You’ve already done a big part of the test drive without even leaving the dealership’s lot. Now it’s time to get the feel of the vehicle in motion. The best way to do that is to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Many dealers will let you do the test drive by yourself, but some will insist on sending someone along. Because the last thing you need is someone jabbering in your ear while you’re trying to concentrate on the vehicle, a companion can help by engaging the salesperson in conversation.
Unfortunately, the test drive is the perfect opportunity for you to be overwhelmed by a new car, since it’s likely better in many ways than the car you’re now driving. That’s why it’s important to compare it to other new vehicles in which you’re interested, rather than to your current car alone. The more vehicles you test drive, the better perspective you’ll get on each one of them.
Listen and feel for the things you like, and look carefully for the things on your list that you might not be happy with. New 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.
If the vehicle is equipped with a navigation system, try it out during the test drive. But do it after you’ve finished your planned route, as the route the system calculates for you will likely be different. Enter in a destination and see how well you’re guided to it. With the best systems, you’ll be able to follow the route simply by listening to the voice directions, with minimal need to look down at the screen.
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 the following points, while you drive. Better yet, bring a printout of our test-drive worksheet.
Ride comfort. Is the ride soft, harsh, or somewhere in-between? Does the suspension isolate you from the road or do you feel every bump and ripple? Some softer suspensions feel comfortable over bumps but tend to be floaty, wallowing up and down a bit after a large bump. Look for a vehicle that feels tight and controlled over bumps, but not harsh.
Sporty cars, including some sedans, typically have a firmer ride, which is a trade-off for their better handling characteristics. This may not be for everyone. Some buyers who have been enchanted by sporty cars have later regretted buying them because of the stiff ride quality that seems to accentuate every little bump in the road. Be sure the vehicle you choose is one you can tolerate for the life of the car.
Acceleration. How does the engine feel when taking off from a stop? Can you merge safely into freeway traffic?
Acceleration depends primarily on the engine power, but it is also closely linked to the transmission. A great engine coupled with a mediocre transmission will deliver a less-than-stellar performance. Conversely, a smaller engine can perform better in combination with a modern, well-designed transmission.
One of the benefits of a test drive is to see if you like the powertrain you’ve selected. If not, now is the time to change your selection or keep looking. During your test drives, be sure to try quick acceleration from a stop and a rolling merge into fast freeway traffic.
If you come to a steep uphill, note if the transmission downshifts smoothly and how the engine responds. There should be a seamless delivery of power.
Braking. Do the brakes feel responsive without being too jerky? Braking is an attribute that’s hard to evaluate thoroughly without professional help, but you can do a basic assessment. Feel how the vehicle responds when you depress the brake pedal, both softly and with more force. The braking should be smooth and progressive, and it should be easy to get just the right amount of stopping power without stopping too quickly or not quickly enough. If you are driving a hybrid for the first time, the brakes will likely feel different than those in the car you are used to driving.
Steering and handling. Does the car respond well to quick steering maneuvers? Does it track well when driving straight ahead on the highway or do you need to make small, continual corrections with the steering wheel? Does the car feel relaxed or too darty to be comfortable? And does it stay relatively composed on rough roads?
Since 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 responds. It should be easy and controllable to maneuver along the road—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 good feedback through the steering wheel about what the car is doing on the road; some steering systems feel numb and disconnected from the wheels. Many vehicles have variable power steering, which makes them feel one way on the highway and another at slow speeds, such as when trying to park in a tight space.
An important note: Don’t try to test a vehicle at its handling and braking limits to see how it would respond when you’re trying to avoid an accident. This type of test is better left for a racetrack or designated test site than for a public road. Instead, see Consumer Reports’ accident-avoidance Ratings, available on the model page for each tested vehicle.
Quietness. During your test drive, turn off the radio and close all the windows so you can hear what is going on, especially at highway speeds. Is the sound of the engine annoying during heavy acceleration or highway cruising? Engine noise has a lot to do with the quality of the engine, but it’s also related to the engine size and configuration. Four-cylinder engines tend to be the noisiest. If it’s too noisy, try driving a V6 version, if available, to see if it’s any better. If any engine sounds coarse and loud under heavy acceleration or at highway speed, it could become more annoying as time goes by. They don’t get quieter with age.
Are there any squeaks or rattles? Is there excessive wind noise? The side mirrors are a major source of wind noise. Better-designed mirrors make almost no noise, while poorly designed ones roar and whistle. You should have little trouble telling which is which during your test drive. Roof rails on SUVs and wagons can also contribute to wind noise.
Can you hear noise from the tires? The high-performance tires on sporty cars and off-road tires on SUVs and pickup trucks tend to create the most tire noise. It can be annoying, but buyers who want those kinds of tires are usually willing to put up with it. The test drive is a good way to find out your tolerance level.
Visibility. Do you get a good panoramic view of the road ahead? Do the mirrors give you the kind of side and rear view you need? Or do wide pillars or a small rear window restrict your view? When backing up, is the rear visibility good and can you gauge the length of the vehicle?
Visibility can vary greatly, even among similar vehicles. Back-to-back drives will tell you which ones have the best visibility. And don’t forget to check rear visibility when backing up and the size of the rear blind zone. (See our report on the danger of blind zones.) Many vehicles have standard backup cameras, but it's worth paying for it even if it's optional.
Driving at night. It’s better to visually inspect a vehicle in daylight. But if you become serious about buying it, you should also try to test drive it at night. That’s the only way you’ll be able to tell how well the headlights perform, how and which switches, gauges, and controls are lighted for nighttime use, and whether there are any annoying reflections in the windshield.