Don’t Skip the Test Drive

Car shopping has really evolved from the days when you had to buy in-person. Thanks to the internet, you can research, price-negotiate, and even buy a vehicle without ever stepping foot on a car lot. But while you can see several photos and even video of the car you plan to buy, it will never be the same as sitting in the driver's seat and taking a test drive, especially if you're purchasing a pre-owned vehicle. So before you buy, make sure you see the car in real life. Here are some things to consider before and during the test-drive process:

Make a list of your must-haves by thinking about how you'll use the car from day to day. Is it simply a commuter car that needs great gas mileage? Do you have children and a need for maximum trunk space (for strollers or sports equipment)? How important are technology features like navigation or rear-seat entertainment? Once you separate your needs from wants, it's time for test driving.

Before you start the car, take several minutes to just sit in it. Is the seat comfortable? Are the controls/knobs/levers in a position that would be easy to reach while you're operating the car? Is the interface user friendly? Can you see out the back and in the blind spot areas reasonably? Does the car interior actually look and feel like you thought it would? Is there enough legroom in the back row(s)? Do back row(s) fold and/or store efficiently? Is the trunk space sufficient? If all things check out, it's time to hit the road.

While you're driving, ask the salesperson to take you on a route that's typical for you. Try to time this accurately so if you sit in traffic regularly, you're testing the new car in the same conditions. Take it on the freeway to test acceleration and your comfort level at high speeds. Be aware of how the car handles, how noisy it is inside the cabin, and whether you can manage the size of the car (particularly if it's a larger SUV). At the end of the test, ensure you can park it with relative ease.

Once the test drive is over, it helps to make a quick list of pros and cons to help you make a decision. Do this for every car you try out and then compare them all along with things like purchase price and cost of ownership. Once you've narrowed down an ideal car, you can purchase any way you like—in person or online—with the confidence that you'll like driving your new car for years to come.