3 things to do at the car dealership

Smart-buying tips to put you in the driver’s seat

Published: March 22, 2015 09:00 AM

Buying a car is an entire process, beginning with dreaming and research, moving on to test drives, and finally negotiation and purchase. Doing your homework up front, creating a smart shopping list factoring road test performance, reliability, and safety can ensure you’re targeting the best vehicles in your class. Then you have to determine which among these vehicles is best for you.

To help with the vital dealership experience, we have distilled tips from our extensive new-car buying guide.

Does the car fit?

All the research and ratings in the world don’t matter if the car isn’t comfortable for you, nor satisfy the family’s needs. Make your intentions clear to the salesperson: You’re at the dealership to check out a car and take a test drive. Sales staff are generally very knowledgeable about the products and can provide a good walk-around, highlighting key features.

Do take the time to sit in the driver’s seat, adjusting the seat, headrest, steering wheel, and mirrors, and assessing the driving position. Is it comfortable? Good visibility? Adequate leg and head room?

Check out the controls. Are they easy to reach and understand? Does the system pair with your smart phone easily? Are connected features intuitive? (Of course, don’t import your personal phone data into the car.) Try the back seat to ensure it meets your needs, based on how you would have the front seats configured. Is there enough cabin storage? Rear cargo space?

Learn more about car fit.

Test drive

You’ve already done a big part of the vehicle evaluation 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 a salesperson 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—or simply ask for some quiet time to review the vehicle.

Methodically focus on each element of the vehicle dynamics. Does it accelerate briskly and easily? How is the car under part throttle, like on a typical drive?

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?

Do the brakes feel responsive without being too jerky? Feel how the vehicle responds when you depress the brake pedal, both softly and with more force. Braking should be smooth and progressive, and it should be easy to get just the right amount of whoa power without stopping too quickly or not quickly enough.

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? (During a test drive, 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.)

And finally, listen. Is there excessive engine, road, or wind noise?

Learn how to plan your test drive.

Don’t talk numbers

Although you may have fallen in love on the drive, do not be swayed into buying the same day. Do your diligence. Check out all of the cars on your list, then make the final decision at home, referring to notes and checking latest transaction pricing. Sales staff will often add an element of urgency, citing sales, rebates, and inventory issues to drive a deal. Buying a new car is a major purchase; take your time and do it on your terms.

Since you did your homework, you’re familiar with your budget, current interest rates, latest incentives, and even what transaction prices are in your area. (This information and much more is available via the ConsumerReports.org car model pages.)

Once you and your family choose the right car, then sharpen your pencil on figures, including fair trade-in values. Negotiation is an art the sales staff practices daily. Best keep this phase for another day, when you’re properly prepared and not giddy from your first test drive.

If you’re close to a decision, but not sure, take another test drive in a similar car at another dealership. The different venue may bring a new experience and insights, and you might open the door to an even better deal.

Learn more about buying a new or used car.

Jeff Bartlett


E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

New-Car Buying News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more