By Jim Kerr

It’s that time of the year again when members of the Automobile Journalists of Canada Association gather together to test and evaluate all the new cars and trucks on the Canadian Market. The vehicles are grouped into categories such as family car or pickup truck and each vehicle is compared to others in the same category. The best of each group goes on for final selection of Car or Truck of the Year awards. If you are thinking of purchasing another vehicle, you too need to compare vehicles to determine what is best for you. Here are some hints and techniques used by professional auto evaluators that you can use too.

Before going for a test drive, look the vehicle over carefully, noticing things like gaps between body panels and paint finish. The quality of new vehicles has improved immensely but there are still differences between manufacturers and even between the same model.

We evaluate legroom, headroom, access in and out, and the comfort of seats. When you do this, test the back seat too. Can older passengers can get in and out easily? Does the door open wide for loading cargo? Many buyers never ride in the back seat when testing a car, but back there, there may hear rear tire noise, or find it difficult to see out the window, or find the seat is uncomfortable in the middle. As the driver, you don’t have to sit there, but keeping children comfortable in the back seat can make a huge difference on a long trip.

Trunk volume is different than trunk space. The specifications may show a big trunk, but the opening may be too small to load big objects, or the floor may be uneven and difficult to load. Look for useable space – flat floors, rear seats that fold flat for longer cargo, and low lift over heights. All of these make the vehicle more practical.

In the driver’s seat, adjust the seat, mirrors and steering wheel so all the controls can be accessed without having to reach. Test this with every driver in your family. Vehicles that fit me often don’t fit my petite wife, especially outside rear view mirrors. The gauges should be easy to read. Try them and the controls at night. If controls are easy to use at night, they are probably well placed and intuitive. You shouldn’t have to take your eyes off the road to operate important controls.

Any new vehicle will feel tight and solid compared to a high mileage used vehicle so don’t be impressed by the first one you drive. It may be excellent, but compare it to other new vehicles – not your used one.

The test drive starts as soon as you start the engine. Does it idle smoothly? Do you feel any vibrations? As you drive the vehicle, look for throttle response and smooth transmission shifts. There should be no delay, and try the passing power from about 80 km/h. This is the speed many vehicles start from when passing slow vehicles on the highway. Getting around another vehicle and back into your lane quickly increases highway safety. Listen for engine intake and exhaust noise during cruise and acceleration. An engine that is noisy only at full throttle is fine, but if it drones or rattles at cruising speed you won’t like it. Noise is tiring.

Check the ride quality over bumps and on gravel surfaces. Some vehicles are quiet inside on smooth pavement but deafen passengers on gravel roads. Steering should be linear. The angle you turn the wheel to go around a corner shouldn’t have to be changed during the corner unless the angle of the corner changes.

According to world-renowned race driver Jackie Stewart, a vehicle’s handling is evaluated easier at low speeds. See how it behaves on corners and during lane changes. Test the brakes while turning. You don’t need to be going fast.

Most new vehicle test-drives last only a few minutes. To fully evaluate any vehicle, it needs to be driven over a variety of roads. Don’t be rushed by any salesperson. Drive every vehicle in the category you are looking at. It takes time, but since buying a vehicle takes a lot of hard earned money, the more vehicles you drive, the better you will be able to compare the qualities of each vehicle.

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