Buying a vehicle is a big decision, and you know the saying — knowledge is power. Whether you’re test driving a new or used car, these tips will help you maximize your time behind the wheel.

If you’re buying used, don’t forget to check out our blog on What To Look For When Buying a Used Vehicle.

Step 1: Know what you want (and what you don’t want)

While the test drive itself starts when you get in the car and start the engine, the research and vetting that lead up to that point are just as important. Before the test drive happens, you should establish that the car meets all your basic requirements, including fuel efficiency, price and whether the model is a suitable fit for your lifestyle.

We recommend test driving a few cars before making your final decision. For one, if your current car is on its way out, a new or relatively new vehicle will feel like a revelation no matter what. Getting behind the wheel of a few different cars will help broaden your perspective.

One of the keys to maximizing your test drive is to bring someone along with you, especially if they’re more knowledgeable about cars than you. Either way, it never hurts to have a second pair of eyes that might catch potential issues that you miss.

Step 2: The superficial inspection

If the car is used, you will want to examine the exterior for any dings, dents and rust (that goes for imperfections in the windshield too). Check the tires to see how much life they have left in them (you can find our guide for checking tire tread here). Make sure the sound system and all the lights, signals, seatbelts and seat adjustments work.

Check the trunk space and try sitting in the backseat to see how much leg room the car affords. Finally, get in and out of the car a few times to see how easily and comfortable it is.

Step 3: Hit the road

You should feel confident about two things at the end of your test drive.

  1. What the car is capable of, and
  2. How it will feel to drive in your everyday life.

Pick a route that reflects your regular routine, whether that’s commuting on a busy highway or a hilly suburban incline to your child’s school. Here are a few key things to pay attention to when driving the car:

  • How smoothly it accelerates. Make sure to merge onto a fast-moving highway to see how the vehicle handles accelerating to highway speed. Then drive it up and down a steep hill to see how it responds.
  • How smoothly it stops. In a safe location (after giving your passengers a heads up) come to a hard stop from 70 or 80 km/h. Then try it again but slower. Listen for suspicious sounds and feel for any vibrations from the car or steering wheel.
  • How the suspension handles bumps in the road. Is it a smooth ride or does it give your seatbelt a workout? Take your car on a bumpy road to see how it responds and listen for any banging or clunking sounds.
  • How it feels to steer. Do you feel like you’re wrestling with the car on a winding road? There’s only one way to find out.
  • Remember, comfort is everything. If the vehicle doesn’t feel right on the test drive, it’s not going to feel any better when you’re driving it home from the dealership.

Other things to keep in mind

At some point when you’re driving on the highway, get your passengers to quiet down and listen. Do you hear anything strange? Is the wind louder than it should be? If there are any noises that will get on your nerves, that’s a red flag.

Visibility is another important factor to consider. Make sure you check your blind spots, including reverse parking and parallel parking between two vehicles to get a sense of how big the car is and what your view is like.

Step 4: Take some reflection time

Above all, don’t feel pressured to rush through the test drive or into the sale. It’s not unusual for test drives to take up to half an hour, so take advantage of all the time you can. If you’re serious about the vehicle but want to know how it drives at night, ask the dealer or seller if you can come back for a second test drive after dark.

Before you even arrive to see the car in person, it’s a good idea to tell yourself that you won’t commit to buying it for at least 24 hours. That way, no matter how charged up you feel at the end of your test drive, you will have a chance to think it over and compare notes on the other cars you’ve looked at before jumping into negotiations.