Car Buying Tips

How to Test Drive Like a Pro

Shopping for a new car is an exciting experience, but it can also bring with it the crushing burden of stress and anxiety.

You need to determine what your budget is, whether you plan to lease or finance, what kind of vehicle you’re shopping for, and how much it’s going to cost to insure – and that’s the stuff you need to sort out before you even set foot in a dealership.

So what about when it’s finally time to test drive? Well, that part should be fun, but there’s plenty of responsibility that comes with it, too. But fear not, friends: this handy list of simple tips is designed to keep you from feeling overwhelmed so you can maximize your peace of mind and pick the right vehicle for you.

1. Get Comfortable

OK, it might seem stupid, but make sure you settle in properly. Remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

This is your first time behind the wheel of what could be the car you drive for the next decade, so you want to make sure it’s a comfortable fit for you and anyone else who will be driving it regularly. A little quiet never hurts, either, so don’t be afraid to ask for it, and then get to work adjusting the seat, mirrors, and steering wheel so you’re in a good spot.

You should be close enough to the steering wheel that there’s a slight bend in your elbows with your hands at the nine- and three-o’clock positions, and you should be able to rest the heel of your hand on top of it without stretching.

Another piece of advice: the side of the car isn’t going to jump out at you but someone else in traffic might, so make sure to position your mirrors properly. You shouldn’t be able to see the side of your car while you drive, so make sure they’re rotated out just past the edge of the body panels so they work with the rearview mirror to minimize blind-spots.

2. Drive Like You Normally Do

The circumstances of a test drive are a little out of the ordinary – especially if there’s a salesperson beside you or in the back seat – but do your best to drive the way you normally would on a typical day. Does your commute involve a lot of highway driving? Then make sure to test on the highway.

If you’re too far from the highway, find a similar stretch of road where you can simulate merging, passing, and cruising to get a feel for how this particular vehicle performs. And while you’re at it, make sure to turn off the stereo and limit the amount of talking so you can get a sense of the wind and road noise that’s making its way inside.

Don’t forget to take it on a winding road, too, so you can get a feel for how it handles, and test the brakes. No, don’t stomp on them; if the pads haven’t seated properly, you’ll do more harm than good. But bring the vehicle to a stop in a few different ways so you can get a sense of how the brakes behave and if you like the pedal feel.

Just like handling, everyone’s preferences are different, and you’ll know what you like more. There’s no right or wrong answer here – it’s what you’re comfortable with that matters.

3. When in Doubt, Go Another Route

On that note, remember why you’re doing this in the first place. Don’t buy the one you think you need – buy the one you genuinely do, and don’t be afraid to move on if something doesn’t feel right.

Whether you’re shopping for a basic commuter car, a multipurpose family hauler, or a pickup truck, it should come together in a way that works for you, not your friends or neighbours. Whether there’s something about the way it drives, or the way something you interact with inside works, if it’s not for you then another one will be.

And as modern vehicles get more and more complex, make sure you play with all the features inside. Test the infotainment system once you’re back at the dealer to make sure it works the way you need it to, and that all the controls are going to be easy for you to live with. No, you won’t be able to master all of it in an afternoon, but you’ll know if you like the way it works.

4. Space, (Not) the Final Frontier

A missing piece of the puzzle for a lot of car buyers out there is testing not just the space for people, but also their stuff. Don’t just think about what you’ll be hauling around with you; bring it out to see how it fits inside.

If your kid needs a stroller, bring it – the stroller, not the kid; that’s a quick way to distract you during the drive. Bring the car seat, too, so you can see how it fits and what it’s like installing it. Do the doors open wide enough for you to reach inside? How hard is it to strap the car seat in?

If you play hockey every week, bring your bag. The worst mistake you can make is to eyeball it and assume something fits only to find out after you’ve signed on the dotted line that it doesn’t.

5. Day and Night, Night and Day

So you’re on your way. You like the seating position up front, the way it drives, and how your stuff fits inside. Now go back after sunset to drive it again.

This can’t be stressed enough: daytime driving is a lot different than at night when lighting matters. You want to make sure you’re just as comfortable behind the wheel when it’s dark out, so take it for a final spin before you make your decision. Maybe the glare of oncoming headlights doesn’t work for you at your height, or the lighting doesn’t make you feel confident enough as you drive. If it doesn’t feel right, it might be time to move on.

A lot of this is going to come down to your gut – the way you feel about a certain vehicle. But that doesn’t mean you need to be an automotive pro to do this right. Just follow those tips and you should be off to a pretty good start.