The Feel of the Wheel — How to Test-Drive a Car

10 years, 2 months ago - 8 December 2012, Edmunds.com, Inc.
The Feel of the Wheel — How to Test-Drive a Car
Veteran car salespeople have a saying: "The feel of the wheel will seal the deal." This means that, if they can convince you to test-drive the car — to feel the steering wheel — you will become so excited that you will want to buy the car.

While the salespeople want to excite you about the car (so you will "buy today"), you'll want to make sure you choose a car that fits in your budget and serves your needs for the coming years. Clearly, the stakes are high.

So, what is the best way to test-drive a car, to determine if this is the right car for you?

First of all, you need to do some research before you even get near the car lot. New car smell is a powerful intoxicant, not fully understood by even our top medical researchers. Your only antidote to this strange power is to be armed with cold hard facts. Next, ask yourself if the car really fills your needs.

Considering your needs is probably the best way to approach car shopping. Think of what you need to do with the car and you will quickly build a list of qualities you must have in your new car. This list should be labeled "must-haves."

Next, you might consider what things you would like to have on your new car. Think of your top color choice, second choice and then the colors you don't want. Other extras should be considered if the price allows. These features will be part of your "wish list." But while shopping, keep in mind that the things on your wish list are not "deal breakers" — you can live without them.

Finally, take a good hard look at the price. Can you really afford the car you are pricing out? Check incentives and rebates. Take a look at the True Cost to Own (TCO) figures. And remember, you will have to pay sales tax and fees, then insurance, gas and regular maintenance costs.

Now, and only now, it's time to feel the wheel. You are going to see if the car you have chosen "on paper" is the car that you want in reality.

A large part of test-driving a car is done before you even turn the key. You should sit in the car and ask yourself: is it a good fit? Yes, a good fit. Trying on a car is a little like trying on clothes. People are different, so they will have different sizes and shapes. And different tastes in what they want.

Once you get settled, here are a few questions to help you define your feelings about the car you are considering:

  • Is it easy to get in and out of the car without stooping or banging your noggin?
  • Is there enough head-, hip- and legroom? Remember to check the backseat, too.
  • Is the driving position comfortable? Do you feel too low or too high in the car? Can you tilt or telescope the steering wheel for a better fit?
  • Is the seat comfortable? Is it easily adjustable? Is there a lumbar support adjustment?
  • Are the controls easy to read and use?
  • How is the visibility? Check the rearview mirror and the side mirrors.
  • Are the pedals situated to match your body type? If not, are they adjustable?

Sometimes the salesperson will drive the car off the lot and then turn the wheel over to you later. While he is driving, you can evaluate the car from the passenger's standpoint. Pay attention to the noise and visibility. Once you are behind the wheel, the salesperson may want you to drive along a predetermined route using a series of right-hand turns to lead back to the dealership. Such a test-drive is convenient for the dealership, but it's not the best way for you to evaluate the car.

Your test-drive should match your driving requirements. If you drive into the mountains, find a hill and see how the car climbs. If you have a highway commute, see how the car accelerates into traffic and performs in the 100-115 km/h range. Tell the salesperson what kind of test-drive you want and he will probably accommodate you. However, the salesperson may need to clear it with his manager first.

Before you start driving, adjust the seat, the seatbelt and the mirrors. Turn off the radio so you can hear the engine and concentrate on the driving experience.

On the test-drive, evaluate these specific points:

  • Acceleration
  • Engine noise
  • Passing acceleration (does it downshift quickly?)
  • Hill-climbing power
  • Braking (do the brakes "grab" suddenly?)
  • Steering (does it have any play in the wheel? is it easy to place the car?)
  • Cornering (does it "hug the road" or does it wallow about?)
  • Suspension (how does it ride?)
  • Seat comfort and ergonomics
  • Rattles and squeaks
  • Cargo space (is the vehicle easy to load and does it expand?)

Now, with these points in mind, drive the car. Really drive the car. Tell the salesperson you want to put it through its paces. Get on the gas (don't totally floor it since the engine isn't broken in) and jump on the brakes (when nobody is behind you). Throw it into a corner. The point is not to exceed your driving limits, but to explore the limits of the car. During the test-drive, the salesperson may begin asking you leading questions such as the classic, "What do I have to do to sell you this car today?" No matter how much you love the car, remain noncommittal. If the salesperson senses interest, he will begin the hard sell. That definitely won't help you make an informed decision.

When you're back on the car lot, remember to check the trunk space. And recheck anything else that has attracted your attention. Remember that the little things you spot now could be major annoyances later. So, don't discount any of your reactions at this point.

If you are interested in buying the car you've driven, you should copy the information off the sticker — the total sticker price and what the options are. Also, look for the stock number of the car (a number posted in the windshield) so you can locate it again when you return. Finally, make sure you view the car under natural light since the color can look very different under streetlights.

At this point, the salesperson will probably try to get you inside to begin negotiations. Don't go there. Resist offers of brochures, coffee or promises to "see what kind of payments we can put together." Take a business card from your salesperson and leave. Then, go drive the other cars you are interested in. It's good to drive them back to back while your impressions are fresh. The differences between the cars, and your differing impressions, will begin to be very clear. And, who knows? You might like more than one car. If so, you will be in a stronger bargaining position when it comes time to buy since you can let the price be the deciding factor.

In this story, we've minimized the role of the salesperson. However, it is also important to qualify the salesperson before you commit to doing business with him.

Remember to do your research first and the test-drive will be more meaningful. Then you won't fall prey to the new car smell or the sometimes misleading "feel of the wheel." Instead, put yourself in control on the test-drive — and buy the car that's right for you.