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Does the car fit you?

Make sure the car is comfortable for you and your family

Last updated: February 2014

As you open the driver’s door and slide into the seat, note how easy it is to get in and out. You shouldn’t have to duck your head or contort your body. Tall SUVs and pickups can be difficult to enter because of their high step-in height, which can be especially inconvenient for short people and children. Are the door handles easy to operate? How heavy are the doors, and can you open them with one hand while holding a work bag or a bag of groceries? Can kids get in and out by themselves?

Be sure the vehicle has the same upholstery you intend to buy. Leather seats, for instance, can have different padding than cloth seats, which affects their overall comfort. Some people prefer leather because it’s easier to clean. But it isn’t as comfortable when it’s cold and can burn bare legs when it’s hot.

Adjust the seats. Seat comfort is very important and a highly personal judgment. Whether you’re tall, short, or in between, look for a comfortable seat with multiple adjustments, all geared to help you find and maintain your optimum driving position. You want to be able to easily move the seat up and down as well as back and forth. Having a height adjustment option can make a big difference, particularly for a shorter driver. The seat should fit your body’s contours and support you from the thighs to the shoulders. It shouldn’t pinch or protrude into your back. Adjustable lumbar support can make a big difference in seat comfort, as no two people sit in exactly the same position.

Can you reach the safety belt quickly and easily? Can you position it across your shoulder, chest, and hips properly, and does it allow for free movement under normal driving situations? Are the armrests even and do your elbows touch down on them naturally?

Check to see if the headrest can be adjusted to provide adequate protection in a rear-end collision. The top of the headrest should be at least even with the top of your ears.

Adjust the steering wheel. Most steering wheels adjust up and down; a telescoping design also lets you move the wheel in and out. Does the steering wheel feel comfortable in your hands? Is the horn easy to use? Are there audio and cruise-control buttons on the steer­ing wheel? This can make it easier to perform common functions without taking your eyes off the road.

How is the driving position? Once you have the seat and steering wheel set to what’s right for you, assess your driving position. You should be able to reach the pedals without sitting too close to the steering wheel. Your body should be at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel so the air bag has room to deploy, if necessary. In addition to a telescoping steering wheel, adjustable pedals can really help you find a comfortable driving position. You should be able to reach all the controls without taking your eyes off the road. And is there sufficient space between the top of your head and the ceiling?

Check your visibility. Make sure you can see the instrument panel clearly. You should also be able to see well in all directions while maintaining a comfortable posture as you drive. A high dashboard and low seats—or high seats and a low roofline—can obstruct the view forward. Wide roof pillars can block your view to the rear, creating dangerous blind spots. Can you accurately judge the location of your front bumper from over the dashboard and down the hood? Adjust the side mirrors so they’re positioned right for you.

Get familiar with the interior

While you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, look around and assess your environment. There are many elements that make up a well-designed interior. Is this one that you will want to spend a lot of time in over the coming years?

Check the controls and displays. Any person who will be driving the vehi­cle should be able to see, reach, and use all controls easily. The dashboard layout should be logical and intuitive. Are the instruments easy to see and interpret? Are controls for the audio and climate-control systems logical and uncompli­cated? The buttons and knobs should be large enough to operate them quickly, easily, and without having to take your eyes off the road for more than a second. Controls you use at night should be illuminated. Push buttons should give good tactile feedback. Labeling should be clear and unambiguous. Adjust the climate-control system to your preferred temperature to see how it works.

Now is the time to find the emergency brake, hood and trunk releases, fuel-filler door release, power-door lock button, window controls, and maybe the seat heater switches. Are there map lights in the front or is there simply a single dome light behind the front seats?

Are there places to stash things? Are there sufficient storage spaces for CDs, an MP3 player, a cellular phone, or anything else you like to have close at hand while driving? See if a soda or water bottle, a large cup, or your favorite travel mug will fit securely in the cup holders. The cup shouldn’t block access to important switches. Some cup holders are positioned directly in front of air-conditioning vents, which can rapidly cool a hot drink while at the same time blocking air coming from the vent.

