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Test Drives and Dealerships: Evaluating New Cars

Maybe it’s the flashy neon sign out in front, or the overanxious guy who grabs you before you can get out of your car. Whatever the reason, nearly all of us feel uncomfortable when we visit a new car dealer. And rightly so. Especially if we’re a minority (and that includes being a woman, oddly enough, given that we make up over 51% of the population).

Years ago, the American Bar Association released a study announcing that married white men get the best deal when buying a new car and black men the worst. The study also indicated that white women fare better than black women when negotiating for a new vehicle. We know this attitude is changing, but it’s still true: people’s looks have a lot to do with the deal they get at a new car dealership.

Most car buyers are on the defensive when they enter a dealer showroom because they are unprepared and they are fearful of what will happen. Will they be roped into buying something they don’t want? Will they pay too much?

We can’t say it enough. Knowledge is power and preparation is everything when buying a new car. You are the customer. You are in control. Here are some specific suggestions to make your dealership experience rewarding — and maybe even fun!

  • When you enter the showroom, look like you’re ready to do business. Don’t bring all your information in with you, though. While it is ok to carry a small amount of note paper, a test drive form or two and a pen, if you carrying lots of papers, you’ll be pegged as a shopper, not a buyer, and not be treated seriously. Convey confidence and knowledge with your manner. If, after the test drive, you are ready to wheel and deal, go out to your car and get your notebook with all the things you’ve gathered along the way so you’re to get exactly what you want in the car you’re negotiating.
  • Don’t go car shopping unless you have enough time. You’ll need at least three hours per dealership — and make those daylight hours, if you can (better to see the cars). Don’t bring children or someone not involved in the purchase. They’ll lose patience. Fewer people asking questions means less confusion and the salesperson’s focus can remain on you.
  • Dress like you’re going to a business meeting, not a rock concert. Purchasing a car is a business decision. Don’t wear your good Christian Dior suit, however. You don’t want to look like you can afford a Rolls Royce, even if you can. If you look too moneyed, the salesperson will assume you don’t need a good deal and won’t bargain much. On the other hand, if you come in rags, he or she won’t take you seriously. Throw your shoulders back, put a smile on your face and indicate a willingness to discuss the possibility of doing business.
  • Ask as many questions as you need to, but expect questions from the salesperson, too. Be prepared to share some financial information and be articulate and firm about your needs. Remember, this is a business deal and good communication is key to making it a success. Be comfortable with your salesperson. If you’re not, don’t hesitate to ask the manager if you can work with someone else.
  • Whatever you do — DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING THAT ALLOWS THE DEALERS TO CHECK YOUR CREDIT UNTIL YOU ARE READY TO BUY A SPECIFIC CAR. This happens when they first sit down with you (before your test drive) and take an inventory of your needs. That form sometimes has fine print permitting a credit check. This is done to see if you are worth bothering with. But lots of credit checks on your credit history looks bad. Only permit a credit check when you are ready to negotiate on a specific car, but not before.
  • Be sure you get a thorough demonstration of each car you are considering. The salesperson should explain all components of the car and the available options. Where is the hand brake? How do you adjust the side mirrors? Be curious about everything. How do you operate the audio controls located on the steering wheel of some cars? He or she should make it clear which features are optional and which are standard. If not, ask. Demand a complete description of all the safety features. Our “Which New Car Model is Right for You: Making the Intelligent Choice” details the safety features on today’s cars and their importance to life in the fast lane. Don’t accept a $5.00 presentation on a $30,000 car. If they talk too fast, ask them to repeat what they said or slow down.
  • Drive the car. A vehicle test drive is the only way to determine whether a car fits you and the way you drive. It allows you to feel the difference between similar products. Test driving a vehicle helps overcome the emotional effect created by a vehicle’s slick styling, the persuasive advertising that sold you earlier and the salesperson’s enthusiasm for the car (it is their job to “sell” you after all.) Face it, we get in our heads that we really want a particular car — it fits our image of ourself. But that “ideal car” may not, on close examination, fit or feel right.A woman we know wanted a Dodge Viper. She wanted it so badly, a team of wild horses couldn’t drag her from the idea. However, when she went to the dealer to order it, she test drove it and found it was terribly uncomfortable. The seat was designed for a man’s slender hips and she couldn’t reach the clutch. She could have elected to solve these problems with expensive add-ons, but then the price would have gone beyond what she was willing to spend. Sometimes we need to put our “dream car” into perspective.
  • Print out the New Car Buying Guide test drive forms provided with this article and take them with you. Feel free to take a digital or Polaroid camera along as well and take snaps of the car to jog your memory.

