At the top of most car shoppers' wish list is finding one that's comfortable. But "comfort" is a subjective quality. Leather seating and other features may be highly desirable for some shoppers but not for others.

Consumer Reports buys every car it tests from dealers, just like any other consumer would. Here's what our shoppers and expert testers keep in mind when trying to evaluate how comfortable a car will be and how it may—or may not—fit a driver's daily needs and use.

Slip Behind the Wheel

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 much or contort your body. Some 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 if you're holding bags? 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 a different underlying structure and padding than cloth seats, which will affect overall comfort. Some people prefer leather because it's easier to clean. But remember: Leather can be chilly in the winter and uncomfortable on bare skin when hot. Heated and cooled seats can remedy this, but not all models offer this.

Seat comfort is very important, albeit highly personal. A seat with multiple adjustments is best for an optimum driving posture. A seat that's padded like an easy chair can feel great at first, but if it loses support during long trips, it can add to driver fatigue.

You want to be able to easily slide the seat fore and aft, as well as up and down. Having a height-adjustment option can make a big difference, particularly for a shorter driver. The seat should fit your body and support you from the thighs to the shoulders. It shouldn't pinch from the sides or protrude into your back. Adjustable lumbar is a benefit; it's even better if it can be adjusted for height, too.

Can you reach the seat belt quickly and easily? Note if the height adjustments allow you to properly position it across your shoulder, chest, and hips. You don't want the edge of the belt to graze your neck. Does the shoulder belt allow for free movement under normal driving situations? Check to see whether the door and center armrests are in positions that feel natural.

Make sure the head restraint can be adjusted to provide adequate protection in a rear-end collision. The top of it should be at least even with the top of your ears.

Adjust the steering wheel to tailor the driving position. Most steering wheels adjust for both rake (up/down) and reach (in/out). Make sure it has enough adjustments for you. Does the wheel feel comfortable with your hands at the 9 and 3 o'clock positions? Are there audio and/or cruise-control buttons on the steering wheel? This can make it easier to use common functions without taking your eyes off the road.

Once you have the seat and steering wheel set, assess your driving position. You should be able to reach the pedals and still have at least 10 inches between your chest and the steering wheel. Some vehicles have power-adjustable pedals, so check those, too. Make sure your head isn't too close to the ceiling.

Check your visibility inside and outside the cabin. 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. Many elements make up a well-designed interior. Is this one that you'll want to spend a lot of time in?

Check the controls and displays. Anyone who will be driving the vehicle should be able to see, reach, and use all the 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 moment.

All of the controls should have clear, unambiguous markings, and the ones you use at night should be illuminated. Push buttons should give good tactile feedback. Adjust the climate-control system to your preferred temperature to see how well it works.

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

Are there places to stash things? Check to see whether there's sufficient storage space for items you want to keep close at hand, such as your cell phone, charging cables, sunglasses, and such. Will a water bottle, a large cup, or your favorite travel mug fit securely in the cup holders?

Drink containers shouldn't block access to important switches or cubbies that you may need to open or reach into while driving.

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

How does the audio system sound? Does the infotainment system have Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, or another way to stream music or podcasts from your smartphone? Does the audio quality meet your expectations? Make sure you run through the common controls to see how easy they are to operate.

Try out any advanced electronics. If the vehicle has a full-feature climate control system or electronics such as navigation, voice-activated controls, Bluetooth, or a multifunction controls, spend time trying them out.

You may want to take some time to have the salesperson show you how they work, because some are very complicated and difficult to use without studying the owner's manual. Don't be shy about asking questions. Salespeople go through extensive training in order to explain all of the systems in cars.

And last, if there's a sunroof or moonroof, open it to see how it operates. Raise and lower convertible tops to see how they operate, and check how much trunk space they steal.

Sit in the Rear Seats

After you've finished with the driver's seat, sit in each of the other seats. Spend some time in the backseat to see what it's like. Some cars with low-slung roofs force you to duck a lot to keep from banging your head, especially when accessing the rear. In others, it can be awkward to step into the rear because there's a high, wide sill or a narrow door opening.

Leg and foot room, especially in the back, can be too tight for some passengers. Are there adequate cup holders and storage cubbies front and rear? What about USB and 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? Check how much crawling is required to access the third-row seat in minivans and SUVs. Once there, how comfortable (or claustrophobic) is it?

If you have kids, are they going to be happy back there? See whether there are plenty of places for drinks, snacks, toys, and books. Can they see out of the windows easily? Many new vehicles have high windowsills that make it difficult for small children to see out. This can lead to boredom and complaints. Check out any optional conveniences like rear climate controls or audio and video systems. Judge for yourself whether they're worth the extra cost.

Inspect the Cargo Area

Be sure to check out the trunk or cargo area. Some cars may require you to open the trunk or rear hatch from the outside with a key, but most have a covered grab handle with a touchpad. Often there's also a button on the key fob to open the lids remotely.

Once the trunk lid is open, check to see what kind of hinges it has. The worst design is the gooseneck hinge, which swings down and can crush packages. Better designs use struts that don't intrude into the cargo space.

How difficult will it be to load bulky items? How high do you have to lift things to load them? 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 come with a flat-folding front passenger seat for carrying extra-long items that extend all the way from the trunk to the glove box. If there's a third-row seat, check that it folds flat or into a well in the floor. Make sure it's easy to fold down.

It's important to check whether the vehicle comes with a spare tire. Many manufacturers are eliminating the spare, instead supplying a compressor and a can of sealer. To us, that's an insufficient substitute for a real spare tire. Ask whether there's a spare available for purchase. You can try to get it included as part of your negotiations. Make sure a jack and tool kit are provided. Is there room for your own tools and emergency items?

Lift the Hood

Ask the 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 to use a jump starter. Be aware: Some cars have batteries in the trunk or hidden in difficult-to-access cubbies. These use remote terminals for jumping or trickle-charging the battery.