Here’s how to make the most of your limited time behind the wheel.

Despite the average new vehicle selling for well over $30,000 these days, surveys show that at least one out of every five car shoppers skip the all-important test drive, and only about a third give more than one model they’re considering a spin. Analysts credit this to the prevalence of online research and shopping, combined with a general distain for the traditional car buying process, but unlike buying a pair of shoes, you can't return a car or truck a week or two later for a full refund because it doesn’t fit properly.

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To be sure, test driving a vehicle to ensure it indeed “fits” is a vital part of making what, for most of us, is the costliest transactions we’ll enter into, next to buying a home or funding a college education. Unfortunately, the process often comes down to a harried 10-minute driving loop in traffic behind the wheel of a model you’ve never driven, with a salesperson sitting in the passenger’s seat chatting away at a mile a minute.

Here’s eight steps to ensuring you’ll make the most of your limited time behind the wheel to “try on” a new car or truck before signing on the proverbial dotted line.

1. Rent A Car.

The least-harrowing way to give a vehicle under your consideration a thorough test is to rent a version of that particular model (if it’s available) from a local rental car agency for a day or two to see what it would be like to actually live with one. This can, at the least, give you a general idea of how a given model drives and whether or not it meets your needs. The downside is that rental fleets are usually populated by spartanly equipped models that may not come with the particular mechanical components and/or amenities you desire.

2. Test The "Right" Version.

When it comes time to take a test drive at the dealership, ensure the car or truck you’ll be piloting is the one you intend to purchase (or is as close to it as possible). Various trim levels within a given model line may come equipped with a more powerful engine, upgraded mechanical components, different seats, and/or added features. For example, the “sporty” version of a given model might pack a stiffer suspension and lower-profile tires that will handle quicker through the turns, but will also afford a rougher – and louder – ride in the process. Or it may come with seats that are designed more for lateral support through the curves than for freeway-driving comfort. What’s more, higher trim levels may include more-advanced infotainment technology that, if you’re not technically oriented, may prove confounding to operate.

3. Start With A Visual Inspection.

No matter how stressful buying a car may be to you, this is not a process to be rushed, so be sure to take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the vehicle before driving it off the lot. Pay attention to everything you see and touch. Would the doors and trunk be easy to open with your hands full of grocery bags? Does the keyless entry system work smoothly and intuitively? Examine the quality of the interior plastics and fabrics. Cheaper plastics are more likely to rattle and look and feel, well, cheap. Two-tone interior treatments can cause glare when reflected onto the inside of the windshield in bright sunlight. Make sure storage areas, cupholders, and cubbies are located within reach are sufficient for your needs. Check to see if there’s sufficient leg- and headroom in the back seat and whether the rear doors (if so equipped) open wide enough to afford easy ingress and egress. Open the trunk or rear hatch to see that cargo space is sufficient and the spare tire (if there is one) is readily accessible.

4. Take A Seat.

Now settle in and assume your position behind the wheel. Note how easy or difficult is it to enter, given the shape of the door and position of the seat and steering wheel. Buckle the seatbelt and adjust the driver’s seat, tilt steering wheel, and both rear and side mirrors to provide an upright driving position. Does the seat offer proper lower-back and lateral support?  Does the shoulder belt cut into your neck (if so, check for a belt-height adjustment at the door pillar)?  Do your feet reach the pedals comfortably and is the steering wheel too close or too far away from you? Make sure you can see the instruments clearly and that all the necessary controls come readily to hand without having to reach across the dashboard? 

