This is your chance to see how the vehicle performs and whether you can detect any problems with its drivetrain, steering, suspension, brakes, or other important system.

You should drive all of the vehicles you're considering on the same day so that you can compare them more easily. Drive them as long as possible—at least 30 minutes—and over different types of road surfaces and in various driving conditions. Plan your own driving route in advance. A salesperson or private seller may suggest routes that hide or minimize problems.

Some dealers will let you take the car out by yourself, but don't be surprised if someone comes along. This is where your companion can come in handy. Let him or her deal with a jabbering salesperson as you concentrate on the vehicle.

But this can be a potentially dangerous situation. A new car is likely to overly impress you, because it's better than the one you're now driving. It's important to compare it with other new vehicles that interest you rather than with your current car. The more vehicles you test-drive, the better perspective you'll develop.

Listen and look for the things you like, and be on the lookout for things you might not be happy with. Many cars have personalities, and it's important to find one that matches yours. Little things that might seem insignificant now could become major irritants down the road.

Here are a few things you should consider during your test drive. If possible, have your companion remind you of these points or even read them to you while you drive:

Ride Comfort

Gauge this on a stretch of imperfect pavement. Do the potholes, seams, and cracks in the pavement rattle your teeth and punch your kidneys? Or does the suspension isolate you from the road and keep you unaware of the decrepit road conditions?

Soft suspensions feel pillowy over holes and ruts but allow the vehicle body to wallow up and down a bit after a large bump. The best vehicles feel tight and controlled over bumps, recovering immediately.

Sporty cars usually have a firm ride, often a trade-off for their better handling characteristics. Firm can be good, but in small doses. Many buyers bitten by the sports-car bug have later come to regret it. A rough ride can quickly get old when every little ripple in the asphalt punches through as a teeth-chattering jolt.

Some cars, especially small ones, have a "busy" ride, which means the body makes constant little jittery motions up and down or side to side. Avoid that if you can. The better cars have suspensions that swallow up pavement flaws without sharing them with the vehicle's occupants.

Acceleration

It's a scary feeling when you need acceleration ... NOW ... to pull out into traffic, but the engine feels unwilling—or unable—to deliver. So make sure you try a quick acceleration run from a stop and a rolling merge into fast freeway traffic. You want to be able to maintain highway speeds without flogging the car. If the engine has to scream to get you up to highway speed, look elsewhere.

Try climbing a steep hill. Note whether the transmission downshifts smoothly and how the engine responds. You shouldn't feel any clunks or harsh, abrupt shifts. There should be seamless power delivery without any hiccups.

Strong, dependable acceleration is one part engine power, one part effective transmission. Even a powerful engine can feel lame if it's coupled with a mediocre transmission. Conversely, a lower-horsepower engine can perform better in combination with a well-designed transmission.

A major benefit of a test drive is to see whether you like the powertrain. If you weren't impressed, now is the time to try a different one, if available, or to look at other brands.

Braking

During your drive, pay attention to how the brakes feel. Are they responsive without being too touchy? Braking is hard to evaluate thoroughly without professional help, but you can do a basic assessment. Just make sure to warn the salesperson in advance.

Try to get a sense of how the vehicle responds to soft and more forceful braking. It should be smooth and progressive. Grabby brakes that suck out your eyeballs or ones that feel as if you're pushing into a bowl of oatmeal don't help driver confidence.

Hybrid and electric cars will feel different under braking than the car you are used to driving. This is because they incorporate mechanisms to capture braking energy to charge the battery. They may feel slightly numb or isolated.

Steering and Handling

Good steering should feel easy and controllable through turns—not so quick that it feels darty and not so slow that it takes a lot of turning to make a maneuver. You should get "feedback" through the steering wheel: A good system will tell you what the wheels are doing on the road. Lesser systems feel numb and disconnected from the wheels.

Steering systems have evolved rapidly over the past few years. Variable power steering, which adds more heft at higher speeds and lightens up the steering effort at slow speeds—like parking—is commonplace.

Electric systems—either fully or partly electric—are found in more and more vehicles. They don't use hydraulic lines to help move the wheels left or right. Instead, they send signals to the gears that move the rack.

The benefit is marginal gains in fuel economy through the removal of the hydraulic system. But often that comes at the expense of steering feel and heft. The better systems are transparent: You'd never know the type of system. Weaker systems often feel artificially light or heavy, or never have the appropriate weight for the conditions. Some are too heavy when parking and overly light on the highway.

When driving, consider how the car responds to quick maneuvers. Check whether it tracks well when driving straight ahead or whether it requires small, continual corrections. Because the vehicle's response to quick steering maneuvers is a key factor in avoiding an accident, it's important to be comfortable with the way your vehicle reacts.

One thing to remember: Don't play race car driver. A test drive isn't the time to push an unfamiliar vehicle to its handling and braking limits.

Quietness

At one point during the test drive, turn off the radio and close all of the windows so that you can hear what is going on, especially at highway speeds. Check how subdued or raucous the engine is during heavy acceleration and highway cruising.

Four-cylinder engines tend to be the noisiest, so you may also want to try a V6—if it's offered—to see whether it's any better. Remember: Engines don't get quieter with age. Something that's borderline offensive during a test drive will be downright unlivable as time goes by.

Is there excessive wind noise? Side mirrors are a big source of wind noise, as are roof rails on SUVs and wagons. Tires can be another source of noise. High-performance tires on cars and off-road tires on SUVs and pickup trucks tend to create the most noise. Though annoying, this noise is often a big part of the ownership experience, and people who gravitate toward these vehicles are usually not bothered by it. But the test drive is a good way to find out your tolerance level.

Visibility

This can vary greatly, even among similar vehicles. But you can tell which ones have the best visibility during your back-to-back drives. Don't forget to check rear visibility when backing up, and the size of the rear blind zone. Backup cameras are just part of the rear-visibility equation. They shouldn't have to compensate for thick roof pillars and small windows.

Of course, daytime visibility is important. But once you are serious about buying a car, try to test-drive it after dark. This way you'll be able to tell how well the headlights perform; which switches, gauges, and controls are lighted for nighttime use; and whether there are any annoying reflections in the windshield.


What to Do After the Test Drive

You can bet that once the test drive ends, the hard-sell process will begin. Your salesperson is counting on you being jazzed from driving a new car and ready to seal the deal. But this isn’t the ideal time to start negotiating, especially if you still have other cars to test-drive. In reality, you need this time to collect your thoughts. Even if you absolutely love a car, keep your emotions in check.

Use a test-drive checklist to help organize your notes. How you’re treated during your first visit to a dealership may tell you a lot about a future relationship, so make sure you’re comfortable with the atmosphere and test-drive experience. Your test-drives give you a good chance to evaluate a variety of dealerships.

Even the lowest possible price usually won’t compensate for a bad dealership experience. Every salesperson you deal with should treat you with respect and honesty.

But there are exceptions to every rule. So we have included some helpful questions that you should ask yourself when deciding where to buy your next vehicle:

  • Was the salesperson responsive to my questions?
  • Was I treated with respect?
  • Did I get all of the information I needed?
  • Did I get honest answers?
  • Was it easy to arrange a test-drive?
  • Were any high-pressure tactics used during my first encounter?
  • Was I invited back for more test-drives?

If you answered “yes” to more than a few of those questions about a dealership, there’s a good chance you might want to do business there. If you answered “no” often, you should think about going elsewhere to buy your car.