Open the glove compartment. Can it hold more than the owner’s manual? There should be room for maps, a flashlight, a tire pressure gauge, and any other things you carry there.

How does the audio system sound? Insert your CD or connect your MP3 player to see if the audio quality meets your expectations. Turn it up to a volume you would typically use. Run through the common audio controls to see how easy they are to operate.

Try advanced electronics sys­tems. If the vehicle you test drive has a full-feature climate-control or advanced electronics system (such as navigation, voice-activated controls, a hands-free telephone, or a multifunction control system), you should try them out. You may want to take some time and have the salesperson show you how they work, since some are very complicated and hard to use with­out studying the owner’s manual. Since learning a new system can be distracting while driving, begin by going through as much as you can while parked.

Try out the sunroof or soft top. If there is a sunroof or moonroof, open it to see how easily it operates. If the vehicle is a convertible, raise and lower the top to make sure it operates quickly and easily.

Check out the rear seats

After you’ve finished with the driver’s seat, sit in each of the other seats. If you’ll be carrying people in the rear on a regular basis, spend some time back there to see what it’s like.

Some cars with low-slung roofs force you to duck to keep from banging your head, especially in the rear. In others, it can be awkward to step into the rear seat area because there’s too little space between the seat and door pillar. Legroom, especially in the back, can be a problem for some passengers.

Check if there are three-point safety belts for all positions? Fold-down armrests? Are there ample cup holders, storage spaces, and ashtrays front and back? Are there 12-volt power outlets in the cabin and cargo area?

If you use a child seat, make sure it can be easily secured. Is it possible to lift a sleeping child out of the seat without straining or banging your head?

In minivans and SUVs with third-row seating, how much ducking and crawling does it take to get back there? And how comfortable (or claustrophobic) does it feel when you do?

Finally, if you have kids, are they going to be happy in the area where they could be spending a good bit of time? See if there are plenty of places for drinks, snacks, toys, and books. Can they see out of the windows easily? Many new vehicles have high window lines that make it difficult for small children to see out. This can lead to boredom and complaining.

If there are conveniences like rear audio, video, and climate-control sys­tems, check them out and make sure your passengers will like them. No sense paying for gadgets no one will use.

Inspect the cargo area

Be sure to check out the trunk or rear cargo compartment. Some trunks or rear doors have to be opened from the outside with a key, which can be a real nuisance when your hands are full. Better designs have a covered grab handle that can be pulled to unlatch and open the trunk lid or door. Better yet is a power-operated release that lets you open the trunk by pressing a button on the remote control.

Once the trunk lid is open, check to see what kind of hinges it has. The worst are the ones that swing down into the cargo area, which could damage luggage and other items. Better designs hold up the lid with struts that don’t intrude into the cargo space.

How difficult will it be to load bulky items into the cargo area? How high do you have to lift things to put them in the trunk or cargo area? Make sure the space is big enough and configured to carry any odd-sized cargo you may have—like golf clubs.

Does the seatback fold down for increased cargo space? The most ver­sa­tile designs have split seatbacks that allow you to fold either half down separately. Some cars now come with a flat-folding front passenger seat for carrying longer items that extend all the way from the trunk.

If there is a third-row seat, check to see if it is removable or, even better, folds down flat into the floor. See if you can do these maneuvers by yourself.

Make sure the spare tire, jack, and tool kit are easily accessible. Is there room for additional tools and emergency items of your own?

Lift the hood

Ask your salesperson to show you the service points in the engine compartment. The location of dipsticks and fluid filler caps should be handy and easily identified. The same goes for the battery terminals; you want them easily reached should you ever need jumper cables. Some cars have the bat­tery in the trunk and just terminals in the front. It’s best to discover this before you need a jump.

New Car Buying Guide

Learn more about choosing a car, what to do at the dealership, pricing, trading in your car, financing, closing the deal and more in our new car buying guide.

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