Looking for car buying advice for the test drive process
June 12, 2012 1:47 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to be thinking or asking about when I go for a test drive of some new cars?

I'm primed to buy my first new car in 13 years. I currently drive a '99 Saturn and, well, it's time. I've done a lot of reading about various models I'm interested in (Volvo C30, Lexus CT hybrid, Mini Coupe S, Volkswagon GTI are the top contenders in theory, with the Nissan Juke and Madza 3 bringing up the rear. I do intend to buy a new one, not used.) and now I need to get out to drive them.

When I bought the Saturn I can't even remember if I test drove it at all (I must have) but at the time I needed a car fast, didn't have time or inclination to delay or haggle or discuss it and just bought it. It's been a fine car but I'm not entirely sure it'll pass smog when I need to renew it at the end of the year and the interior is starting to fall apart (it has less than 70,000 miles on it though so it's not like I'm desperate to buy something right this second). So I don't have a lot of experience actually being on the lot.

I'm not afraid of the negotiation - I'm tough and pretty smart - and my financing is going to be handled through my credit union before I even really start to talk to the dealer. But I definitely want to make sure that I'm using my time in the car and talking to the dealer to give me the information I need and set myself up to try to make a good deal if I decide to buy that car. So what should I do or not do, ask or not ask about when I first make contact? My initial goal is to eliminate some of the cars on the list and have 2 or maybe 3 I'd be happy to have and that way be able to negotiate with some options in mind.

My plan is to bring my boyfriend so he can distract the dealer and so I have someone else to bounce commentary on who might remember it more afterwards. He also just bought a new car so he's not shy about the process.
posted by marylynn to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I rely heavily on what Consumer Reports says about any new car model I'm considering. They have statistics on repair frequency along with a lot of other information.

Once I've eliminated down to two or three models based on their recommendations, I go drive them to see how comfortable I am in the car: is the driver's seat easy to get set the way I want, how loud is the heater/AC, that kind of comfort information. I don't ask the salesman anything -- in fact, I've been known to tell them to leave me alone if they want to make a sale. When I'm ready to buy, I ask them for the lowest price they can sell the car for -- then I get ready to walk if they don't seem eager to come down. I do this at each place in town, and then go back to the lowest one and buy it.

If my memory serves me correctly, Consumer Reports has a good article about how to buy a car from a dealer, too.

Good luck! I hate car salesmen.
posted by summerstorm at 2:04 PM on June 12, 2012

Just focus on how the car feels to you. Does it corner nicely? Accelerate well? Is it stable when braking hard? Do you hear road or wind or engine noises that would be wearing on a long drive? Do you feel either insulated from or connected to the road to a degree you like?

Screen out the salesman's talk as much as possible. In many cases a lot of it will be senseless BS, he doesn't have any important information that you can't easily find online, and he's only trying to line you up for a sale.
posted by jon1270 at 2:04 PM on June 12, 2012

I use Edmunds for the actual research. The salesperson's purpose is to hand you keys so you can test drive.

And in fact, most people I know who are paying cash or have their financing already just find out who the "internet sales" person is, email them a list of cars and packages they want to see, make an appointment, show up, and look at the cars. Your CU may even have someone who will assist with that.

When test driving, you should focus on whether you like using the car. All your other information should come from research.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:12 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Make sure you both get into and out of the back seat a couple times, buckle up, sit back like you'd be riding in the car. It's something a lot of drivers miss, and there are some really amazingly stupidly designed back seats out there, that no one over the age of ten can possibly be comfortable in.

Take the opportunity to parallel park the car, too. Open all the doors, hatchback, liftgate, etc. Make sure you're comfortable with everything. I'll never forget the day I looked out my office window to see a woman, 5-foot-maybe, jumping (and failing) to grab the open hatchback on her huge SUV.

Got young kids? Bring a car seat and see how easy (or not) is is to put it in and get it back out. Sometimes the geometry of the doors and such is just so that you have to stand on your head and play Tetris to get a car seat in and out.
posted by xedrik at 2:17 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I thought buying a car was a lot of fun, and I looked at a number of the cars on your list. Ended up buying a GTI.

Anyway, you're going to be making 2 trips. The first will be to a number of dealers, to try out all of the cars on your list (after looking at Edmunds/Consumer Reports to determine if you're still interested in everything on your list).

