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Ahead of the Curve: Making Your Test-Drive Count

Here’s what you’ll want to know to get the best test-drive experience that you can before you decide which vehicle is headed for your driveway.

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Mazda Motor

New-vehicle buyers keep those rides 6 years on average, according to automotive-data company R.L. Polk. This means that a lot changes about vehicles in between the time that the typical shopper takes test-drives—both under the hood and behind the wheel.

More models than ever before include smartphone connectivity and entertainment and navigation systems that could create a learning curve for you. Further, the number of models that have different engine and transmission options increased, too. These will sound and feel different than what you might remember from previous test-drives or even the vehicle that you own.

INSPECT GADGETS. On your test-drive, before you even think about turning that ignition key (or, increasingly, pressing a starter button), it almost goes without saying that you’ll want to adjust the mirrors, seat and steering wheel. You’ll quickly realize, too, that the popularity of touch screens that are in smartphones and tablet computers prompted automakers to add touch screens and touch-control surfaces to control navigation, entertainment, and heating and cooling functions. You can find this technology on models that are at all price levels. Of course, interacting with any technology that’s in your vehicle’s cockpit while you drive can be dangerous, because you have to look away from the road, and that could distract you from a hazard. As a result, you’ll want to explore these options before you begin to move.

Navigation systems, in particular, have settled into two primary input styles: touch screen and command knob. A handful of automakers, mostly Japanese, fuse the two. We found that the fusion gives you the choice to use either means of control, depending on what works best for a task. For instance, zooming in on a navigation map is natural when you use a control knob, because you can twist the knob one direction to zoom in and the other direction to zoom out. Entering an address or a song title is far easier when you use a virtual keyboard—while the vehicle is parked, of course.

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Systems that have command knobs allow you to navigate through options while your hand rests steadily on the center console, where the knob is mounted. Command knobs typically have four settings—audio, media, navigation, phone—that you can click through. Your options for each are displayed on a dashboard screen.

Touch screens provide more-obvious and direct access to options, because you can, for example, touch the compass icon to change the map orientation. Still, you have to look at the screen to do that, and your hand might not be steady when you drive, so it’s easy to hit the wrong spot on the screen. Because each person’s intuition level varies, your best bet is to go through typical activities, such as entering an address, to see whether the system’s interaction matches your own experience, or your level of patience, before you drive anywhere.

You should know that some entertainment and navigation choices that a salesperson might demonstrate on a test-drive, such as real-time traffic reports or sports scores, might be available only through subscriptions, which run about $15 per month. We found five manufacturers whose vehicles’ digital HD Radio signal includes traffic updates that don’t require a subscription. It pays to clarify which features are permanent and which might go away after a month.

GET CONNECTED. When it comes to high-tech changes, you should make sure to ascertain whether you can pair your smartphone with the vehicle that you test-drive. Steve Halloran, who is a senior editor at automobile-research and shopping website CarGurus, says although the capability to connect your vehicle and smartphone is becoming commonplace, you shouldn’t assume that it’s available in the vehicle that you’re about to test-drive—or that you’ll know how to make that connection. Consequently, don’t be shy about asking for instructions before you drive, so you understand without distraction the steps that are necessary to connect phone and vehicle.

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