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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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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.

Also, don’t let a salesperson demonstrate connectivity, say, via his/her Google Android phone and not your Apple iPhone, or vice versa, Halloran says. “If it is something you want to use in the car, bring your own phone and test it before you write the check.”

GOOD CONNECTION. You’ll want to ensure that your smartphone can connect to a test-drive vehicle’s system. Further, don’t be timid about asking for a repeated demonstration of any complicated entertainment or navigation feature.

GOOD CONNECTION. You’ll want to ensure that your smartphone can connect to a test-drive vehicle’s system. Further, don’t be timid about asking for a repeated demonstration of any complicated entertainment or navigation feature.

Ford Motor

Further, after the device is connected to the vehicle, you should try its functions on the road—ideally from the passenger seat to avoid distractions. You might notice a slight lag in response when you press a button while you’re underway, says Joe Berry, who is the chief executive officer and founder of automotive consulting firm JBJ Advisors. That’s because the system runs on the same electric network as a vehicle’s other functions do. This means that the alternator, the fuel-injection system and the transmission-shift program, among other systems, also draw on the same power source.

Because of the depth and complexity of the menus and settings of any new vehicle’s communications, entertainment and navigation systems, you likely only will skim the surface of these features on any of the vehicles that you test-drive. Dealers with whom we spoke say in-depth gadget training typically is addressed only after you buy. If you get home after a test-drive and you can’t remember how to do something, you should go back. “Don’t ever be embarrassed,” says Lisa Copeland, who is the general manager of dealership Fiat of Austin. “Come back six times if you need to.” Unfortunately, you have no guarantee that you’ll be treated that generously. Bottom line: Don’t stop asking questions during the test-drive, such as how to pair your phone, find an address in the navigation system or program separate driver and passenger seat and climate adjustments.

POWERED UP. Although most new vehicles that you test-drive today still have conventional gasoline engines, you’ll find more models than ever before that have smaller turbocharged engines, engines that include fuel-saving technology, hybrid gasoline-electric powertrains or diesel engines. Each of these translates into a different driving experience, and nothing replaces putting the pedal to the metal to learn how an engine behaves.

Although it’s a given that hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles drive differently than do gasoline- or diesel-powered models, the differences might startle you on a test-drive if it’s your first time in a hybrid model. When you press the “Start” button on a hybrid vehicle, you might be greeted by silence, particularly if the vehicle is warmed up from recent use. That’s because the vehicle relies solely on electric power as you begin to drive—the gasoline engine might not start, because its power isn’t needed. If you have to step hard on the accelerator, the gasoline engine will join the electric motor’s effort swiftly and unobtrusively to hurry you out of the path of that oncoming truck.

The vehicle will whir quietly while you drive at low speeds (think: parking lots and neighborhood streets), relying on electric power alone until the gasoline engine is needed for more power or the battery runs low. The gasoline engine’s activation barely will be noticeable above road and wind noises. Further, you should be prepared to have the gasoline engine shut off at every traffic light. It’s typical but freaky if you don’t expect it. You shouldn’t worry. The electric motor still is on and allows you to accelerate away when the light turns green. (You should be sure to switch the vehicle off when you park, however: Without the gasoline engine running, it’s easy to forget that the vehicle still is switched on.)

Since 2012, an increasing number of vehicles that have conventional gasoline engines also have had engine shut-off technology added. You’ll notice that these engines, like those of hybrids, shut off almost immediately if there is firm pressure on the brake pedal that signals to the engine that you intend to stay stopped. These automatically restart when you lift off the brake pedal, to boost city fuel economy. It can be surprising if you’re on a test-drive. As with hybrids, when you step on the gas pedal of such a conventional vehicle, you’ll accelerate without pause.

As noted, automakers have downsized under the hood, from V8 engines to turbocharged V6 engines and from V6s to four-cylinder engines, some of which are turbocharged, all in the quest for better fuel economy. Regardless of the automaker, the characteristics that you’ll notice are universal: The vibration of any four-cylinder engine’s pistons, turbocharged or not, never will sound as smooth as any V6 does. That means that while you idle or accelerate, a four-cylinder engine will roar more harshly than a V6. If you’re used to driving a V8-powered vehicle, then the main difference that you’ll notice from a turbocharged V6 is the absence of that reassuring V8 burble at idle and rumble under acceleration. The newer turbocharged V6 engines, just like the V8s that they replaced, still will shove you back in the seat, however, when you accelerate.

SMOOTH OPERATOR. The eight- and nine-speed automatic transmissions that have emerged in new vehicles should give you better gas mileage than do models that have fewer gears. You shouldn’t be able to detect any difference in how they shift, though.

SMOOTH OPERATOR. The eight- and nine-speed automatic transmissions that have emerged in new vehicles should give you better gas mileage than do models that have fewer gears. You shouldn’t be able to detect any difference in how they shift, though.