Drive 'em with just your boyfriend if you can, no dealer. And just try 'em out. Think about how you're going to use the car. Two people or four? City driving or highway? Daily driver or fun on the weekends? Etc. Try to replicate the driving you'll be doing lots of -- if your commute takes you through surface streets, drive on lots of surface streets. Take your time in the car. Does anything annoy you about it now? Accelleration? Where the knobs are? How far the rear windows open? Open the trunk, sit in the back seats, see how long the a/c takes to get cool, etc. Then walk away, you're not buying the car today.

Once you've done that with all the cars on your list, sit down and cut out the ones you don't love. Based on your list, you're spending enough money to be able to find a car you love, or close to it. Ideally, there is one car you fell in love with and you're going to buy that one. If not, go back to Edmunds again, and if you weren't able to drive the exact trim level of your favorites, go drive one of those.

Once you have the car picked out -- send the following email, preferrably on a tuesday or wednesday near the end of the month, to every dealer within the distance you're interested in driving:

Hi, my name is marylynn, and by 5pm on Friday [date], I will purchase a [car] in [trim level]. I am only willing to pay money for the following options [if applicable]. I'm giving your dealership the option to win my business with your best bottom-line price, inclusive of all dealer fees and exclusive of tax, for this vehicle. Please give me your best number by the end of the day.

You'll be bombarded with calls and emails. Once you get some quotes, take the lowest and send the next email:

I've received a number of quotes, and you're currently running in [X] place. Can you do any better? If so, please let me know by [date].

In my situation, this took about three days, and I was negotiating for cars that were already on the lots, so I couldn't be too picky about colors (though the GTI is offered in about 5 colors anyway, so it didn't matter much). At the end, I offered the dealership that allowed me to test-drive (twice) and was close the opportunity to price-match my best offer. It was a good enough deal that it had to get approval by the owner before the salesman who made the deal, or at least that was the story I got. Other dealers told me it was less than what they paid for the car.

At the end, take another test drive in your prospective car before you sign the paperwork. Make sure every switch works, that they get the clock set right, that the bluetooth thing gets matched to your phone, that you know how to operate the wipers and fog lights and everything else before you sign for the car. That last test-drive is as important as the earlier ones, since you probably didn't test drive this exact car, and it's going to be a hassle if it's not perfect after you sign.

Good luck.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:20 PM on June 12, 2012 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far. My credit union does offer a car buying service, which I hadn't considered using but maybe I should. I've been told I'm a tough negotiator in lots of areas but it's all theoretical as far as buying a car goes. So any additional thoughts on those I'd be happy to have!
posted by marylynn at 2:32 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: Definately check out the reliability data on True Delta (I believe the website owner is a member here).

It is compiled from actual car owners using the cars on a daily basis, and includes much more information than the simple problems per 100 cars that I think consumer reports uses. A problem with batteries going bad is not in the same league as transmission failures and that is important in making a decision on reliability.

The other website is truecarwhich compiles data on what people are actually paying for the car and lets you gauge the deal on the car.

Something I like to do is go to Rock Auto and check prices on parts for common maintenance stuff like oil filters, brake pads, alternators, o2 sensors and such so I can get some idea about how much maintenance is going to be. However this isn't really relevant if you aren't doing the work yourself.

Also read the owners manual, see if you are ok with the maintenance requirements (stuff like using premium gas-required by a lot of the cars on your list) and how much tires are going to be. The first set of tires put on by the manufacturer are often not that good and are chosen for 1. cost and 2. low rolling resistance for good EPA mileage numbers. You might be wanting new ones before they are worn out for this reason.

BTW I bought a juke in January and got the 6 speed front wheel drive model. If you want to know anything about it memail me.
posted by bartonlong at 2:52 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get the inside track. You still have a lot of options on the table, but as you narrow them down, Google "[modelname] forum" and look through message forums for the cars you are interested in. You can find out about common problems with cars and how much grief it takes to fix them. You can join the forums and ask any specific questions you might come up with. A lot of the members there will be fanboys of that model and often have a good understanding of issues the car has as well as what the repairs and workarounds are.
posted by Doohickie at 3:25 PM on June 12, 2012

A comment about the car buying services is that they provide a price ceiling for negotiation. Since the dealer is willing to sell to [Costco|your credit union|AARP|random professional association] members for the negotiated price without any conditions, it's the highest you should ever be considering paying. If you have nothing else to start negotiations with, it provides a price point to start with.

