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How to test drive a car

By Daniel Gardner, 25 Jan 2020 Car Advice

How to test drive a car

Here’s why you should test drive the car you’re not going to buy

Switching car can be a daunting prospect. For many, just the thought of researching, selling your existing car, shopping around for insurance and sorting out finance can be exhausting but, a new car is most likely the third biggest investment you’ll ever make, so it’s worth doing properly.

Staggeringly though, many people sign on the line for a new car without carrying out the most important part of the selection process – the test drive.

Car dealership

However, this crucial element needn’t be arduous or intimidating and there are a few simple steps you can take to minimise the stress and time it takes and, most importantly, ensure you drive home in exactly the right car.

Even if you don’t consider yourself particularly car-savvy, you can still navigate the new car buying process like an expert. Here are our top-five new car test-drive tips to help you avoid making some common mistakes and find the car that’s perfect for you.

Take your time. Drive lots of cars

One of the most common mistakes people make when upgrading their car is simply rolling up to the dealership of the brand they already own and stepping into the latest equivalent model. Of course, this might be exactly the right thing to do in some circumstances, but how can you expect to select the right car for you if you aren’t aware of all your options?

This is the scenario that plays out all over the country every day: The owner of a 2015 Toyota Corolla, for example, takes a test drive in the latest model and instantly concludes that it is the best car in the world because, in the vast majority of cases, the only reference the driver has is a five-year-old car from the same maker.

Read next: What can you get our of a 20-minute test drive?

In the ensuing years, the Corolla has, of course, advanced in all the key areas of comfort, safety, driving dynamics and refinement. But (and this is the key point to remember) so has everything, including all the Corolla’s rivals.

Test drive

That’s why, when it’s time to upgrade your car, you simply must drive the model you are considering and all (or a good share of) the models that it competes with. You might find the Corolla is indeed your perfect match, but you might also find that one of its rivals offers obvious advantages, advancements and features that you would have been completely unaware of had you test-driven just one car.

Put in the leg-work and be your own expert.

What Would WhichCar Do? Context is everything and to fully understand each new car that comes on the market in Australia, we don’t just drive one or two of its rivals, we drive everything in the segment. Obviously, that’s out of the question for one person looking to buy their next new car, but in any case, the more experience and information you can arm yourself with, the more objectively you can survey your options.

Drive for as long as you can

A quick blast around the block will not cut it but, once again, this is a mistake many people make on the test drive. The longer you can stay at the wheel, the more likely you are to pick up on the smaller things as well as the more obvious good and bad traits.

If you can convince the dealer to let you have the car overnight, you’ll be able to see how easily it fits in the garage, what the kids think of it, and how it compares with the car you are used to on the roads you are used to.

If the salesperson insists on coming with you, avoid small talk and save any negotiation or more important topics until you are back at the showroom so you can concentrate on driving and a deal separately if you choose.

What Would WhichCar Do? When we review a car, we take the keys for at least a week and during those seven days we try to throw as many different driving scenarios at it, focusing on the ones a prospective owner is most likely to encounter. Realistically, that’s still not enough to fully appraise a vehicle and all the attributes you’ll discover through actual ownership. Put simply, the longer you have in the hot-seat, the better.

Start the test before you climb aboard

Jumping into a new car can be a sensory overload. Rather than trying to absorb everything on the first meeting, read up on the car before you arrive for your test. If you already know many of the features to expect, you can focus on the parts that you can only obtain from the drive such as steering feel, braking confidence, cabin noise, acceleration, visibility, ergonomics and the pleasant surprises.

Test drive

Also, take time to explore the car before you hit the road. It’s too late to sit in the back seat, throw a bag in the boot or investigate interior materials once you’re out.

What Would WhichCar Do? We are used to seeing new cars inside and out but there’s still a huge amount to take in when we meet a new model for the first time. Taking notes is not just for journalists and it can be really helpful building up a list of things you liked and disliked to refer back to later. Add to your valuable database with pictures too.

Consider the other stuff

Always bear in mind the other important elements of car shopping and ownership while you are evaluating the product. You may have stumbled upon the perfect car, but if the finance deal is mean, the warranty is short or insurance costs high, for example, you might choose to keep looking.

New car contract

On the flip side, if your current brand has demonstrated excellent customer service and aftersales care it’s understandable that you might want to stay loyal to the brand.

What Would WhichCar Do? Even if you are over the moon with your car and the company that sold it to you, keep your options open and consider the alternatives. Even if you decided to give the same brand another run, educating yourself with a little extra knowledge can empower you with more confidence and bargaining power.

Trust your instinct and preferences

Just because a sales assistant says a particular feature is desirable, it doesn’t mean you have to like it. Even if your most trusted magazine, friends and social media say a particular car is the finest machine to ever grace Australian roads, it’s meaningless unless you agree. Remember, it’s you that has to live with it.

Test drive

Take time to make up your own mind about a car including cabin comfort, performance levels, build quality, design, ergonomics, value and safety. Every driver has their own unique preferences and elements about a car that they prioritise. Make sure you decide what is most important to you before you hit the showrooms.

You don’t need to be an expert to know what works for you so don’t be swayed on your deal breakers, sweeteners and must-haves.

What Would WhichCar Do? A second opinion is always a good idea, which is why we get a third and a fourth. During a tenure at WhichCar, each car will be driven by several journalists and discussed. We would never take another opinion as gospel before establishing our own, and neither should you. Above all, a WhichCar review should be the start of your research, not the end.

It can be tempting to leapfrog all the steps above and take the most convenient trade-in option. If you’re time-poor or just daunted by the whole prospect, going the easiest route is what many people choose. But putting in the time and effort to test a broad range of options will ensure you have the right car on your driveway and complete peace of mind in your purchase.