Test Driving 101: The fine art of shopping without buying

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Author’s Note: Would you buy a horse without riding it first? You shouldn’t buy or lease a new vehicle without driving it either. But each week I talk to several people who approach the test-driving process with dread because they’ll have to deal with car salespeople. (One cried, ‘They’ll be on me like red ants on a spilled snow cone!’) Not to worry. That won’t happen to you.

This little Test Driving 101 tutorial will teach you the angst-free way to navigate this necessary phase of your shopping process. If you follow this advice, you’ll get all the information you need to make the right choice without being pressured into a premature price negotiation. And you’ll be in total control of the process from the moment you arrive at each dealership.


Let’s start by exorcising the anxiety, then cover the other test driving objectives

When you walk into a car store, you become some salesperson’s ‘up.’ It’s like a taxi stand, but without the waiting line. Each salesperson’s name is on an unwritten list, and the one at the top who’s ‘up’ gets the next available prospect — you.

When you’re there to test drive, there’s a mile-wide gulf between their objective and yours: They’re there to collect revenue; you’re there to collect information. They’re in the NOW business, you’re in the NOT NOW business, and they want their business to be your business. They know that if they don’t sell you a car on that visit, they’ll probably never see you again.

In addition, they’re playing a home game, on their field, and you’re the visitor, playing an away game.

But touché! You’ve got a better game plan.

When you walk in and say, ‘I’m here to test drive a Honda Accord EX,’ the salesperson is likely to say, ‘This is your lucky day, we’re having a big sale. If I got you the right price, would you buy the car today?’

To which you will respond, simply and directly, ‘No. I am considering a few other cars, all of which I am going to test drive before making my choice. If I decide to buy an Accord, I’d be glad to give your dealership a shot at selling me one.’ (The other cars on your real or fictional list are none of their business.)

Then, at the end of the test drive, when the salesperson says, ‘Let’s take a quick look at some numbers,’ you’ll reply (firmly), ‘I appreciate the time you’ve spent today, but I don’t want to waste your time or mine. And we’d be doing that to both of us if we looked at numbers on a car I haven’t decided to buy. If I choose the Accord, I’ll be contacting your store for a price proposal.’

If you follow this game plan at every car store you visit for a test drive, including the final one, you’ll get a straightforward test drive without getting pressured into a price negotiation.

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Read more: Why you shouldn’t let your gas tank run this low

Planning your visits

Once you’ve decided which make(s) and model(s) you want to test, visit the automakers’ web sites, most of which have “Dealer Locators” listing names, addresses and phone numbers. You’ll enter your zip code and get info on the nearest dealer or two. (Newspapers also typically print dealer information in their automotive sections.) If you’re considering a make with a smaller number of dealers, you may have to enter more remote zip codes to get dealers’ locations over a wider geographic area.

Don’t call ahead to set test-drive appointments. That smacks too much of a “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you” commitment. (You don’t need an appointment. You’re not sick. This is a test drive, not a doctor visit.) Just choose the stores you’ll visit, grab a pen and a pad to take detailed notes, leave your checkbook at home and jump in your car.

At the car store

When you tell the salesperson why you’re there, you’ll probably be asked for your driver’s license. That’s a pretty standard, reasonable request, something required by the dealership’s insurance company. They’ll make a copy, but you should remind them that federal law forbids them from requesting a copy of your credit report without your permission, and you are not giving them that. If they say they must check your credit to give you a test drive, then you can say, “Thank you for giving me a solid reason not to buy a car here” and walk out.

Be sure to test cars equipped close to the way you’d want them. Don’t drive an automatic transmission if you want a stick shift. A coupe if you want a sedan. A 4-cylinder engine if you want 6-cylinders. (Test drive both if you’re unsure.) And make those drives long enough to put the cars through the paces you’ll require of them every day. If much of your driving is at highway speeds, get out on the Interstate.

During the drive, ask the salesperson any questions you’ve got — about warranties and the cost of scheduled maintenance or about how to work all the bells and whistles on the dashboard. But avoid showing enthusiasm. No heavy breathing! Salespeople are trained to make the purchase process as emotional as possible, believing that if they can get you excited about that car, they can sell it to you before you leave for your next test drive.

You should project total emotional detachment. In the showroom, on the lot, during the drive your behavior should say, “A car is an appliance that gets me from Point A to Point B. Lots of cars will do that, including many I haven’t tested yet.” Act undecided, uncommitted, even a little wishy-washy. If you comment on something you like, also find something you don’t like.

Heavy breathing in car stores only leads to heavy payments. It’s OK to fall in love with a car. Just don’t show it. And don’t put your left brain to sleep.

Read more: 6 used cars under $12,000 that get 40 miles per gallon

Before you leave the dealership

After the test drive, ask the salesperson for some literature on the model — ideally the four-color brochure. Thank him or her for their time, take their business card and tell them you’ll be sure to contact their dealership if you decide to buy or lease a vehicle they sell.

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Then take a few minutes to walk around their new-vehicle inventory to check out colors (which can look different in person than in a brochure, depending on the light) and study a few manufacturer’s window stickers on the model(s) you’re considering. Have a small pad, and write down the key information: model numbers and the suggested retail prices (MSRPs) of the base vehicle, the contents and prices of the optional equipment packages and other accessories and the destination charge. Automakers ship vehicles in different configurations to different regions, and in taking time to do this, you’ll learn more about how they’re put together in your market.

The smart shoppers’ tiebreaker

If you’re having difficulty choosing a favorite, here’s an idea that beats flipping a coin: Consider renting each finalist for a day or so on weekends, as a way to learn more than you can in those brief test drives. This will set you back a few dollars, but the rental cost pales in comparison to the expensive mistake of buying the wrong car.

You may have to make several calls to find what you want, but most popular domestic and import models can be rented. Many new-car dealers rent cars by the day. If only last year’s model is available, rent it anyway. Most cars are redesigned on 5-year intervals, and the interim-year changes are modest.

That’s Test Driving 101. It’s your game plan for getting all the information you need to make the right choice without getting pressured into a premature price negotiation.

Read more: New ranking: The most and least reliable new cars

For more money-saving advice on your automobile, see our Cars section.

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