Free! 8 Test Drive Tips

Drive It Like You Own It: An Excerpt from Take the Wheel

It’s now time to take all this planning and put it into practice in the physical world. It’s time to take a test drive.

The first instinct many women have is to bring along the husband/boyfriend/dad. The boys will mash the accelerator, stomp on the brakes, make up some shit about torque and lifters, spout some numbers they read in Motor Trend, and offer an opinion that in the end makes no difference. This is your car. You will drive it, probably every day, twice a day, for the next five to ten years. How does the acceleration feel to you? Are the brakes too squishy or too hard for you? You’re going to pay for it, you’re going to live with it, so you’re going to test-drive it.

Here’s what Sykora, with three decades of dealership experience under her Texan belt, has to say about that: “It’s not necessary to bring a man along, but it is necessary to bring your confidence along.”

Here’s the other important thing about test-driving: you cannot do it wrong. There is no such thing as a test drive that is too long or too short (as long as you don’t drive to Mexico). Drive like you normally would, radio blasting or quiet, fast or slow. Don’t let whoever is in the passenger seat trying to sell you the car tell you what to do or how to drive. If he wants to point out some helpful or interesting feature, like a sunroof you might not have noticed, that is welcome information. But if he wants you to take one turn around the block, or if he tells you there’s some special way to do something completely normal, like putting the shifter into drive, smile politely and ignore him.

I’ve got one last piece of reassurance before I send you off to the car lot. You know as much about the car you want by now as just about anyone, outside of the guys (they really are mostly guys; yet another ratio to change) who designed it and built it. You’ve done your research and picked the cars you’re interested in. You know which features are available and important to you. Not even salespeople know all of this stuff about every car on the lot, and unless your dad is a factory test driver for BMW and you are buying a BMW, you should trust your own research. Input from family and friends can be helpful, but there are a lot of opinions out there without a lot of foundation. Trust your research. You’re a smart lady.

Okay! On to the test drive!

  • Get the keys. If you’re looking at a used car, you’ll probably have set an appointment with the owner for the test drive, and he’ll be waiting for you. If you’re visiting a dealership, you can either go inside and tell a salesperson which model you’d like to test-drive or wander around the lot until someone approaches you.
  • Get in. And out. And in. When you’ve got the keys in your hand and you’ve made nice with the owner or salesperson, open the door and get into the driver’s seat. Do it a couple times, even if you feel silly. Do you plop into it, or glide? Is there a big step up, or a big fall down, to the seat? Is that comfortable for you? Does the door open wide enough, or so wide that you can’t reach it once you’re seated? Can you get in and out in a pencil skirt, if you’re a pencil-skirt kind of girl?
  • Start ’er up. Either turn the key or press the start button. What does it sound like? Do you like the sound? Let it idle a few seconds while you get used to the sound so you have a baseline. This warms up the engine, too.
  • Push buttons. Turn on the lights, the air conditioning, the heat, the radio, the turning signals, everything. Especially if it’s a used car, watch the “hello, good morning lights” as Audra Fordin at Great Bear Auto calls them. The lights that flash on when you start the engine signal that the car is running through a system check. When they’re all off, you’re ready to drive. If any stay on, take note. That’s a problem. Especially if it’s the one that says, “Check Engine.”
  • Take it for a spin. Adjust the mirrors so you can see, and turn on the heat or A/C or whatever to make sure it works. Put the shifter into drive (or first, if it’s a manual transmission) and head out. Take off slow and smooth to adjust to a new-to-you gas pedal; then press the brake while no one is behind you so you aren’t surprised by its grippiness or lack thereof when you’re in traffic.
  • Drive! This part should last at least twenty minutes. A quick trip around the block will not do, but tooling around the neighborhood for a bit is a good start while you get used to the controls. If there’s a highway nearby, get on and off. How does it do merging into traffic? What are the blind spots like? Drive to a grocery store or mall or whatever’s handy and park to see if it’s easy enough or if you’re going to cringe every time you swing into a space. Bonus points if you parallel park in a car completely unfamiliar to you.
  • Bring it back. After about a half hour, return the car to where you found it. But you’re not done. This is when you give the interior a good going-over. While you’re still in the driver’s seat, look at what’s in reach. Cup holders, climate controls, radio controls, nav system: how many of these things do you regularly fiddle with while driving? Can you reach them without taking your eyes off the road? If adults ride with you, sit in the back seat and make sure adults will fit.
  • This time, it’s personal. We’ve all got at least one car quirk—the one thing we absolutely need our vehicle to do, the deal breaker. If kids ride with you, bring their car seats and see how they fit. If you snowboard, bring your board to make sure it fits in the cargo space. If you bake immense specialty cakes, bring a cardboard mockup to see how it sits on the floor of the vehicle for transport. If this is the van for your band, bring your biggest, gawkiest piece of equipment, like a drum kit or a couple of amps. You get the idea. (My car quirk? Dog-friendliness. Comfortable, safe, cleanable rear seats with a window that rolls down and a place to stash toys and towels. My dog has to be able to hop in and out without me lifting or cajoling him.)

