Ideally, to accurately compare one car with another, you should test drive all of your candidate vehicles on the same day, preferably on the same or similar roads. An auto mall is a very efficient place to conduct your test drives, even if you don’t end up buying from there. Your shuttle time between vehicles is mere minutes, you will be able to drive each car along an identical test route, and you can compare all of them in the same afternoon.
Before your test drive, be sure to check these items off your “To Do” list:
Grade your current vehicle. Make a list of the things you like and dislike about your current car: performance, comfort, features, controls, and any idiosyncrasies. Is there too little storage space? Is there a cup holder that doesn’t hold a drink securely? Do you want MP3 player controls, Bluetooth, or a rear-DVD entertainment system for your children? Put down all your gripes—large and small—so you don’t overlook those things in the new car.
Plan your own route. If a salesperson goes along with you on your test drive, he or she will likely suggest a quick, well-used route that’s “friendly” to the vehicle and doesn’t stress the engine or suspension too much. But this won’t give you a complete picture of how the vehicle performs.
Instead, map out your own driving route ahead of time that will let you experience various traffic situations, different types of roads, and contrasting driving surfaces. Rough city streets, winding country roads, and/or high-speed freeways, if you normally drive on them, should be part of your route. Plan to spend at least 30 to 40 minutes in each vehicle. If possible, drive the route in your current car to familiarize yourself with the area and to establish a baseline for comparison.
Schedule your appointments. When you call the dealerships, confirm that the vehicles you want to drive are in stock and equipped the way you want (not the fully loaded “demo” versions), and schedule your appointments to drive them back-to-back, allowing approximately 90 minutes for each one.
Be prepared. Before the big day arrives, assemble the items you should take with you. These include the following:
- Car-insurance verification.
- A notebook to record your thoughts and observations about each car.
- Your list of likes and gripes about your current vehicle.
- Your exact vehicle configuration—including trim level, features, and options—for the vehicles you want
- A copy of the test-drive checklist.
- A CD or MP3 player with audio cable, to try the audio system.
- If you use a child seat, bring it along to be sure you can secure it easily in each vehicle.
- A friend/partner/spouse who will act as a copilot/navigator/instruction reader/note taker or who can simply keep the salesperson occupied while you concentrate on the vehicle.
- A Consumer Reports buying guide. You can have your companion refer to appropriate sections while you drive to make sure you cover everything.