Buying a Car: Test Drive Like a Pro

Buying a Car Test drive like a pro

Photo courtesy of jaguarmena

If you’ve followed along with the entire series, you should now know exactly what car you want to buy, how much you want to pay for it, how you want to pay for it, and you will even have already negotiated an initial price with the dealer through email.

So you’ve done most of the heavy lifting, and now it’s time to get on the lot and take those suckers for a test drive.

Today we’ll talk about some of the important things to keep in mind as you try to evaluate whether the specific car you’re looking at is the one you want to bring home.

CLICK HERE to get the entire 6-part guide.

Decide which cars to go see

One of the biggest benefits of the email negotiation process I described in last week’s post is that you’ll now have a long list of “best offers” from all of the dealers in your area. Since you also used my Car Cost Comparison worksheet, you also have an apples-to-apples comparison of cost across all of your different options, no matter how new or used each option is. This lets you pick and choose which dealers you actually want to visit based on which ones have best met your criteria, rather than randomly picking a few dealers and simply hoping they have what you want.

You should plan on checking out at least three different vehicles, especially if you’re looking at used cars. There are two reasons for this:

  1. There’s still room to negotiate the final price and having options will allow you to play one dealer against the other. This will help you drive the price even lower.
  2. With used cars, the variability in condition and feel when driving can be big, even when you’re talking about the same vehicle from the same year with a similar number of miles. It’s hard to really get a sense of this unless you actually drive a few different cars.

Working with the dealer

To this point, all of your contact with the dealer has been through email. That has kept most of the power in your hands. Now that you’re on the lot you’re on their home turf and you need to be ready for the onslaught.

Here are some things you want to do in this initial visit:

  1. Show interest in the vehicle. This will let the dealer know you’re serious and will get them in the mood to make a deal. Note that this is different from saying you definitely want the car (see below).
  2. If you’re looking at a used car, ask for a car fax. Any reputable dealer will have this for you without a fee. The report isn’t perfect, but it gives a decent idea of the car’s history and should alert you to any big red flags, such as a total loss or a theft.
  3. Again for used cars, ask the dealer about the previous owner(s). Ask them where they lived, how they drove the car, why they sold it to the dealer, etc. They may not have all of this information, but what they do or don’t tell you may be helpful.
  4. Let them know that you are looking at several different cars from other dealers as well. You want them to know there’s competition. If you can have “another appointment” already scheduled immediately after the one you’re at (whether you actually do or don’t), even better.

Here are some things you don’t want to do:

  1. Tell the dealer that “this is the car for you”. You want them to know you’re interested but certainly not committed. They still have to work for your business.
  2. Feel like you have to buy during this visit or the opportunity will be gone.
  3. Let the dealer talk you into features or other cars you already decided weren’t important to you. If you did the work in Part 3 of this series, you came to the dealer with a crystal clear understanding of what you want. Don’t let them upsell you on something else.
  4. Talk about price or payment options until the end of the visit, and only then if you’re absolutely sure that this is a car you would be comfortable buying today. Otherwise, tell them you’re interested (or not, if that’s the case), but that you’re still evaluating your options and will be back in touch.

Test all the features in the lot

Remember when you spent all that time deciding on what specific features were important to you? Well now is the time to make sure the car you’re looking at actually fits the bill.

For us and our expanding family, the primary things we cared about were space and ease of use with kids in mind. So we sat in the front seats and made sure everything was comfortable and the important buttons were in reach. We strapped our biggest car seat in to make sure it fit with plenty of room for other people. We played with the levers that moved the seats around, making sure it would be easy to get people and things in and out. We sat in the middle and the back, with the seats adjusted to different positions, to see how much space there really was. We tested the ability to fold down the back seats to create a bigger cargo area. In short, we made sure that it could do all of the things we really cared about it doing.

Once you’ve made sure it has everything you need, make sure the things you don’t need still work. Check the power seats. Turn the radio on and change channels. Try to play a DVD. Whatever the car has, test it out. If you find something that’s broken, it might matter to you. And even if it doesn’t you can ask the dealer to fix it or use it as a bargaining chip to drive the price even lower.

