It’s been estimated that, when looking at a new vehicle, the average customer takes it out on the road for about twelve minutes. I’ve often spent that long figuring out what I’m going to have for dinner, never mind what I’ll be driving daily for at least the next five years – and perhaps spending more than a year’s salary. And it isn’t just a case of being time-strapped. Many people are simply overwhelmed by the whole process, and either forget or don’t know what to check out when they’re going for a test.

It isn’t a fun process; most people would no doubt prefer to just call in an order and have the perfect vehicle delivered to the driveway. But if you plan carefully and ensure that all your needs are met, you’re far more likely to end up with the vehicle that’s best for you.

As with any major purchase, the first step is to do your homework. Assess your driving habits, budget, cargo and passenger needs, and size requirements – keeping in mind restrictions like your garage or parking space size – and figure out what type of vehicle will be best for you. Don’t just buy a compact because it’s inexpensive, or a truck because it’s trendy. It’s no bargain if it doesn’t do everything you need.

All manufacturers have consumer Web sites, where you can compare features, size, fuel economy and prices (you can also access Autos’s Buyer’s Guide for facts and figures). Narrowing down your needs to a few models can drastically reduce your legwork; it can also help avoid expensive mistakes if something flashy catches your eye on the showroom floor. (Believe it or not, automobiles are notorious impulse buys; many car dealers will tell you they frequently sell to customers who simply dropped in to “check out the new models” and left with one.)

You should also consider your flexibility: buy off the lot, or order? Dealers pay the manufacturer up front for the cars on their lots, so you’ve got a better chance of negotiating a good deal on an “in-stock” unit, which the dealer wants to move; as well, you’ll be able to drive it home right away. On the down side, you’ll have to take what’s available, which might not be exactly what you want. Ordering a vehicle will get you all your choices, but you’ll have to wait for it to be built and delivered, and there probably won’t be as much opportunity for dickering. (The salesperson can also search the inventory of other dealers to see if there’s an in-stock unit that matches your choice; expect it to have a few kilometres on it when you get it, as they usually drive the car between dealers.)

So what do you need? This is the time to look at available engine sizes, transmission choices, configurations (sedan? wagon? hatchback?), cargo capacity and fuel economy. That last one can be tricky: official fuel figures are obtained under ideal conditions, and it’s difficult to match them in the real world. Even so, you can expect all models to perform equally poorer than the published numbers, and so it’s fairly safe to compare them, remembering that all will probably worsen by a couple of litres per 100 km equally. It’s also important to consider how you’ll be using the vehicle. If you’re planning on consistently loading up with a full contingency of passengers and cargo, a bigger engine won’t have to work as hard to move it all, and may get better mileage than a smaller one. A premium fuel requirement can raise your operating costs dramatically; diesel is not available at all stations, especially in city centres, so make sure you can fill up conveniently.

Stick or automatic can also be an issue: a manual shift can be a lot more fun, until you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic for two hours each day. Automatics have become very sophisticated in recent years, and depending on your driving habits, they can often return better fuel economy than manual transmissions. Check the engine’s specs, too: a timing chain doesn’t require the often-pricey maintenance of replacing a timing belt.

Now it’s time to hit the streets. Think about your average day, and then take what you normally do: travel mug, briefcase or backpack, and child or booster seat. If you’re unsure if your child or dog can get into the vehicle easily, take them along (or drop by your house on the test-drive). Also, dress in the type of clothes you’ll usually wear in the vehicle. It’s common for women to wear jeans and sneakers when they’re car-shopping, and then find that the skirt and high heels they wear to work are awkward for climbing into an SUV.

Start with a walk-around. The door handles should be easy to use, and the doors should open wide enough for easy entry. Some slope-roofed sedans have very long rear doors that your passengers might bang into other vehicles in parking lots.

Once you’re in the car, put your props to work. Is there a place to put your bag? Will your mug fit in the cupholder, and not block the heater controls or interfere with your elbow when you shift? Does the child seat fit easily and securely? Can you reach all seating positions to buckle up a child’s seatbelt? Will your elderly parents be able to get in and out with a minimum of fuss when you’re taking them on errands?