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Diesels are more fuel-efficient than are gasoline engines, but you’ll notice that the distinctive diesel-engine clatter at idle and growl under acceleration now barely are perceptible from the vehicle cabin. You should know that although diesel engines generate more power at lower revolutions than do gasoline engines, they don’t rev as high. That means that you’ll have to tread lightly on the accelerator when you leave a stoplight to avoid chirping the tires accidently. At highway speeds, a diesel now requires a little extra time to complete a passing maneuver.

SHIFTING GEARS. Another change that you’ll find is that a five-speed transmission increasingly is being supplanted by a transmission that has as many as eight speeds. That’s a change that’s made to maximize fuel efficiency. You even will find a nine-speed automatic transmission on the 2014 Jeep Cherokee and the 2014 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque.

On the test-drive, you’ll want to pay attention to the transmission’s capability to use that multitude of gears seamlessly. The process should be mildly noticeable, rather than a constant, audible search for the proper gear.

Fuel efficiency also is behind the increase in the number of vehicles that have a dual-clutch (automated manual) transmission, or DCT, or a gearless continuously variable transmission (CVT) in the past 3 years. For example, dual-clutch transmissions have moved into the mainstream on the Ford Focus,. Similarly, CVTs are used on the Nissan Altima and on most new hybrids.

Vehicles that have a DCT will perform like those that have an automatic transmission or vehicles that have a manual transmission, depending on the task. A DCT-equipped vehicle really has two separate transmissions—each connected to the engine with its own clutch and controlled electronically. A DCT shifts gears by alternating between transmissions, which provides a seamless transition between gears. You won’t detect a difference when you cruise, but at parking-lot speeds, you’ll experience less smoothness than you would with a typical automatic transmission. A DCT requires a little gas to move compared with an automatic transmission’s capability to move forward and backward without touching the gas pedal when you, say, parallel-park. Thus, as with a manual transmission, it’s easier to lurch too far and bump another vehicle ahead or behind.

Further, vehicles that have a DCT still might roll backward when you stop on an incline, just like you would in a vehicle that has a conventional manual transmission. You have to press the brake to prevent the vehicle that has a DCT from rolling backward. Similarly, if you decide to creep forward a few feet for a better look to make a right turn on red, when you let off the gas pedal, a DCT-equipped vehicle might roll backward while you wait to turn. If that manual-transmission characteristic puts you off, you might want to avoid a DCT-equipped ride.

Copeland says her salespeople always do the driving in a DCT-equipped vehicle first in a test-drive, so the consumer can understand those characteristics. You should consider requesting that step if it isn’t offered, because you’ll be able to observe how to best drive a DCT-equipped vehicle while you park or are on a hill before you slide behind the wheel.

A CVT, however, is the opposite of a DCT. CVT-equipped vehicles creep around at low speeds without any detectable difference from those that have a conventional automatic transmission. However, a CVT has no discreet gears—it employs a ratio that the computer deems to be most efficient under the conditions. Drivers who are used to feeling or hearing the shift of an automatic transmission might find this disconcerting. “People find CVTs confusing, because you don’t hear shifting,” Halloran says. We found that this lack of noise is exaggerated during hard driving, such as when you stomp on the accelerator.

FUTURE OPTIONS. Other factors will affect your test-drive experience even before you get into the vehicle or after you step out of it. For instance, the possibility of buying vehicles directly from manufacturers through the Internet, sight unseen, is abuzz. Tesla Motors employs direct sales, but automakers who have dealerships in place are prohibited by law from selling directly to the customer.

However, General Motors rolled out an online purchase program in 2013. That program dodges the law, because it’s run entirely by GM dealers and works similarly to those dealers’ online listings. Lenny George, who is the general manager of dealership Berger Chevrolet, says customers click on the image of a vehicle that’s on the dealer’s website and conduct the entire purchase online. If that’s your preference, of course, you risk being dissatisfied if you skip the hands-on experience of feeling and hearing how the vehicle performs. You should know that, other than “lemon laws” that protect you if your new vehicle has mechanical defects, no guarantee exists that you can return a new vehicle, regardless of whether you purchase it online or in person.

GM’s program is a dealer-by-dealer choice, so when—or whether—the online purchase program will come to your neighborhood is unknown.

Another wrinkle in the test-drive experience is having a vehicle delivered to your home for a test-drive. An online company that’s called Tred began to do that in the Seattle area in 2013, and individual dealerships provide that service, too, particularly those that are located in congested urban areas. However, experts say the practice is skewed toward luxury-car dealerships and for returning customers. It remains atypical for mainstream brands, which typically have narrower profit margins on sales. To increase your odds of having a test-drive vehicle delivered, it makes sense to ask a dealership during slow times, such as during the middle of the week.

Anything that puts you behind the wheel of a vehicle, after all, should be your top priority. 

Dan Carney has reported on automobiles and automotive topics for 23 years. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics and NBCnews.com, among other media outlets.

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