Shop Like a Car Reviewer

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

I test drive a new car every week — and have developed a checklist I use to help me do the subsequent write-up. This checklist might help you buy the right car for you, too.

* Seating position/comfort and ride quality –

Don’t buy a vehicle before you’ve spent at least an hour behind the wheel — and in the seat. Chairs that seem comfortable and supportive for a minute or three in the showroom may feel like church pews after an hour on the highway. Or, they might prove too soft — another problem. Either way, the key is to find out what they’re like in real life, day-in, day-out. And the only way to do that is to insist on a test drive. A real one, not just a 10 minute toodle around the block.

If a dealer won’t let you take a car out for at least an hour — ideally, several — walk away. It is better to spend another day shopping than the next several years driving a car that kills your back.

Like the seats, it’s hard to know whether a given car’s ride quality is too soft, too firm, or just right without a test drive that lasts at least an hour — and takes place on a variety of roads, including not-so-great roads with potholes and uneven pavement.

If you haven’t gone new car shopping recently, one thing you’ll discover is that “sporty” (read: firmer) ride quality is now the trendy thing. Aggressive, performance-type tires (short, stiff sidewalls and tread patterns designed to provide maximum grip and response to steering inputs) are being fitted to even family-minded and most luxury cars — which are now marketed as luxury-sport cars. The high-speed handling may be excellent as a result — but the ride quality could be harsher than you want to live with every day for hours on end.

Be sure to try the vehicle out on bumpy secondary roads as well as smooth highways. If the vehicle offers different suspension levels — for example, a standard version and a “sport” upgrade — try both out. Never buy the sport suspension package just because the (usually larger) wheels that come with it look better than the ones fitted to the standard suspension model. Larger/wider wheels — and tires with shorter/stiffer sidewalls — will almost always give you a firmer — even harsher — ride.

* Controls –

How easy is it to change the radio station, adjust the climate control system and operate other vehicle controls while the vehicle is in motion?

In their quest to stand out, automakers sometimes fit what are arguably over-complex, hard-to-use controls onto their cars that can be awkward — and distracting — to use. Especially when the car is moving. Or moving in heavy traffic.

For example, the use of scrolling menus and LCD displays to toggle through vs. a simple knob or button to adjust fan speed. Some of these interfaces can be very aggravating — even after you figure out how they work. Sometimes, simpler is better.

Make sure you can work all the features of your next vehicle without having to take your eyes off the road — or fumble with complicated controls. If the car stresses you out, it’s not the car for you.

* Real world gas mileage –

Don’t assume the fuel economy figures listed on the window sticker represent the actual mileage you will get. Especially if you are looking at the sticker on a hybrid vehicle.

The government tests new cars and trucks to get an “average” city/highway fuel economy figure — but the government’s test loop may not reflect the type of driving you do. If, for example, you drive faster than the testers did your actual fuel economy is likely to be significantly lower than the government’s rating. You may also frequently carry passengers — or pull a heavy load. Or perhaps you live in a hilly area and frequently ascend steep grades.

These variables will affect your real-world fuel efficiency.

Never assume that the advertised 18-mpg rating (as an example) is what you will get. Read the fine print. Your mileage not only “may vary” — it almost always will vary. If you are budgeting a certain amount for gas bills each month based on the advertised fuel efficiency, you could find yourself paying more than you expected. Once again, the test drive offers salvation. Be sure the tank is full before you head out, and top it off just before you bring the vehicle back to the dealership. After your afternoon’s drive you’ll be able to figure out exactly how much fuel the vehicle is likely to use given the type of driving that you — not government testers — do.

And don’t forget: Hybrids typically get their highest mileage in low-speed, city-type driving at speeds under 50 MPH — the reverse of standard cars — which do best on the highway. If you do a lot of highway/distance driving, a hybrid’s real-world mileage may be very disappointing.

* Visibility, sight lines –

How much of the outside world can you see from inside the vehicle? Does the car have physical obstructions (such as thick “B” pillars) that obstruct your view to the side? A small rear window? Or one that’s shaped in such a way as to give you a distorted or otherwise inaccurate view of what’s behind you?

I have driven some new cars that are — in my opinion — flat-out dangerous because of egregious blind spots. This is something that’s easy to overlook when you’re looking at the car in the showroom, from the outside. Only by driving the car — dealing with intersections, merging and cross-traffic — will you discover design flaws that may make the car frightening, frustrating — even dangerous — to drive home.

* Clutch take-up (manual cars) –

All new cars with manual transmission have hydraulically assisted clutches. This makes pushing in the clutch a lot easier — and reduces or eliminates the need to periodically adjust clutch pedal travel — both of which are good things.

But one of the downsides that you sometimes get with a hydraulically assisted clutch is vague pedal feel — i.e., it’s hard to tell when the clutch is engaging — which can make it difficult to drive the car smoothly. The car may be jerky — or make you feel you’re “riding” the clutch. There’s not much you can do in the way of adjustment. The car — and the clutch — were set up this way at the factory. Always drive a stick-shift car in heavy, stop-and-go traffic — and be sure you can drive it smoothly and comfortably.

* Lifestyle and family –

Unless the vehicle is just for you, it’s wise to see how the members of your family like it — or not. Especially those who will be driving it regularly. A common mistake people sometimes make is to buy a vehicle that their wife or husband either dislikes immensely or is not comfortable driving. Maybe it’s “too big”, or “too cramped”, “hard to get into”, or “has terrible blind spots” — ultimately it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that someone else who needs to use the car doesn’t like the car you bought.

Years of listening to complaining could be your penance.

Make certain — especially with SUVs and sporty cars, which can be awkward or uncomfortable for some people to drive — that anyone who will be using the vehicle regularly likes the thing.

Or at least, that they don’t despise the thing.


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