Online research is a smart way to evaluate a new car before buying, but it can’t replace getting the feel for a car with a test drive, auto experts say.More than one in 10 new car buyers skip the test drive, figuring the car is meant to get them from point A to point B and that a test drive isn’t needed, according to a recent study by Maritz Research.
The study found that 11.4 percent of car buyers didn’t test drive their car before buying it, though 52 percent found the test drive to be very influential in their decision to buy.
Drivers may assume that if they’re buying the same brand and model of car that they previously had, it isn’t worth test driving, says Chris Travell, vice president of strategic consulting for Maritz Research.
“This is unwise since the average American has been out of the car market for 6.5 years,” Travell says. “There have been huge advances in technology, vehicle design, ride and handling.
“The car the customer bought six or seven years ago is very different from the car they can buy” now.
For drivers who do test drive a new car before buying it, there’s much more to it than seeing how fast it accelerates when getting on the freeway, experts say. If shoppers really want to get a feel for a car before buying it, here are some things to check for in a test drive:
City driving vs. highway driving
Mileage varies by how the car is driven, and so does a driver’s experience in the car. See how it handles on city streets and on the highway. Does it have enough power on a freeway onramp to safely enter traffic? Is it comfortable at slow speeds?
Test the brakes and turning at different speeds.
Can you get in and out easily? It’s a basic question that all buyers should answer, says Cathy Nesbit of Harry Robinson, a Buick and GMC dealer in Fort Smith, Ark. The driver should be able to reach everything comfortably, be able to easily adjust their seat, and have a comfortable seat, Nesbit says.
Do you need three rows of climate control or is one up front enough? And don’t forget cup holders.
Ergonomics can also be a hindrance to driving if there are too many gadgets and things in the car to keep your eyes on, says Chuck Hawks, a professional driver coach. “How distracting is the interior of the car?”
Basics of automobiles
Along with good acceleration, check that the brakes feel good, it turns well, and you can see everything around you. Check for blind spots. How is the wind and road noise?
Check out the trunk and back seats
Open the trunk and make sure there’s enough room for what you plan to use it for, recommends Mike Rabkin, president of From Car to Finish. If the rear seats fold down, test them, and check how easy it is to open and close the trunk and all of the doors.
If you have kids or other passengers, check that the back seats are roomy enough for them. Rabkin suggests putting the tallest rider in the back seat and putting the front seat all the way back to test for leg room.
Dashboard and under-the-hood technology
Have the salesperson show you how all of the technology works in the car. This can include hands-free, voice activation, Bluetooth, USB ports, navigation, back up cameras, lane departure signaling and other extras, Nesbit says. Also ask if the extras are included in the cost of the car and how much extra it will cost for you to buy them.
Checking for blind spots isn’t the only view to check. Move the driver’s seat and mirrors as much as possible to ensure you have a comfortable seating position, within easy reach of all relevant controls, and a safe line of sight through all windows and mirrors, Rabkin recommends.
Turn the radio off and listen to how loud the interior is, both on local roads and highway speeds, Rabkin says. You might hear the wind, squeaks or loose trim, for example.
Take a long drive, or a long sit
Part of being comfortable in a car, as mentioned above, is how well the seat feels and ergonomics. But most test drives don’t allow enough time to see how a four-hour trip will feel and if the driver will still feel refreshed after a long drive, says Hawks, who recommends sitting in a car on the showroom floor for as long as you can.
“Instead of waiting in an office, just go sit in the carseat,” he says.
Also take a one-hour or longer test drive, provided the dealer’s OK with it and knows ahead of time how long you’ll be gone, Hawks says. If a dealer knows you’re serious about buying, an overnight swap of your car for theirs may be allowed, and will give you a better, longer test drive, he says.
Getting a test drive shouldn’t be difficult — arranging one over the Internet or by phone will help ensure a salesperson is available for one — and it’s a step a car dealer should want a potential customer to take before buying.
The Maritz study found that nearly four out of 10 customers don’t take their most considered vehicle out for a test drive, leaving four people who might have bought the car if they had taken a test drive.
This story has been updated since its original June 11, 2013 publication.