When you shop for a new pair of shoes, you likely try them on and walk around the store to see how they feel. Buying a car is similarly a personal experience, making it crucial to test drive any vehicle you’re considering. A test drive can reveal a lot about a car if you know what to look for. Brandon Tapp, Head of Dealer Services at Chase Auto, shares key tips to help you maximize the benefits of your test drive.

Let’s look at how you can help set yourself up for success before you even arrive at the lot.

To get a good deal, consider multiple vehicles and visit several dealerships. Schedule test drive appointments ahead of time to ensure the car you want is available and to reduce wait times. Calling ahead also signals to dealers that you’re serious about buying.

“I recently went to a dealership to look at a vehicle I liked online, and when I got there, it was already sold,” says Tapp. “Making an appointment and communicating with the dealership beforehand would have saved me time and given me better odds at test driving a similar car.”

It’s also practical to schedule several test drives within the same day or week. This keeps your impressions of each vehicle fresh, allowing for more accurate comparisons.

Once you arrive on the lot and the car is brought out, it’s essential to thoroughly inspect it both inside and out. Here’s a short list of things you should examine:

  • Cosmetic details: Check the paint and general body work.
  • Interior condition: Inspect the cabin and seating spaces. Test out the seats in the front and back to understand the passenger experience.
  • Visibility and functionality: Ensure the windows and mirrors provide good visibility and test the seatbelts, seat adjusters, and stereo equipment.
  • Dashboard layout: Examine the layout and appearance of the dashboard.
  • Tech features: If the car has additional tech features like Bluetooth, onboard cameras, or infotainment systems, ask the salesperson for a walkthrough of these.

To get the most out of your test drive, try to simulate your daily driving conditions as much as possible. If you use car seats for small children, bring them along to ensure they fit securely in the car. If your job requires you to carry certain tools or equipment, take measurements of those items or bring them with you, along with a tape measure, to check if the vehicle can safely accommodate them. Additionally, note the weight of bulky items or anything you need to tow and compare that against the vehicle’s towing capacity.

Some dealerships restrict customers to a set route for a test drive, but you may be able to politely request to set your own route to better mimic your daily drive. If you regularly drive through hilly areas or log many highway miles, for instance, you may want to see how the car handles those conditions.

Keeping a record of your impressions can ensure your test drive is a productive use of time, especially if you’re test-driving multiple cars in a day.

Consider asking a friend or partner to join you and take notes on your behalf. They can also provide valuable feedback on the passenger experience if you often have others in the car. Alternatively, you can take your own notes before and after the test drive. Pay attention to your reactions, as minor nuisances now could become major annoyances over time. Note even the smallest details that stand out to you.

Before hopping in the driver’s seat, you might wonder if you need insurance to test drive a car. Dealerships usually don’t require proof of insurance for a test drive, but you will need to provide proof of insurance to finalize the purchase if you decide to buy the vehicle.

Next, let’s look at what happens during the test drive. This is where you get the most information about the actual driving experience. Sometimes, buyers realize that a car they thought was just okay on paper is spectacular on the road. Here’s what to pay attention to:

  • Brakes and acceleration: These are critical to your driving experience and safety. Take note of how the car brakes and accelerates. Is it responsive enough for your driving style, or will it require significant adjustment?
  • Steering and handling: The steering and overall handling should feel comfortable. Does the steering feel smooth, or do you have to wrestle with it? Can it handle sharp turns like highway off-ramps? Is it easy to park?
  • Cabin and driver’s seat: You’ll spend most of your time here, so take note of your impressions. Is the cabin quiet and comfortable? Can you get in and out of the driver’s seat easily? Are the dashboard lights and symbols easy to understand?
  • Tech features: Backup cameras, Bluetooth, and other tech features should enhance your driving experience. Ensure the backup camera footage is clear and the Bluetooth connects reliably to your device.
  • Odd noises: A new car in good condition should typically be fairly quiet as it drives. Note any unusual noises, as they could indicate a mechanical issue.

Taking these factors into account during your test drive can help you determine if the car is the right fit for you.

Once you’re back at the dealership, you may want to follow up on a few points:

  • Warranty: Check if the car comes with a warranty and understand the terms and coverage.
  • Fuel and maintenance: Inquire about the car’s fuel requirements and recommended maintenance schedules.
  • Second opinion: Ask if you can take the car to your own mechanic for a second opinion before purchasing. This is usually acceptable, and a refusal could be a red flag.
  • Extended test drive: See if the dealership offers the possibility of an extended test drive, allowing you to take the car home overnight or for a few days to get a better feel for it.

If the test drive goes smoothly, the salesperson might assume you’re ready to discuss the details. It’s okay to let them know if you’re not quite ready. You can head to your next test drive appointment or review your notes thoroughly at home. Taking the time to collect your thoughts helps you make a more informed decision.

“The dealer should be a trusted teammate in your car-buying journey,” says Tapp. “Don’t be afraid to ask them questions and lean on them for expertise and guidance.”

Taking a test drive when buying a car from a private seller isn’t much different from doing so at a dealership. However, scheduling an appointment for the test drive becomes essential since you can’t just show up unannounced at someone’s house like you might at a dealership.

Given that it’s a used car, ask for a vehicle history report to ensure the car hasn’t been in any major accidents or undergone significant repairs. Bringing a friend along can enhance your safety and, as previously mentioned, they can help record your impressions during the test drive.

Getting the most out of your test drive boils down to being thorough and deliberate. Start by scheduling appointments to ensure the car is prepared and waiting for you upon arrival. Once there, conduct a comprehensive inspection of the car inside and out, from front to back. Take careful note of any standout features or concerns, and jot down these observations for future reference. Car shopping is a personal journey, and a well-executed test drive can play a crucial role in finding the ideal vehicle for your needs.