(to be clear, I think the best approach is to play dealers off against each other and don't even both starting with a price, but that doesn't always work if you get uncooperative dealers and/or popular cars).
posted by saeculorum at 3:30 PM on June 12, 2012

Read the reviews - Cartalk, cars.com, edmunds, consumer reports, etc.
Does the car fit? easy to get in & out of, good visibility, easy to reach the radio, heater, etc.
Is it big enough for your family + a load of groceries, but not bigger.
Mileage. Gas isn't going back to 1.29 /gal. It's going to get more expensive, most likely.
Go look, drive cars, get a quote if you find one you really like. Give your contact info. Leave. Go drive other cars. When you have found some contenders, make a list of pros & cons. Go look at the winner, drive it again, ask for the best price. Give a counteroffer, and be willing to leave again. You are likely to get a call accepting your counteroffer, or darn close.

I buy used. It can be a pain to get cars inspected, but it saves lots of money.
posted by theora55 at 3:43 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: Thanks for the advice so far. My credit union does offer a car buying service, which I hadn't considered using but maybe I should. I've been told I'm a tough negotiator in lots of areas but it's all theoretical as far as buying a car goes. So any additional thoughts on those I'd be happy to have!

The biggest negotiating thing with buying cars is to know whether your price is reasonable. Look for the invoice price of the exact model and options you are choosing from, and then try to get an idea of the popularity and availability of that particular model. Do they have 15 of them on the lot? Then you should be able to pay invoice price. But if it's a popular or hard to get model, prepare to pay more than that. There will be some kabuki theater with the salesman going to talk to his manager to work the price down; let them have their fun.

(The invoice price is not exactly what the dealership pays for the car. Manufacturers "sell" the cars to the dealers for less than this via accounting tricks. Plus, they get origination fees on the financing. If they sell a loan for $20,000, they might get $400 out of it. So even if you get them to the invoice price, they are still making money. Maybe not "bonus for the salesman" money, but they are keeping the lights on for another day.)

Dealers will want to try to sell you on "the package", usually expressed as what your monthly payment will be. I do not like to do it this way, because it is too much math. (An extra $1000 on the price works out to ~$15 a month, which seems like way less. Which is why they like to work you on the payment side.) You want a fair price on the new car, and a fair price on the trade. You should be completely comfortable wiggling on either of these numbers, as long as the end number works out. IE, you want to get $1000 for your trade, and pay $20,000 for the car. It is (virtually) meaningless to you whether this works out to $500 for your trade and $19,500 for the car, or $2000 for the trade and $21,000 for the car. Let the dealer "win" that argument, as long as it balances in your favor.

It always seems to work best to let them go through their motions, because that's what they are comfortable with. If you are armed with your own numbers, you can very easily and politely reject prices that are too high. You haven't lost until they categorically say "I can't sell you this car at that price" and you are back in your Saturn driving home. If they are still playing, you haven't hit the bottom price.

Know ahead of time what financing you want (lease or loan, and what term). Figure out for yourself what the payment will look like. Don't forget to add sales tax (which the online calculators rarely include).

It is almost never a good idea to buy any of the extras that are offered to you by the "finance guy" when you are signing the papers. You can always add those things later if you want. One thing that I did get on my last car was some kind of road hazard for the tires, but it was only a couple hundred dollars, and tires on new cars have virtually no protections like you'd get buying them from a tire place. Let the guy (or girl) make their sales pitches, consider them, and then politely reject them if that's what you want to do. It can pay to make friends with the finance person, because they can sometimes work you a better rate if they are feeling friendly.
posted by gjc at 4:11 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since you have time to decide and test a bunch out, I'd just go test drive everything on your list and have fun with it!

I wanted to second truecar and looking up the invoice price on each car brand's website to see what a good or at least decent price should be.

When you're test driving cars, please check for how you can see out of your blind spots and out of the rearview mirror. I feel so much more comfortable in cars that I can confidently see my blind spots with the mirrors.

Of course you're going to want to think about how you use the car. Do you travel with pets? Do you bring your bike on car trips? I have a sedan and I'm able to take the front wheel off my bike and throw it in the back of the car, saving me the cost of a bike rack, for example. Do you have luggage that is a must to fit in your car?

Finally, if you are a member of any professional organizations, check if they have any affiliations with the brand of car you like. I'm a member of the American Speech and Hearing Association, and they have a deal with subaru for $3,000 off a new car. (Not sure how much it really is off, since no other discounts would apply, but it's a starting point.)

Good luck to you!
posted by shortyJBot at 5:12 PM on June 12, 2012

Focus on the drive, it sounds like you've done your research and have a fairly decent handle on what you're doing. As has been mentioned, turn the radio off and tell the sales guy to pipe down while you take it on the highway and listen for wind-noise/road noise etc. Play with all the buttons and then check out the sound system. I bought a Subaru Forester after doing all the checks except actually listening to the radio... boy was I disappointed.