The test drive begins with your initial encounter with the vehicle rather than the drive itself. Consider these questions:

  • Is the car easy to get in and out of? How about the back seat? Who will have to sit back there and will they be comfortable? Two-door vehicles sometimes require an adult to be a contortionist to get into the back seat. If your rear passenger will be a small child, check to see if the vehicle offers an integrated child seat. Can you get your infant car seat in and out? Can you lift a sleeping child out of the seat? You’ll quickly see why two-door sporty cars don’t make good family cars.
  • Will the door handles catch and break your nails?
  • How heavy are the doors? Can you open them with one hand while juggling a grocery bag in the other?
  • How about trunk accessibility? Some trunks are very deep, forcing you to lift items over the back end of the car and down. Because of this, it can be a strain to put things in and take them out of the trunk. How about the trunk’s size? Will it hold those golf bags you tote every weekend?
  • Will the driver’s seat adjust to fit YOU? (Cars are NOT “one size fits all”) Even after adjusting, is the seat so high from the floor that it presses against the back of your knees cutting off the circulation in your legs? Conversely, is it so close to the floor that you can’t see out the windshield? (If you can, buy power-adjustable seats — at least for the driver. They offer a more accurate fit.) Will the seat be comfortable on a long haul? Does the shape of the back make it difficult for you to turn around to discipline the kids? How about the seat belt? Is it comfortable, or does it hit you in a bad spot, crush your breast or rub your neck? Many four-door sedans have an adjustable seat belt for driver and front passenger. Ask about that feature.
  • How about the pedals? Is the clutch on a manual transmission car easy to use? Is the brake close enough to the gas pedal to slip on and off readily? How close to the steering wheel do you have to sit in order to reach the brake and gas? (Short people can benefit from a device called the “pedal extender”. Ask the dealer about it, or go to an “after market” auto accessory store). Is there still room for the air bag to deploy? The recommended space between the center of the steering wheel and your chin should be at least 10-12 inches.
  • How about visibility? Does the vehicle give you a broad panorama of the road? Because of the structural design of some vehicles, there may be significant blind spots affecting overall visibility, especially “over-the-shoulder.” Your physical height determines whether or not these blind spots are a hazard.
  • Can you see the gauges on the dashboard with a quick glance? Does the steering wheel, in its proper position, obstruct anything? Besides the speedometer, you really need to be able to read the gauges (temperature, fuel, oil) while driving. If the vehicle you’re considering requires serious shifting, be sure to check the visibility of the tachometer. Some econo-cars have an indicator on the dashboard suggesting when to shift gears. Can you see that easily?
  • Can you easily reach the sound system controls? A frantic search for the AM/FM knob can have fatal results. Also, are those knobs or buttons easy on your nails? In some automaker design studios, male engineers are required to paste on fake nails or paper clips (as Cadillac did) when testing the controls.
  • The test drive should determine whether or not the car is able to handle YOUR driving style on the roads YOU drive. Be sure that you drive the vehicle for a long enough period of time to make a good assessment, and that the test drive is on terrain of your choice. Shoot for at least 20 minutes in any car you are seriously considering. If you need to drive it more than once to make a decision, do so. You can even go to a second dealership if you wish.

Here’s a list of what to do during the test drive:

  1. Take it on the freeway. How well does it merge into traffic?
  2. On a quiet street or in any empty parking lot, brake and steer hard at the same time to see how well the car will handle in an emergency and what the Antilock brakes feel like when engaged.
  3. Drive it where you live. Does it turn sharply enough for your driveway? Will it fit into your garage. What is the turning radius? Can you flip a U when you need to without backing up?
  4. Be sure your test drive includes a couple minutes with and without the A/C turned on to both test the power drain and to listen to the car. Air conditioning takes a lot of power from the car and it can hide sounds the car may be making. The same goes for the “incredible” stereo the salesperson is trying to have you listen to.
  5. Get some quiet time in the car. A talkative salesperson may get in the way of your analysis when you’re taking your test drive. Don’t be afraid to ask them to be quiet while you test the car. You can say something like, “let’s not talk for a minute, so I can listen to the engine.” Be sure you get the test drive YOU want. A quick spin around the block is not a test drive.
  6. Parallel park the car. Does it handle this maneuver well?
  7. Feel where the gears shift in cars with automatic transmission.
  8. Does the car lag (respond slowly) when you stand on the gas? This indicates that the car may not have enough power (too few horsepower) for your safety needs, such as getting on the freeway. However, a bit of lag is normal in a car with a Turbo Charged engine.
  9. Drive in traffic. Look through the mirrors and see where the blind spots are in the car. Are the blind spots too large or too many for your comfort?
  10. Take a photo of the car, if you plan to test drive a lot of them, so you can remember which make and model was which. (Remember that this will be a dead giveaway that you are shopping and not ready to buy).

After the test drive and before the salesperson has a chance to inundate you with questions and divert your attention, pull out your notebook or test drive form and make copious notes about how the car handled, how confident you felt behind the wheel, how comfortable you were, what the car sounded like and so on.

Take a break from the salesperson while you’re making these notes. Sit in the lobby. Get a cup of coffee or a soda. Don’t let anyone interrupt your thoughts or pressure you. Your notes need to be as complete as possible. It’s easy to be confused after you’ve driven several cars and you want to be sure you buy the one that’s right for you.

Remember, you can ask for time to think things over at any point in the buying process. It is vital that you stay in control. Walk out of the dealership or away from the salesperson anytime you feel like the situation is getting out of hand.

The dealership experience does not have to be painful. And you do not have to be discriminated against. Do as much preparation as you possibly can. Thorough preparation and the resulting knowledge gives you the confidence to enter the dealership with an attitude that flashes like a neon sign reading, “I’m a serious buyer. Do you want to do business with me?”