Buckle your belt, ensuring that it fits comfortably. Check your mirrors – would you be better off with power-operated or heated ones? – and look around to make sure you have full visibility. Something as seemingly insignificant as excessively tall rear head restraints can be an issue when backing up. Make sure you can push all pedals to the floor and still maintain a safe distance (about 25 cm) from the steering wheel; if you can’t, consider a power seat or adjustable pedals, if they’re available.

Now it’s time to start the engine. You’ll want a full assessment, not just a drive around the block. Take it on the highway to test its passing power; accelerate off the line to see how it picks up. The transmission should shift efficiently; steering should be smooth and accurate, and not feel loose at higher speeds. Try parking it both ways – nose and tail-in – while looking for blind spots or an excessively wide turning radius.

If you’re like most people, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the vehicle, and something that irritates you now won’t get better with time. Everyone’s lifestyle is different, and you need to assess what matters to you: perhaps such things as small-item storage, a convenient place to charge your cell phone, or a place to put CDs. For me, a car with inside door handles that don’t override the locks is a major annoyance; for someone else, it might be a stereo without an iPod jack. If you frequently load items in the trunk, check the liftover height (how high you must lift parcels to clear the trunk lip); if you’re not very tall, make sure a minivan or SUV’s liftgate doesn’t open beyond your grasp. If the rear seats fold or flip, try operating them several times, making sure you can reach all the levers to fold them, and then easily reach them to pull them back into place.

What about options? There’s nothing wrong with getting an option simply because you want it, but add-ons can also be necessary: if you can’t reach across to flick your passenger’s lock button, you may want power locks, for instance. At the same time, weigh pricier options against how often you use them. Navigation systems are expensive, and maps are cheap: if you seldom drive in unfamiliar territory, would you be better off putting that money toward something else? Price the replacement costs of wear items: 18-inch alloy wheels look great, but their tires can be costly, and steel wheels or winter tires may not be readily available for all models. (And here’s one I never considered, until a reader sent me a letter: if you use a barrier to contain pets in the rear of a wagon or SUV, it might not fit if you order a panoramic sunroof.)

This all sounds like a lot to check out, during a process that can be pretty stressful. Making a list can help you remember all the things you’ll need and want to explore. A thorough test-drive should take a couple of hours: when you’re spending so much money and will be using the vehicle so often, why rush?

Ah, you’re saying, but what about the salesperson? There are a lot of them out there, and while most will go out of their way for you, it’s not unheard-of to get someone who isn’t as enthusiastic as you are. Be firm: it’s your money. You need to be thorough, and if your salesperson wants to hurry you, go to the manager or, if necessary, go to another dealer.

Of course, most customers are also pretty good, but you need to do your part, too. Be up front about how long you’ll be gone: most dealers are used to the twelve-minute test-drive, and will become understandably worried when you’re still missing an hour later. Test the car thoroughly, but don’t abuse it: it may be a demonstrator, but eventually, someone’s going to buy it. Don’t let your children walk on the seats, and if you bring your dog to see how he fits, bring a blanket, too. With such a wide range of models and options, it isn’t possible for a dealer to have one of everything, so be understanding if your exact choice isn’t readily available for driving. And don’t waste the dealer’s time unnecessarily: test-drives are for you to assess the vehicle you’re considering, not an opportunity to drive a sporty car you have no intention of buying, just because it’s the only way you can get behind the wheel.

Should you be serious about the vehicle, you’ll be asked about the dreaded “extras”. I’ll cover warranties in an upcoming article; in the meantime, remember that while add-ons like rustproofing and fabric guard can be useful, you may be able to get a better deal from a third-party vendor. If you go for them, read the fine print: many dealer rustproofing warranties require that you return regularly to have the car checked.

Finally, if it comes down to two or three vehicles, consider dealer location when assessing your final choice. A convenient facility can make all the difference when dropping your car off for maintenance or repairs: a dealer that’s close to home or work will make things a lot easier than one who’s clear across town.

A good test-drive is a lot of work, and it doesn’t make the buying process any easier. What it can do is vastly improve the owning experience. I frequently get letters from readers who say they would never have bought the car they did if they’d only stopped to think about fuel economy, or highway performance, or the fact that their coffee mug gets in the way of the stereo. When it’s your money, no detail is too trivial � and twelve minutes just isn’t enough.

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