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7 things to look for when test-driving a car

Car salesman opening door for customer getting into his brand new luxury car Photo by Seventyfour/stock.adobe.com

Consumers accustomed to buying everything from clothes to groceries with a few taps of their digital devices have little patience for the traditional car-buying rigmarole. So purchasing a car online is a dream come true for people who dread the gamesmanship and time required to make a face-to-face purchase in a dealer’s showroom.

Progressive dealerships understand this and had begun embracing online sales even before the pandemic. But COVID-19 put the trend in overdrive, as more and more folks wanted “contactless” transactions.

Many dealerships now have digital platforms that enable you to search inventory, negotiate price, choose financing, and make a trade-in, all from your sectional sofa. Dealers will even deliver the new car to your driveway. It’s brilliant, except for one thing: Avoiding the showroom often means sacrificing test- drives. A digital sale assumes that you know what you want.

Sure, most automaker websites allow you to configure a car with your desired features, options, and colors. The web is chockablock with new-car reviews describing a car’s performance and handling qualities. And websites such as safercar.gov or fueleconomy.gov provide crash-test and mileage ratings.

But some things you need to judge for yourself on a test-drive—before you commit to paying tens of thousands of dollars:

1. Seat comfort

Is the driver’s seat comfy enough for a road trip? If the seat lacks adequate thigh or low-back support, you might become awfully cranky after a few hours behind the wheel. And how about the passenger seats?

2. Ride quality

Is the ride too hard or too soft? Engineers speak of the “ride/handling compromise.” Sporty handling often comes at the expense of a cushy ride. But a soft ride can mean lots of body lean when rounding corners. As Goldilocks might say, the ride should be “just right” for you.

3. Ingress and egress

Can you get in and out easily? This is an especially important question when it comes to tall pickup trucks and larger SUVs. Or to low-slung sports cars, for that matter.

4. Visibility

Can you see the world outside from the driver’s seat? Contemporary automotive styling often assumes that a rearview camera compensates for good backward vision. A maze of head restraints in three-row SUVs also may block rear vision.

5. Noise

Does the car’s insulation keep out tiresome road, wind, and engine noise? The only way to know is to drive it on a variety of roads you frequent.

6. Controls

Are they easy to locate and use? This is particularly pertinent to infotainment systems. Some seem to be the devil’s handiwork, requiring you to scroll through multiple menus to use navigation or even to tune in a radio station.

7. Connectivity

Can you easily pair your phone to the car’s infotainment system? In its consumer surveys, J.D. Power finds that phone-pairing and voice-recognition issues account for a high number of complaints among new-car buyers.

If you’re determined to avoid the dealership, a dealer might bring a car to your home for a test-drive. Hyundai even has an app for this, though not all Hyundai dealers participate. AutoNation dealers’ Store-to-Door program allows a test-drive from your home before you sign final documents. But you must first settle the sales terms and secure financing.

Most likely, you’ll have to get off your sofa and go to a dealership for a test-drive—but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Digital disruption has changed much of how we live, but a virtual test-drive has yet to be invented that’s a suitable substitute for the real thing. 

AAA Automotive Correspondent Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than four decades.

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