With used cars, there are a few other considerations. Someone else has been driving this car for several thousand miles, and some weirdnesses are bound to develop. Checking the acceleration, engine noise, ease of shifting, and brakes is especially important. Many things are cheap and easy to fix—brake pads are something like twenty bucks and you could seriously change them yourself if you felt like it—but some things aren’t. On your first test drive in a used car, go with your gut. If it seems fine to you, proceed. But if you’re questioning it at all, move on to the next car on your list.

Ask the person selling the used car if you can take it to your mechanic for a look-see. “Before you take the keys, take it to a mechanic,” says Fordin. The owner will probably say sure; if they don’t, it’s a deal breaker. The mechanic who checks out the car could be the guy you’ve been taking your cars to for years, or it could be your dad, if he’s got some shade-tree mechanic skills. (See? He can be helpful. Just not during the test drive.) In any case, don’t take it to the mechanic suggested by the seller, unless you happen to go to the same guy. The mechanic will know what to look for, but you want to make sure the oil has been changed regularly and the fluids, like brake fluid and coolant, aren’t too low. If the brakes or tires are worn in strange ways, that can signal some aggressive or harmful driving in the car’s past—or even frame damage.

In this case, you’re probably ahead of the boys. analyzed lease transfers in 2011 and found that two-thirds of women ordered third-party inspections when taking over someone else’s lease. Only about half of men did the same. And younger women (ages twenty-one to thirty) were even more savvy than their male counterparts, with nearly 80 percent requesting an inspection, while only 40 percent of younger men did. Women were also more likely to ask about safety performance, incident history, and how the vehicle works in certain situations, like accelerating onto a freeway or parking in a tight space. Men talked about performance and aesthetics.

Actually, Sheryl Connolly, manager of Global Trends and Futuring for Ford, says men and women want the same thing in a car, but they talk about it differently. In the above example, both buyers are talking about engine power, but the woman is using story and problem-solving terms, while the man is using technology and functionality to talk about the same aspect of a car. It’s a little language quirk to be aware of while you talk to the salesperson or owner during the test drive, especially if you’re talking to a guy.

Because a used car has been around the block a few times, really give the interior and body a close inspection. Scratches in the paint aren’t usually a big deal, unless it looks like the metal underneath is starting to rust. Look for dents or ripples or anything that seems like it’s been shoddily repaired. Look for signs of water damage from floods, especially in the upholstery and carpets, where the smell will linger. Run a CarFax for the VIN to see if it’s in the clear. If you really want to get finicky, take a magnet with you. If the car is metal, the magnet should stick anywhere you put it. If it doesn’t, there’s Bondo or some such thing under there, which means somebody took a shortcut during a repair. If the car is bodied in fiberglass or space-age polymers, the magnet trick won’t work.