There are many things potential car buyers insist on. Strangely enough, a test drive is not always one of them. Already in 2008, the percentage of so-called ‘blind transactions’, where someone buys the car in good faith without taking it for a spin, stood at 6,5%. Since then, it has continued to rise. A more recent study, taken by Maritz Research in 2012, put the figure at almost 12%.
The Internet is partly responsible for this. At online market places, the prospect of making a bargain often lets car lovers throw caution to the wind. But the real enemy of the test drive are strong consumer resentments against car dealers. According to data by LeaseTrader.com, the hate against ‘manipulation and game-playing’ by sales persons runs so deep that many are more than willing to forgo the benefits of a test drive to avoid them.
Can you buy a car without a test drive?
Most of this anti test drive trend relates to new cars. Drivers have come to the (debatable) conclusion that most models these days are pretty good and total failures have become a thing of the past. Also, many have built years of experience with a particular brand and established a sense of trust in a model. This, they believe, allows them to take even such a wide ranging decision as a car purchase without actually trying the vehicle out first. A Golf is a Golf is a Golf and your next Mazda is going to be as good as your last one, right?
The argument does have some merit to it. But, as anyone who’s been unpleasantly surprised by a decline in quality from one generation of a model to the next will attest, it is by no means bulletproof.
An Insurance Against Unwelcome Surprises
Generally speaking, a test drive is still your best option against unwelcome surprises.
As marketwatch puts it:
“Just because buying blind keeps you out of a cars salesman’s office doesn’t mean it’s smart. Cars, after all, are one of the few big-ticket purchases that can’t be returned. Buying sight unseen raises the chance you’ll get stuck with a lemon.”
Although the advent of online car sales platforms has undeniably improved the situation for consumers, it has also increased the likelihood of a scam. If you want to be on the safe side, a test drive is always recommended.
What is the purpose of a test drive?
Avoiding unpleasant surprises is not the only reason for taking a test drive, however. After all, although a car’s primary functions are “to go, stop and turn”, as car expert site jalopnik puts it, there are a lot more aspects to factor into your considerations. You may well use your car every single day for years and spend many hours on the road with it. So it makes sense to put yourself in the driver’s seat for at least a few minutes to see what it feels like in real life.
According to car expert Eugene Herbert,
“the purpose of the test-drive is to determine whether the vehicle you are considering to purchase will suit your driving style and whether you are happy and satisfied with all the vehicle specifications.”
This makes a lot of sense, so that’s exactly what you should focus on when going for a test drive.
So what does this all mean in practise? Without further ado and from all around the web, here are the 23 most important points to take into consideration:
The 23 most important points for a test drive
- 1. Consider as many possible candidates as possible. Even if you have your mind set on one particular car, you’d be surprised at how great other models can feel once you actually take them for a spin.
- 2. If at all possible, try to test drive all your potential candidates on the same day or at least at the same time of day. This makes it possible to make an honest comparison and avoid biases depending on your mood or the weather situation.
- 3. Before taking a test drive, inspect the car from the outside and the inside. Once you’ve turned the key, the adrenaline takes over, which may blunt your vision when it comes to the all important details.
- 4. It may sound like a trivial detail, but check if the car’s colour matches your expectations. According to edmunds.com, online pictures and computer screens will often distort the actual colour.
- 5. While still inspecting the car before a test drive, make sure that all doors are easy to open and that even rear seat passengers can comfortably exit and enter the car.
- 6. Unless you’re the only one using the car, it’s vital to also take along all other future passengers, including your children. Listen to their comments and how they feel about the car – or be prepared to have to listen to their constant complaints for the next few years! Plus, your children will love having their opinion heard and respected.
- 7. Are you looking for a convertible? Then, as Car and Driver correctly points out, you should definitely check if raising and lowering the top is complicated or can be done comfortably.
- 8. From the driver’s seat, are all controls easy to reach? If not, can you change their position?
- 9. Put a particular emphasis on visibility. Make sure there are no major blind spots and that you have a perfect view of both rearview mirrors.
- 10. Check all technical appliances, including the sat nav and the stereo. (For more information see our best sat nav guide)
- 11. If taking a test drive is possible, try to select a course that allows you to simulate many different driving scenarios, from speeding up to breaking, from driving uphill to the stop and go of city traffic.
- 12. Whether or not the car salesperson should accompany you on your trip or not is open to debate. While some insist it’s better to take your test drive alone, wheels24 offers the view that having someone by your side if things go wrong can be extremely helpful. Either way, focus on the road and on your test drive rather than engaging in sales talk.
- 13. Check the hood before beginning your test drive. Is it cool to the touch or warm? If the latter, this means the motor has been warming up, which may cover up problems with starting up. Ideally, always start your test drive with a cold motor.
- 14. The AA emphasises that you should also check the exhaust fume. An excessive amount is not a good sign, for example. The colour of the car’s exhaust fumes can also be revealing – blue, white and black are all indicators of problems underneath the hood.
- 15. Shifting gears should be smooth and quick. There should be no crunching.
- 16. Does the motor offer you enough power? Next to driving uphill, one of the best tests of this is to see if you can safely merge with motorway traffic.
- 17. Check the noise level at different speeds. To this end, don’t use the stereo while you’re taking the test drive. Instead, check it prior to the trip or afterwards.
- 18. The brakes of a car, as has been pointed out, are hard to assess without an expert. What you can do, however, is to see if you’re comfortable with the pedal action and whether you feel safe when braking. Brakes should be responsive and fast, but neither should they be too harsh.
- 19. It is remarkable how few people pay attention to the steering wheel. We recommend you do the exact opposite and turn it into the centerpiece of your test drive. The feel of the wheel can, after all, give you some indications about the overall state of the car and its engine. As with the brakes, you should get the feeling that you can comfortably turn the wheel, but that it also feels stable. There should be no vibrations other than those caused by the road.
- 20. The suspension plays an important role in the overall feel of a car. Imagine yourself driving with this suspension for several years. Would you still feel happy about it? Consumer Reports put it best when writing: “Soft suspensions feel pillowy over holes and ruts but allow the vehicle body to wallow up and down a bit after a large bump. The best vehicles feel tight and controlled over bumps, recovering immediately. (…) A rough ride can quickly get old when every little ripple in the asphalt punches through as a teeth-chattering jolt.(…) The better cars have suspensions that swallow up pavement flaws without sharing them with the vehicle’s occupants.”
- 21. Even though this may not always be possible, ask if you can load up the trunk with something heavy when taking a test drive.
- 22. If you’re being accompanied either by the sales person or a friend or relative, ask them to take over the wheel and see what it feels like to be a passenger for a change. Very often, this will give you an entirely new and important perspective on the car.
- 23. At the end of your trip, also check if you can safely and comfortably park the car. If you have a parking assistant on board, see if it is useful.