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How to test drive your next new car

Written by

Scott Murray

We previously discussed how to research your next new car and develop a system for building and researching your new car shopping shortlist.

Now it’s time to test drive them. In the world today, it’s very cool to be ignorant of what you’re buying. Not in my book.

You probably don’t need to know the technical details, but having a basic level of knowledge is always to your benefit. Choosing the drivetrain that will suit your driving will be ideal not just to save you money, but also to get the maximum advantage from the vehicle. It also helps when buying top-up oil, or booking it in for a service, or even being aware of future recalls.

Next, you need to study the functionality of the vehicles on your shortlist. How they will work with what you do. Having kids is a whole different world to being a 20-something uni student or retired. You need to be confident it can do what you need it to do.

Taking a test drive is absolutely necessary and also a little bit redundant, counterintuitively. You need to get yourself comfortable and figure out where things are relative to you while you’re driving. But you also don’t need to be a pretend motoring journalist because overall, most ordinary mainstream cars are going to feel pretty similar to drive to a large section of people.

However, there are nuances like weight of the steering, positioning of the steering wheel and pedals, where carmakers have positioned certain things and how that actual vehicle will work in your circumstances.

On the other hand, generally speaking, modern cars are all pretty much figured out in the steering, handling, accelerating and braking dynamics - modern cars all drive quite well - but that’s not the end of the story.

1. Knowledge is powertrains

It’s too easy thinking nobody cares about what engine and transmission they have in their new car. Sure, it’s not as popular to know what you’ve bought these days, but it’s still important.

When it comes to SUVs, typically you still have a choice to make, between petrol and diesel, and now hybrid as well. And when it comes to transmissions there’s not usually as much choice, but knowing what you’re potentially getting can benefit how you drive the vehicle.

Not only this, it’s a genuine money saver. While some brands pitch the diesel as the premium option, it’s often several thousands - sometimes $4000, up to $10,000 depending. It’s quite common that the diesel engine comes with all-wheel drive, and some kind of variation of transmission compared with what is available in lower model grades.

However, in many cases, you’re possibly paying more for engine and transmission types you simply don’t need. Every common, affordable hatchback in front-wheel-drive only is quite capable of traversing virtually every corner of a metropolitan city, from concrete multi-level carparks, to steep slopes, gravel driveways, freeways and suburban backroads - however broken or freshly resealed.

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Obviously, if you do need a long-distance cruiser with all-wheel drive for routine roadtrips, perhaps running a small business drumming up clients in all corners of your state or even interstate, then the extra few grand for the ideal diesel engine is going to be money wisely spent.

Point is, like we established in our ‘research’ section, you need to figure out the usage case for 90 per cent of your driving. Once you’ve done that, you need to drive the vehicle, as best as possible, in that kind of environment.

If you’re going for a zippy, agile, small turbo-petrol vehicle, then figure out where the dealership is located and find a route that is going to give you a mix of environments you’re going to use it in. Find carparks, speed humps, laneways, back streets and slopes.

If you’re considering the diesel because of long-distance driving expectations, get it onto the freeway for ten minutes in either direction. If you’re going to commute regularly, try the lane-keeping and radar cruise control systems then jump off the freeway into some traffic, change lanes, do a U-turn or two. Now ask: Do you like how it drives, does it make lots of weird gearchanges or rev a lot?

Keeping in mind you’re learning how this vehicle behaves, you need to be open-minded and adaptable, to a certain degree, because this foreign vehicle does not do anything the same way as your old car. New cars evolve and generally, it’s for the better. So you need to have a reasonable expectation and not try to be Jeremy Clarkson. Get used to that vehicle. Be adaptable.

2. Free Samples

While you are driving the vehicle, and making every effort to do it as safely as possible, try using features you would in ordinary settings.

Connect your phone and call using the buttons and voice commands, try changing the radio station, and see if you can find any crucial aspects you don’t like. This is important. A new car is going to feel sexy, smooth, powerful and it’s going to smell lovely. But stay focussed - you need to look for things that you don’t like and then ask yourself if you can live with this nuance. Find the glitches and hurdles.

All cars are different, none are perfect, and we can be very obsessed with everything being just the way we like them. But the real world does not operate in this way - you have to compromise. That’s why we did your research list and you are now testing these vehicles to see which one aligns best with you. Hence, you need to drive them as true to your driving life as possible.

