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Test Drive Tips for New Car Buyers

By AMA Staff

Buying a car can be both exciting and stressful. It’s always nice to get a new ride, but it can be a lot of work to find the one that’s best for you.

“After your primary residence, a car is probably the second most important investment of your life,” says Rick Lang of AMA Driver Education. “You’re going to spend a lot of money on it, so take the time to ensure you make the right decision.”

So do your research and narrow the field to a few makes and models, then take each of them for a test drive to assess how well they suit your driving style and automotive needs. (And don’t forget, you can earn reward dollars by purchasing a vehicle from one of our AMARewards partners.) Lang has tested dozens of cars over his career, and offers this advice for getting the most out of your test-drive time.

Before you start the engine, Lang suggests spending a few minutes seeing how comfortable you are in the driver’s seat. How easy is it to reach the primary controls, like the steering wheel, brakes and gear stick, and can your seat position to be adjusted to accommodate your needs?

Then look around: Do the mirrors offer an ample view of what’s behind the car? Are there any built-in blind spots? Do you have to tilt your head awkwardly to see around the car’s metal “pillars” while performing a shoulder check? Similarly, look out the rear window. Will you be comfortable reversing or backing up into a parking space?

Once you’re comfy in the cockpit, it’s time to put the vehicle through its paces on the road. In particular, Lang says to evaluate the following:

• Steering: “Make a series of left- and right-hand turns. Is the car easy to steer? Can you see out the windows where you want to as you make your turn? Does the car straighten out on its own?”

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• Acceleration: “Does it accelerate well—from a stop and when you need to merge onto a highway? If the engine doesn’t have enough power to match your driving style, then it won’t necessarily be the car for you.”

• Braking: “When you brake, does the car stay straight and true? Does the ABS kick in too soon, or not soon enough?”

The latter is especially pertinent. When driving in “normal” conditions, you’re unlikely to need your car’s anti-lock braking system to engage. But you ought to be confident that it will work when called upon.

“If you want to buy a particular car, you should also want to test out the features entirely,” Lang says. “Among other things, that means performing a heavy acceleration and a heavy brake. If the salesperson isn’t prepared to allow you to do that, go to a different dealership.”

Some dealerships have a specific route that they use for test drives. But what if how you drive and where you typically drive doesn’t align with that pre-determined course?

To get a real feel for the vehicle’s performance, arrange to drive it for at least 30—or preferably 60—minutes. “You’ll want to drive in urban traffic and suburban traffic, and you’ll want to merge onto a highway,” Lang says. And drive on a gravel or rougher road, if possible, to gauge how the vehicle responds. Does the ride get too bouncy? Is it noisy? “Those are going to be important factors if you plan to spend much time driving to a cottage or anywhere rural.”

And if you’ll be sharing the vehicle with a partner, make sure that person gets time behind the wheel—while you check out the back seat. Better yet, if you have kids, consider bringing one along for the ride. You’ll want them to be comfortable in the car, too.

After your test, but before you exit the car, spend a minute playing with non-driving functions, including the climate-control and stereo systems. Are they easy to operate without having to think about it? Will you be able to do so while wearing gloves or mitts (an important consideration for winter driving in Alberta)?

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Also ask to demo some of the finer points of the in-vehicle infotainment system. Does it have all the features you expect, and how complicated are they to use? Are you able to pair your phone to the system via Bluetooth?

Still uncertain after test-driving a few cars? Lang suggests trying to rent your frontrunner for a weekend. That way you can not only take an extended drive anywhere you like, but you can drive at night and potentially in different weather conditions. You can also see whether the car fits in your garage, and load it up with equipment to see if it’s large enough to meet your needs, or if it’s awkward to load.

“If you spend a few hundred dollars upfront and find some quirks that maybe you don’t like, maybe that works out better for you in the long run,” Lang says.

Rewarding buy
: Earn $200 in reward dollars on the purchase of any new or used vehicle from participating Toyota, Lexus and Chevrolet dealerships.

Save on rentals: Get member exclusive pricing and benefits—plus earn up to $10 in reward dollars—at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car.