Take it for a real test drive

You have every right to take the car on a real test drive to get a feel how for it drives in different conditions. Take it down some small streets to see how it handles slow speeds with frequent stops and turns. Take it into a parking lot to see how it parks, how it feels in reverse, and how it navigates tighter spaces. Take it on the highway so you can feel it accelerate, change lanes and get up to higher speeds. Basically, you want to test it out in the common kinds of conditions you would be using it for in your daily life.

As you’re driving it you want to basically take note of how the car feels. Does it drive smoothly? Does it brake well? Can you see out of the car alright? Are there any blind spots? Do you feel comfortable working the windshield wipers, AC, turn signals, etc.? Are there any weird noises or rattles, especially as you brake or drive at higher speeds? Does anything at all feel off?

If there’s anything at all that makes you question the vehicle, make sure you note it. I certainly don’t meant to imply that any little rattle means the car is a dud, but you want to follow up on it and make sure you’re comfortable with whatever it is. This is one place where it pays to be a little paranoid.

The salesman may or may not come on the test drive with you. If they do, they’ll probably try to spend most of the time explaining the different features of the vehicle and telling you how great it is. Politely tell them that while you appreciate the input, you’d like to focus on driving the car and would appreciate it if they could hold their thoughts until after the drive. You don’t want to let their talking distract you from the real task of evaluating the feel of the car.

If you want some more detailed advice on how to take a test drive, you can check out the resources here and here.

Take it to an expert

If you’re looking at used cars and you find one you really like, I would highly recommend taking it to a trusted mechanic to have them check it out. Even if you know your way around a car it can absolutely be worth a second opinion, and it can be a pretty cheap and quick process. For $40, my mechanic took a car I was looking at for a test drive with me and noticed that the car was rattling just a little bit when we got on the highway, indicating that the tires needed to be balanced. He then did a full inspection and found it to be in good condition. The whole thing took less than an hour.

In my opinion, this was $40 incredibly well spent. Besides needing a tire re-balance (which I then asked the dealer to handle), it gave me peace of mind that I wasn’t buying a lemon. And if he HAD found something seriously wrong with it, I would have been saved potentially hundreds or even thousands of dollars in maintenance costs, or maybe even the cost of replacing the entire vehicle. With that kind of outcome in play, the $40 and one hour were small investments to make.

Trust your gut

A car is a big purchase. Depending on what end of the price spectrum you’re going for, it’s one of the biggest purchases you will make in your lifetime. For my wife and I, it was the biggest purchase we’ve ever made.

With that in mind, you have to make a decision that fits all of your rational reasons for buying a car (e.g. practicality, affordability, etc.), but you also have to make a decision that simply feels good to you. You don’t want to spend thousands of dollars to drive off the lot with something you’re nervous or unsure about, even if it meets your primary criteria. It’s just not worth it.

To give you an example, one of the first cars we looked at was a barely-used Honda Odyssey at a great price. Across all of the different offers we had collected to that point, this was easily the best deal. So we went to check it out and the very first thing we noticed was a big scratch along one of the sides. And then we opened the trunk and there were scratches all along the rear inside paneling. And in the front dashboard one of the electrical sockets was missing. Now, everything else about the car seemed great. It drove fine, the price was good, and those things were objectively pretty cosmetic. But the car only had about 25,000 miles on it and the fact that it had those issues from such a short ownership period made us really question how well the previous owner had taken care of it. In the end, we simply weren’t comfortable with the vehicle and passed it up, even though it was the best deal we had seen.

Do as much as you can to be objective about your decision, but in the end you have to feel good about driving the car off the lot. If you can’t get there with a certain vehicle, you should probably pass on it and look for one where you can.

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  • DC @ Young Adult Money September 30, 2013

    These are some really solid tips, Matt. I have only bought one car in my life and now that I’m looking at getting another one I do feel a bit “rusty” about the whole experience – especially test driving and whatnot – so this post had some good reminders.

