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The Secret of a Test Drive
By T.J.Cobb

The test drive is one of the most time-honored of American car-buying traditions-and also one that gets far less attention that it should. Most test drives are little more than a preamble to going back inside the dealership and signing the contract.

This suits sales consultants just fine, but it shouldn't suit you. It goes almost without saying that your new car, truck, minivan or sport-utility is going to account for a substantial chunk of your monthly outgo. So you'd be pretty unhappy if the car of your dreams turned out to be a bundle of irritating quirks and unforeseen shortfalls.

A thorough test drive doesn't necessarily guarantee that your ownership will be unmitigated bliss. But it can help you avoid disappointing little surprises.

You've been attracted by some combination of styling, features, price and image. Now it's time to find out if the image measures up to reality.


Set 1

Selections
Even though you may have been seduced by what you've seen, read and heard about a particular vehicle, it's a mistake to limit your test-driving to just that one. Develop a list of two or three alternatives in the same general size and price range. The idea here is to see how your favorite compares to some of its key competitors. That's why it's important to confine your alternatives to vehicles of the same type. You won't get much comparison value from a list that includes, say, a sedan, a couple of coupes and a sport-utility.

Shopping lists like that are common these days. Thanks to our new love affair with trucks, we find ourselves cross-shopping different vehicle types, as well as price segments. If that's true for you, the process will just take a little more time. One approach is to take a short spin in the different types to narrow the field to one. Then you can work up the list of alternatives and go from there.

You may be surprised by the results, and drive home in a new vehicle that was an also-ran in your original thinking. At the very least you'll have a much better idea of how your choice stacks up versus the competition, and know that you've made the best choice in terms of your budget and priorities.


Set 2

The Dealership
Once you've purchased your new vehicle, you're probably going to be returning to the dealership at intervals for service and perhaps adjustments. So before you get down to the definitive test drive of the vehicle, it's a good idea to test drive the dealership first.

Here are some suggestions.

What's the reputation of this dealership? You can check with friends who may have had some experience with the store, and your local Better Business Bureau may have a file on it if it's been guilty of sharp practices.

What's your impression of the sales staff? Do the consultants really know the products? Do you get the impression that they really want to put you in the vehicle that's right for your needs? Or do they just want to sign you up with something that's not quite right and move on to the next customer?

Cruise the service department. What does it look like? Neat, clean, well-organized? Or? Do the service representatives seem genuninely concerned with making customers happy? Check with some of the folks waiting to pick up their cars. Do any of them have horror stories? If you hear more than one litany of frustration, or bad reports from the Better Business Bureau, you might want to think about going to another store, even if it's not conveniently located.


Set 2

The Drive
The critical element here is taking your time. The sales consultant may want to hustle you through a short course that consists of a few blocks, which won't really give you much information beyond the car's ability to move under its own power. Try to spend at least 20 minutes with the vehicle, and don't be afraid to come back for more than one drive. It may be their time, but it's your money. Try to make sure your route includes some freeway, as well as surface streets.

Here's a short test drive checklist.

Quality. Walk around some of the vehicles in the showroom and check the quality of the paint and assembly. Are the seams straight and uniform? Do exterior trim panels match up precisely? Does the paint have "orange peel"-a slight pebbling on the surface? Give the same eyeball test to interior fit and finish as well.

Adjustability. Before you drive, get in the vehicle and see how it fits you. Once you've got it adjusted to your preferred driving position, check the relationship between the pedals, seat, steering wheel and shifter. Can you adjust everything exactly as you like it, or do you have to make compromises? Can you reach and adjust all the controls easily? Are the gauges easy to read?

Roominess. Get in the back seat. Is there enough room back there for adult passengers? If you're shopping small sport coupes, the answer is likely to be no, and the same applies, to a lesser extent, to small sedans. However, far too many new car buyers sign on the dotted line and then complain for several years about the lack of rear seat space. It takes only two or three minutes to find out what you're dealing with back there, and it's one of the contrasts that could move you into one of your alternate choices.

Engine response. Be sure you're driving a vehicle equipped with the powertrain you want in your own car. Is acceleration satisfactory to you? How about 50- to 70-mph passing response? Does the engine produce uniform power across its rpm range, or only at higher engine speeds? Obviously, it's important to drive competing vehicles to develop a sense of perspective in this and subsequent test drive categories.

Transmission. If your choice has a manual transmission, check the action of the shifter. Is it stiff? Vague? Does the clutch engage smoothly, or is it tricky? If the vehicle is a sport-utility with 4-wheel drive and a separate shifter for the transfer case, check the action of this feature. If it's an automatic, check the kickdown for extra passing power by pushing the throttle down hard. Is it slow to respond? Does the transmission "hunt" between gears on uphills? How does it compare with competitors?

Noise. Most new vehicles sound quite civilized at urban speeds, but what happens when you apply full throttle? How are the engine and wind noise levels at highway speeds? Will the interior noise level be satisfactory over the long haul? Compare and contrast.

Handling. It's hard to get a definitive idea of how a car responds to quick maneuvers in a short drive. That's why it's important to make contrasts with other vehicles. But you can make a couple of basic tests. Hurry the car around a couple of corners to check body roll. Try some abrupt lane change maneuvers, to gauge responsiveness. Does the car change directions quickly? Is there undulating or wallowing as you make your maneuvers? A car that's slow to respond may not be your best ally when you're trying to avoid an accident.

Braking. Try at least two or three really hard stops. Does the front end dive excessively? Is directional control good, or does the car skew to one side or the other? If the car has antilock brakes, try braking hard and maneuvering at the same time. When you stamp hard on the brake pedal, you'll probably feel some pulsing, which tells you the system is working. Pronounced pulsing, however, tells you that the test vehicle's ABS system may not be quite as advanced as some others.

Ride quality. This is a very subjective area, but trust the seat of your pants. If the ride seems extra firm, and small bumps transmit sharp little jolts through the wheel and seat, it may be too stiff for your all-around comfort. Keep asking yourself the key question: Is this something I want to live with on a daily basis for several years?

That's a relatively short checklist, but it covers a lot of ground. Again, the more time you can spend putting the vehicle through its paces, the more likely it is that you'll be satisfied with your purchase.