How to Judge a Car's Comfort on Just a Short Test Drive

Expert tips for finding a model that best suits you

person driving car iStock-951636082

A test drive doesn’t last long, but it’s your first opportunity to make sure the car is one you’ll like and can live with.

more on car buying

Here are a few things to consider as you evaluate overall comfort. Plus, extra features that spoil you.

Seat Comfort
Make sure there’s adequate lumbar and bolster support (which will help stabilize you during cornering) that neither feels tight nor digs into your back. Are the cushions too soft? They might seem plush at first but may not provide adequate support on longer drives. We like seats with multiple adjustments—two- or four-way lumbar support, an adjustable bottom cushion, and adjustable bolsters. Rear seats should be supportive and provide adequate headroom and space for a rear passenger’s feet to fit under the front seat.

Driving Position
A good driving position keeps fatigue to a minimum. Look for a car with a tilt-adjustable, telescoping steering column. We believe this feature is key for helping drivers of various sizes find the best position for arm comfort. Neither the center console nor the door should intrude into the driver’s leg space, and the left footrest should be at a good angle and distance.

Ride Comfort
Make sure the ride is smooth and comfortable by taking the car on a potholed road to feel whether the suspension adequately soaks up road imperfections. Low-profile tires may look nice, but they can make for a rougher ride on a bumpy road. A stiff suspension can get irritating after a while and lead to driver fatigue.

Make sure that you’re satisfied with the level of engine, wind, and road noise, and keep in mind that a short 10-minute test drive is different from a long trip or commute. Some cars make more engine noise than others, and cars with convertible tops and specialty tires, such as knobby off-road tires, can make more wind and road noise.

Extra Features That Spoil You

Finding the most comfortable car for you starts with picking the right model, then equipping it with the features that will pamper you and your passengers. Based on our experience, these are the features worth considering for your next car.

Lumbar Support Controls
Seats with power-adjustable lumbar support can help the driver and front passenger adjust to the needs of their lower back. Two-way lumbar adjusts the cushion in and out, and four-way versions add up and down options. This makes long-distance driving easier, reducing fatigue. For the ultimate experience, consider massaging seats, if available.

Heated and Cooled Seats
These can make a big difference on truly hot and cold days, activat­ing much quicker than traditional heat and air condition­ing. In extreme cold, heated seats can quickly warm up your behind. And a heated steering wheel is a treat that once you experience it you'll have trouble going without. In hot weather, cooled seats can keep your legs from sticking to the seat.

Heated and Reclining Rear Seats
Luxury items once reserved for front-seat passengers are now making their way to the rear seat. Reclining rear seats can be found in a lot of SUV models, and heated rear seats are becoming more common, too.

Memory Settings
Different drivers like their mirror, seat position, and other settings saved to specific configurations. The memory feature makes it possible for each driver in a family to get their preferred settings at the touch of a button. With all the different adjustments, this can save a lot of time. Many models can identify the driver by key fob and automatically adjust the settings.

Climate Zones
A dual-zone system lets the driver and front passenger set their own temperature, adjusting for personal preferences and sun exposure. In some models, even rear-seat passengers get their own climate controls. At minimum, a rear vent is important for airflow. We’ve found that these systems can really help to take some stress out of family travel.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Head shot of CR Autos Editor, Benjamin Preston

Benjamin Preston

My reporting has taken me everywhere from Baghdad, Iraq, to the Detroit auto show, along the U.S.-Mexico border and everywhere in between. If my travels have taught me anything, it's that stuff—consumer products—is at the center of daily life all over the world. That's why I'm so jazzed to be shining light on what works, what doesn't, and how people can enrich their lives by being smarter consumers. When I'm not reporting, I can usually be found at home with my family, at the beach surfing, or in my driveway, wrenching on my hot rod '74 Olds sedan.