need a memory feature so you don't have to fuss with the controls every time you get in?
Don't get seduced by a shiny new car and that new-car smell: Even if your tush feels fused to those swanky, heated leather seats in your dream car, get out now! Hang onto your checkbook and don't even think about buying. Only after you've identified your wheels of choice — free from any salespeople or impulsive decisions — can you enter the next phase: the actual vehicle purchase. It's easy to fall in love with the first shiny new car you climb into (I call it puppy dog syndrome). Don't fall for it. You won't know what you're missing until you drive as many cars as possible. You don't want to make an expensive mistake. Take the time to explore all your options in person, and do not fall in love with the model with leather and a DVD player if you're planning on buying one without those features.
Editor's note: Some of these tips came from our former sister site, MotherProof.com. Colette Fischer and Sara Lacey contributed to this article.
Senior Family Editor Kristin Varela blends work and family life by driving her three tween-teen girls every which way in test cars. Email Kristin