  • Alexa Mason September 30, 2013

    When I bought my last car I test drove a few. I definitely went with my guy. The first couple I drove looked nice but drove really shakey. When I finally found the one it was super smooth on the road and seemed like a perfect family car.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      Different cars can absolutely have really different feels. We tested out a few that didn’t feel great too and there’s just such a difference when you find one you like.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer September 30, 2013

    Love the thoroughness again here, Matt. A small e-book may be in order for you? Great tip too, about test driving at several cars. The last time we car shopped, we looked at 2 different cars, same make and model, and they felt and drove completely different from one another. This is why test driving several cars is so important.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      Hmm, I like the e-book idea! I’ll have to give that some thought. Thanks for the idea Laurie!

  • Holly Johnson September 30, 2013

    I remember when we test drove Greg’s Prius for the first time. It was super quiet and we couldn’t even tell if it was running or not.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      Some of the taxis in Boston are hybrids and I remember getting in one for the first time and being really weirded out that it wasn’t making any noise. It’s a totally different experience for sure.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules September 30, 2013

    Very solid tips Matt! I think a key, when you’re looking at a used car, is to take it to a mechanic and one you trust. I think we spent $50 and it was well worth the money spent. He was able to tell us so much more than what we knew about the car and helped us negotiate the price even better.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      Having the mechanic’s blessing was definitely a big factor for us, especially since we know very little about the mechanical side of things. It’s such a small expense when compared to the amount of money you’re shelling out for the car, and the value is huge.

  • Andrew September 30, 2013

    Good tips…and I agree with Laurie…very thorough! Good idea with bringing the car seat to test out how much space there is…you brought the whole family too? I think bringing a mechanic is an excellent idea…and $40 is definitely worth it.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      It was just me, my wife and our son. My wife and I just sat in different parts of the car and moved things around enough to feel like it had the space we needed. And of course our son was instrumental in making sure the drive was smooth in the back, haha.

  • Done by Forty September 30, 2013

    Taking the car to a mechanic is my favorite tip of the bunch. While there is a lot that the individual consumer can do to prepare prior to a purchase, there are going to be things that a mechanic will notice (& determine the severity of) that would slip by my untrained eye.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      Exactly. Even if you’re mechanically inclined (and we certainly are not) I think it’s a good call. Might as well get a second opinion.

  • Tonya September 30, 2013

    I remember when I was looking for a car in the past and really had my sights set on a particular vehicle…till I test drove and felt too short behind the wheel, or didn’t like the instrument panel placement. Test driving is something I need to think about doing next year so I can get a general idea of what I’m looking for.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      That’s a good call Tonya. We did a couple of test drives before we got really serious just to get a better idea of what we liked. It’s nice to be able to go in when you don’t feel any pressure to make a deal and just focus on figuring out what you might want. Definitely worth doing before you have to.

  • Shannon Ryan September 30, 2013

    Great post, Matt. The test drive is so important. Anything can be made to sound good on paper but when you take it out for a spin, you really get a sense of how it drives and if it fits you right. 🙂 That’s smart bringing your car seat to make sure it fit comfortably and taking the time to reconfigure the seating to make sure it had the space you wanted too. I know you and your wife plan to have a large family so you definitely want to be sure it can fit your growing family!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      Exactly. We checked out the Mazda minivan, which was significantly cheaper than the Honda and Toyota but it was also a lot smaller. That might work for some people, but it really defeated the purpose for us. It would have been hard to know that if we hadn’t really tested it out.

  • AvgJoeMoney September 30, 2013

    Had you felt good about the car I would have advised you to take it to a trusted mechanic to look at it. I’ve had a couple of deals like yours above and in one case saved myself from a nightmare, and with the other I scored a big value because others couldn’t see past the cosmetic damage. The cool part was that during my negotiation I was able to use the cosmetic damage to get a lower price, too.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      We definitely would have if we didn’t get such a bad vibe from it from the start. I’m not going to argue that it was the most rational or objective decision in the world, but I think with a purchase this big you have to be comfortable. We did take the car we eventually ended up purchasing to the mechanic and that was a huge help.

