The test-drive. It’s a process of inestimable importance that, sadly, some drivers treat as "four right turns around the block" before heading in to see the dealership's finance manager. But it shouldn’t be this way. Taking the time to really evaluate any vehicle you intend to purchase is the best way to prevent buyer’s remorse.

Dealers will tell you that it is in their best interest to sell you the right car to fit your needs. After all, a happy customer might become a repeat buyer, or at least come back for service. But how do you determine what’s right for you? Clearly, after you’ve done the research and think you know what you want, it helps to test drive as many cars as you can. And be sure to drive them in the same situations you face during everyday life.

1. Go Here, Go There, Go Everywhere

John Sackrison, of the Orange County Automobile Association, says test-drive technique doesn't get enough attention from consumers, largely because buying a new car is something people only do every four or five years.

“Take your time,” he stresses, “Don't rush through it and just drive through city streets, but also get on the freeway and try to replicate your normal driving. A car can feel very different on the freeway. I also encourage customers to take some tight corners in a safe location as well as test the brakes.”

2. Park It

Brian Maas, at the California New Car Dealers Association, says performing everyday tasks during a test drive can reveal whether the car meets your personal needs. “Park it, whether it's parallel parking or pulling into a parking lot and backing out,” he says. “Look for blind spots. Are they only visible to a person of a certain height? How do you position your car seat? Take time to get familiar with the car, adjust the pedals and mirror, and adjust your seat and steering column to what's comfortable.”

3. Take Your Time to Understand The Features

Maas also advises spending time fiddling with all the gadgets and gizmos that come with your prospective car. “Understand the basic features and take as much time as they've got. Ask how the luggage rack works, or the folding seats, and see or experience that firsthand. If you're interested that the DVD player is of good quality, then you should bring in a DVD,” he says.

4. Determine Handling From Both Driver And Passenger Seat

But deciding whether a particular car is the right one for you extends well beyond the styling and features that tend to dominate automotive marketing these days. It’s only by getting behind the wheel of multiple models that you can accurately assess the differences in ride and handling, which can be more important over the long haul. “You may like the looks of a car but everyone has a different feeling of how cars drive,” says Sackrison. “Some suspensions are designed for high performance, or you may want something smoother, something that has a long wheelbase or a softer suspension."

Any evaluation should also include the perspective as a passenger. “Sit in the passenger seat and in the back,” says Sackrison. “If you are a salesperson and may have three or four adults in your car, you want to make sure everyone fits comfortably. And the same if you're carting around kids.”

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5. What To Listen For

“One of the biggest complaints is wind noise,” says David Cavano of AAA’s buying service. “So try to drive without the radio on or the AC blowing. See if there's wind noise or a screw rolling about in the frame somewhere. Test the radio first, but you don't want to mask sounds with music. A lot of salespeople talk all through the test drive, so it's important to say, 'Can I have a couple of moments to listen?’”

It goes without saying that strange noises should be investigated, especially all-too-common thunks from the vehicle’s suspension system, which can indicate a potentially dangerous safety hazard. While many noises can indicate mechanical problems, it’s hard to even begin to fabricate a diagnosis without at least pinpointing the location of the sound. That’s about all you can do on a test drive anyway, but the information can be useful if you plan on taking the vehicle to a mechanic for an independent evaluation.

6. New vs. Used

Cavano says some buyers can be lulled into a false sense of security by assuming a new car will be trouble-free. That’s not always the case, however, and he suggests being just as meticulous in a new car test drive as you would for a used car.

“Don't go in expecting everything to be right,” he says. “It's really important to look at fit, finish and paint to begin with. The assumption is that the vehicle has been built properly and test driven from the assembly line to the back lot, and that mechanical problems have been caught. But a lot of cars could have been damaged on the transporter or could have orange-peel paint.”

7. Bring A Partner

Perhaps the best piece of advice is to bring someone else along. It’s helpful to have two sets of eyes and ears, especially when you’re behind the wheel. The right confidant can also be helpful in assuring that you don’t get excited and make a rash judgment.

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