5. Fiddle With The Controls.

Complaints regarding balky entertainment and navigation systems have sent new-car reliability ratings in a downward spiral the last few years, as automakers struggle to incorporate additional high-tech systems into increasingly crowded dashboards. Take a few minutes to give the vehicle’s infotainment system a spin – while still parked, of course – and don’t hesitate to ask the salesperson questions about how it works. Change radio stations and media sources, try pairing your cell phone via Bluetooth, and enter a destination into the vehicle’s navigation system (if it’s so equipped). Check to see whether you can see the display clearly enough in bright sunlight, and how easy or difficult touchscreen commands or other controls are to execute, especially when trying to keep your eyes on the road. Give controls mounted on the steering wheel and/or steering column stalks a thorough test to see how easily and intuitive they are to locate and operate, again while still paying attention to driving. If the car is equipped with voice commands for certain functions, ensure the system both recognizes your voice (some have problems with accents and other anomalies) and operates logically; some can understand conversational commands, like “play Q101,” while others require a verbal chain of commands, like “audio system, change radio station, FM 101.3.”

6. Hit The Road.

Now comes the most important part of the process, the actual driving part of the test drive. Feel free to push the vehicle a bit to test its limits, but don’t take undue risks or pretend to be the second coming of Dale Earnhardt to impress the salesperson with your driving prowess. Turn the key or press the start button and pay close attention to what happens. The engine should turn over quickly and without undue vibrations or unpleasant mechanical noises. Is the exhaust note too loud or harsh for your tastes? Put the car into gear and drive onto the street. Accelerate with authority as you merge into traffic, and get a feel for how smoothly the car gets up to speed, and whether exhaust, road, and tire noises become intrusive. If possible, give the vehicle a run at higher speeds on the highway.

If the car is equipped with a manual transmission, pay attention to how much effort is involved taking it through the gears, and how much clutch pressure and/or travel is necessary. If it’s a conventional automatic, note how smoothly (or busily) the transmission shifts gears, and whether it downshifts properly when added acceleration is required. If the car comes with a CVT (it stands for continuously variable transmission and uses a belt and set of pulleys instead of gears), check to see whether it sounds and feels overly harsh at mid-to-full throttle.

7. Feel The Corners, Bumps, And Brakes.

Be sure to find some curves in the road, twisting on/off ramps, and lower-speed cornering to get a feel for the vehicle’s handling prowess, and simulate emergency handling maneuvers, at least within reason. Ideally, the car’s handling should be well balanced through the curves, with the suspension absorbing much of the lateral G-forces. Be sure to hit some bumps along the way to see how smoothly or harshly the car behaves over less-than-pristine pavement. If you’re more of a passive motorist, you’ll probably prefer a model with easygoing steering and a suspension that absorbs every jolt, while more enthusiastic drivers usually look for a model that features more tenacious handling abilities, though as noted above, this usually comes at the expense of a rougher ride via stiffer suspension components and harder-compound tires used as a necessary trade-off. If the vehicle is equipped with selectable driving modes to afford sportier or more comfort-oriented ride, handling, and acceleration attributes, try each setting to see which, if any, you prefer.

Pay close attention to the vehicle’s braking abilities, both at lower and higher speeds, and in (simulated) emergency situations when the vehicle’s brake-assist system will automatically engage full braking force. Does the car slow steadily and confidently or do the brakes “fade” uncomfortably, thus forcing you to apply added pressure on the pedal as the car comes to a stop? If the car comes with an automatic stop-start system that shuts down the engine when the car is at a stop light or is otherwise at idle to save fuel, check to see how smoothly or intrusively it operates (and whether it can be easily switched off in the latter case).

8. Park The Car.

Rather than just drive the car or truck you're testing back onto the dealer’s lot at the end of your drive, park the car at the curb. Note the ease or difficulty of low-speed steering and the tightness of the car’s turning radius. Pay attention to your outward visibility to ensure you can you find the front, rear, and the corners of the vehicle easily. Is the rear window too narrow to afford a proper rear view, or are the windshield pillars thick enough to create blind spots? Even as you exit the car or truck, think closely about its many details and subtleties, and don’t afraid to nit-pick. Minor quibbles you will notice at this point could translate into major annoyances down the road.

Again, unlike that pair of ill-fitting shoes you bought online, you won’t be able to ship the car back to the dealership for a refund if you’re ultimately unsatisfied with it.

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