Other things to check for on the drive:
Driver information computer: Make sure that the car has one and is easy to operate and provides useful information EG Mileage, Tire pressures, etc.
Headlights: DRIVE THE CAR IN THE DARK. I know a few people who've bought cars only to discover that the headlights are next to useless.
Corner at all sorts of speeds, drive it like you already own it.
How are the cup-holders? Will they hold your favourite coffee mug? Is the mug stable or will it spill all over the nice new interior.
How about a spot for your iphone/mp3 player. Does it connect properly, can you control it/change music while driving?

I typically don't spend a lot of time thinking about consumer reports unless something has the reputation of an absolute heap of junk. Consumer reports are subjective opinions masked as objective research and for the first 3 years 60,000km's absolutely everything that goes wrong with your car is covered by a warranty.

When you're ready to buy, I like the idea about emailing various dealerships towards the end of the month but keep in mind that you will generally get better service in the repair/maintenance shop of the dealership you buy the car from. This typically includes being able to pressure a sales guy for a loaner while yours is getting worked on. I'm not suggesting that the "local" dealership gets to hold a premium over your head, just that you keep that in mind when making the decision of "who" to buy from. A friend of mine drove 4 hours when some remote dealership offered to beat the total price of our home-town dealer by $150. He spent that in gas just getting up to sign the papers.

Good luck.
posted by Beacon Inbound at 5:32 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd do the preliminary test drives on the same day or over the course of a couple of consecutive days, if at all possible: it's good to have the physical memory of things like the ride, the steering, the comfort of the driver's seat, the ease of using the controls, etc. as fresh as possible.
posted by holgate at 6:31 PM on June 12, 2012

This sounds a little silly, but I wish I'd tested my car out on a hill/slope. My (automatic) car seems to think it's a manual when there's any sort of incline, and it's not something I even thought to test out since I live in a fairly flat city. But parking lot ramps can suck.
posted by loulou718 at 10:10 PM on June 12, 2012

I typically don't spend a lot of time thinking about consumer reports unless something has the reputation of an absolute heap of junk. Consumer reports are subjective opinions masked as objective research and for the first 3 years 60,000km's absolutely everything that goes wrong with your car is covered by a warranty.

Agreed. Don't put too much stock in ratings like this unless it is very specific advice like "the engine in the 2011 model is weak, and there have been no changes in the 2012 model year".

A, most cars are fine if you maintain them properly.
B, past performance doesn't guarantee future results.
posted by gjc at 6:55 AM on June 13, 2012

Just bought the Juke last week. Me mail me if you want to know more about that one.
posted by slateyness at 6:51 PM on June 13, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! We did so many test drives today and it was completely enlightening. It looks like it's going to come down to either the Volvo or the VW. I absolutely loved driving both of them and they're both similar in a lot of ways that are important to me. There's a slight price difference (especially once I add my requirement for a moonroof) so it's going to come down to where I can make a deal I feel better about.

One thing that was absolutely shocking was how uninterested most of the sales people seemed to be in, you know, selling me a car. I was really expecting to go there and be descended on and gabbed to until I had to literally do the "zip it" across the mouth. But, in fact, other than at VW (and at Volvo but to a much less extent) I had to pull teeth to even get the people to give me the most basic information. Nissan was completely the worst "So, there are three trim options - what's the difference?" resulted in sentences that literally ended with "blah blah blah". It's a brutally hot day here - more than 95F - so I get that standing out in a car lot talking about a car is anyone's idea of fun but DUDES: I'm not there all "Oh so, cars... they're, like cool and like, I might want one...?" ::hairtwirl:: - I'm actually walking up to the car I want, the lot is otherwise empty, and saying "I'd like to get inside and maybe drive the Juke - what can you tell me about it now that we're looking at it?". I was relieved that I disliked driving it so I didn't have to deal with that guy anymore.

The VW guy was the only one who came out of the showroom with a bottle of ice-cold water in his hand for me for the test drive and who actually asked the kinds of questions I was expecting "What other cars have you looked at?", "What do you like or not like about your current car?", etc. The Volvo guy talked about the features but didn't seem into the sale. So that was kind of not what I was expecting at all. I realize though that after the sale you basically never talk to the sales person again.
posted by marylynn at 9:41 PM on June 16, 2012

Response by poster: One final update: I bought a Volvo C30 today. Love it! Thanks again everyone!
posted by marylynn at 2:47 PM on June 21, 2012

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