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Practice a reverse parallel park, try the rearview camera system, try finding a driveway similar to yours so you can hear how the rear cross-traffic monitoring and blindspot system works. Fiddle with the infotainment screen, see what systems you can turn off/on depending how you like it.

You should also make a specific point of taking your big bulky items to the dealership and seeing how they will fit - or not fit. Deploy the row three seats, fold row two down, try adjusting things, find your ideal driving position, have a go fitting your child restraints using ISOFIX and the top tether. And find out where the spare wheel is located and how it’s attached.

One issue you may need to deal with in taking your shortlist vehicles for a test drive is that some dealerships and salespeople don’t like you going outside of their designated ‘test route’. It typically involves four left-hand turns around the block. This teaches you nothing. So, be open and honest upfront, tell them you have a particular route planned out, and if they get uptight or reluctant, just tell them you can find another dealership or move onto your next car. Don’t make this an empty proposition - mean it, because you have every right to try before you buy. This isn’t a toaster you’re buying.

3. Test Drive like you mean it

It’s a very good idea to organise your shortlist test drives on the same day, or at least the following day. If you can make it during the week, that will be ideal because dealerships tend to be quieter than on weekends, which means you won’t feel pressured to hurry.

Also, if you can only do it on a Saturday, call ahead and book a test drive in advance, with each vehicle at the various dealerships. This might seem daunting, but it’s the best way, comparing them back to back. Otherwise, you’re going to struggle to remember things.

Make sure someone is taking notes, or take them yourself, in a very simple ‘LOVE/HATE’ or ‘LIKE/DISLIKE’ column. This will help jog your memory, which you’re going to need because they’re all different and they all have quirks.

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Try to test the car in a variety of situations, some close-quarters stuff in traffic, some suburban roads, on the freeway and on some corners, roundabouts and in carparks. You want as many varying conditions as possible, including three point turns, reverse parallel parking, pulling out of intersections and merging onto the motorway - all things you don’t want to be surprised about when you take ownership.

One more tip: you’re probably going to have a salesperson sharing the vehicle with you. It’s annoying and intrusive, but sometimes it's hard to avoid - but you’re allowed to ask if they don’t join you.

So, make sure your partner gets the front seat beside you, and you swap over, taking turns to both try the vehicle. Not only does this give you both a chance to sample, but it means the salesperson has to sit in the back seat where they are less likely to pressure you, distract you, talk to you, extract information and be generally annoying.

Not to mention, your partner also needs to test the front passenger seat for legroom, head height and act as your second pair of eyes and ears. Let them deal with the pesky questions while you focus on driving a foreign vehicle in an unfamiliar environment. And don’t be afraid to ask the salesperson to be quiet while you both concentrate.

Oh, and make sure you bring your kids. They will be important, especially as they get older; it’ll also be a good reminder to check for the child locks. They can even help distract the salesperson.

Conclusion: Classified Information

Whatever you do, make sure you keep all personal information top secret. The salesperson will use your job conversation to figure out how much you know, how much you earn and ultimately use that against you when it comes to negotiating a price. They also want to figure out what kind of negotiator you are.

You’re allowed to politely and respectfully decline to answer. I know this is difficult for some, so try to be as vague as possible if you’re unable to stonewall the questions. Keep it to industries (‘What do you do for work?’ -construction), points on the compass (‘Whereabouts do you live?’ -Northern suburbs) and so on.

Lastly, for the love of oxygen, keep your research separate from purchasing and negotiating - we are not at that stage yet. Do not enter into discussions about price, or value, or discounts or giveaways or whatever. The only talking points you can entertain are the current model you’re looking at and when it might be replaced.

It’s very important to keep the cost discussion off the table until you’ve chosen the vehicle you want. It’s pressure you don’t need while trying to find the right new vehicle for you.

Next, we’ll get into the potentially hostile negotiation phase and help you save when it comes to number-crunch time.

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About the Author

Scott Murray from



Scott Murray

BestFamilyCars offers honest information & discounts for your next new car. Our lives depend on cars, but most reviews don’t answer the real questions. I live with the cars I test, to report their strengths and weaknesses, ad free


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