  • Jacob @ iHeartBudgets September 30, 2013

    Taking to an expert is key. You can’t know everything, and having a professional who looks at cars 8-10 hours a day for the past few years, they are going to find something you didn’t. Plus, they know the reliability of certain brands, and maybe even your exact choice, so there’s no selling short how important this step it. Great writeup and tips Matt.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      Totally agree. I wouldn’t have been anywhere near as comfortable or confident in the purchase without that step.

  • krantcents September 30, 2013

    In any negotiation, I try to find a way to get the seller to give me the best price. Car dealers are the toughest sellers! I try to use the fleet manger or some other way to get leverage. Last time I used a car broker friend.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      I would imagine that having a friend in the business would definitely help you get a good deal. Any advantage you can get is absolutely worth it with a purchase this big.

  • Brian @ Luke1428 September 30, 2013

    When we did the email negotiation thing we ended up securing an out of state deal that saved us thousands. Taking a day trip to a smaller market several hours away was worth the drive.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 30, 2013

      Nice! That’s something I looked into a little bit but after not finding a good deal quickly just focused my search more locally. But I’ve heard about other people getting a great deal doing the same thing, so it’s definitely a helpful tip.

  • Suburban Finance October 1, 2013

    I’m so glad that my car worked out so well, because I hardly even tested it out. I drove it for maybe 5 minutes.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney October 1, 2013

      Oh wow, yeah that was definitely a little lucky! Or maybe you just have some crazy Jedi car skills.

  • Edward - Entry Level Dilemma October 1, 2013

    Carfax is a chicken and egg problem. A reputable dealer will provide one without a fee, but a reputable dealer won’t sell a car with the kinds of things that show up on it! Meanwhile, a carfax won’t show mechanical problems, which are usually what is going to make or break the car anyway.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney October 1, 2013

      Totally agree. It’s far from perfect and it definitely won’t tell you that the car is a good one, but it’s nice to see a clean history. If they can’t at least give you that, it’s time to have some real doubts. But the mechanical side of things is certainly a whole other issue, which is why I took the car to a trusted mechanic.

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup October 1, 2013

    Great article Matt. I always test drive the cars I am about to buy. I have a keen sense of sounds and feel when I am driving a car. I also look closely at the wear of certain parts and if oil is leaking from any location.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney October 1, 2013

      Oh, good call on the oil. That actually is something I checked but forgot to mention, though I’m guessing the mechanic looked at that as well. Do you get a second opinion before you make a purchase or are you at the point where you trust yourself enough to make the call alone?

      • Grayson @ Debt Roundup October 1, 2013

        It really depends on the situation. I have a lot of confidence in my ability, but I can only find out so much without have diagnostic equipment and a lift. I will take it in if I have any doubts.

  • Kyle James October 1, 2013

    I love the tip of telling the salesman to clam up while on the test drive. I didn’t do that last time and wish I had because he kept jabbering on and on and was totally distracting.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney October 1, 2013

      Oh yeah, they’ll talk your ear off if you let them and it totally gets your focus off paying attention to the way the car feels and sounds. They can save their spiel for later.

  • Tie the Money Knot October 1, 2013

    Great tips here. I really like the idea of not only test driving, but also testing other features while in the lot. No need to be shy here, no matter how the salesperson might not like it or how they may rush you. Cars are a big outlay of funds, and it makes sense to do what needs to be done to check things out until you feel comfortable with the information at hand.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney October 2, 2013

      Exactly. You have every right to take your time and test just about anything you want.

  • MoneySmartGuides October 2, 2013

    Great tips! I always go through everything with a new car. I look around and play around with buttons and knobs to make sure everything makes sense to me and feels as though it is in the right place. Then when I drive it, I drive fast, brake hard, drive slow, brake slow, etc. There is no point in taking the car for a short little spin around the block. You will have no idea how the car handles or performs. I always say, take a test drive like you normally drive. Don’t worry if the salesman is sitting there. If he wants the sale, he’ll let you drive the car as you normally do.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney October 2, 2013

      Yep, they’ll let you drive it like you want (within reason) but you might have to ask. My first test drive the guy just took me around the block and if I hadn’t asked for more that would have been it. And like you say, that’s absolutely not enough to make any kind of real judgment.

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