From the spotless leather seats to the smell of a new car, most of us approach test drives with the excitement of a first date. The potential problem? When we get caught up in the romance and possibility, we sometimes forget we’re really searching for a long-term partner.
I asked our Car Enthusiasts, who help people take new rides for a spin every day, what advice they give customers most. The response was unanimous: the trick is to find your own perfect balance between performance, reliability and practicality. In addition to testing the sound system or the way a sports car hugs curves on mountain roads, pay attention to the less sexy signs that the car is right for your particular needs and lifestyle.
Here, our top tips for a successful, stress-free test drive:
Do (a little) homework
Normally, when buying a used car, you’ll need to arm yourself with heavy research and a dose of skepticism before the keys are in your hand. What’s this particular car’s service history? Does it have a clean Carfax report? Are there signs of an unreported accident? Shift’s 150-point inspection and transparent profiles save you these steps so you can focus on making sure the particular make and model you’re considering is right for you. But we do recommend scanning online forums to find out more about the model and reading the Shift listing carefully to be sure the specific car you’re eyeing has the engine, transmission and other important options that you want.
Re-create your daily routine
A prime advantage of taking a test drive at home is the opportunity to test how a car fits with the particulars of your daily life. If you have a driveway, make sure you won’t scrape the bottom as you pull in (more attention to aerodynamics, especially in hybrids and sports cars, means that cars generally have less ground clearance than in the past). Likewise, if you park in a snug garage, double check that you can open the doors enough to easily get out of the car. Live on a narrow street? Be sure to try a U-turn, then parallel park. And if you generally sit in traffic during a morning commute, try to schedule your test drive during a similarly congested hour.
Consider your passengers
During the test drive, be sure to toss the keys to your Car Enthusiast and take a spin in the passenger seat. Or, better yet, go pick up your significant other so you can take turns riding shotgun. If you have kids or pets, make sure the car will work for them, too. Have toddlers in your present or future? Be sure you can get the carseat in without throwing out your back. Teenagers? Think about whether or not they can fit in the backseat without fighting — if they’re cramped now, you may soon find their growing legs digging into your back.
And your appetite for bells and whistles
When it comes to options, think about whether you prefer something simple and intuitive or all the latest features. Does a back-up camera matter when you’re parking? Are you dying for a power liftgate? How about GPS navigation? Electronics are also becoming more important with every model year. Sync up your phone with the entertainment system, listen to a playlist, make a few calls. Everything should work easily and intuitively, especially if you make a lot of hands-free calls or depend on music to break the monotony of a long commute.
At some point, turn off the stereo and listen to the car. Is that gruff exhaust note going to turn grating after the novelty wears off? Can you really get comfortable in the seat? Can you see and reach all the controls? Do you have clear visibility of the road ahead (and behind) you? Notice how the car responds against the pavement on both city streets and mountain roads. Many people buy cars based on recommendations from friends or family members, but it’s important that the vehicle feel right for you. Overall, ask yourself, “Is this something I’d be happy to sit in and drive every single day?”
While it’s important to approach a test drive thoughtfully, the experience shouldn’t leave you tied up in knots. Relax, get comfortable and have fun. Remember: there’s no pressure to make a quick decision and your Car Enthusiast is there to help you find the car that fits your lifestyle. Plus, you have seven days or 250 miles to return your Shift car if you find yourself having second thoughts … or cold feet.
Kevin Chen is the Assistant General Manager at Shift. He started buying and selling cars at the age of 16 and has spent too many hours on Craigslist since. He currently drives an Audi R8 and is searching for a Jeep Wrangler for weekend getaways.