Car Buying

Test driving is critical when buying a new car

Make sure you like the car, and you'll only know for sure by driving it.

It's easier than ever to research a new car purchase. You can examine options and spec out a car at every automaker's homepage, expert reviews from professional car critics are a few keystrokes away, and you can find and compare deals on cars from every nearby dealer from the comfort of your living room, office, or bathroom (we won't judge). We've reached a point at which you could hypothetically decide what car you should buy, what options you want, and where you want to buy it without even having to do a test drive. But buying a car without test driving is a good way to make yourself unhappy for a long time.

The simple fact of the matter is, car reviews can tell you a lot about a car, but only so much as to narrow the field. They can help you decide what, out of the many different makes and models, you should focus on, so you don't have to do all the legwork on your own. If you're looking for something sporty, reviews can help you find the cars with the best handling or peppiest engines. Or if you need comfort, reviews can highlight which cars have soft rides and supportive seats.

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The problem is that the evaluators aren't actually you, and as such, they can't predict what little things could drive you up the wall. For instance, you may find a review that says the MX-5 Miata is the best small sports car on the market, but if you buy one without even taking a spin, you may not realize until it's too late that you can't stand not having Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and the narrow, thin seats just don't sit well with your back.

My parents just recently bought a new Mazda3 and learned firsthand the importance of test driving. Before checking out the 3, they really thought the Honda Fit was going to be the perfect car to replace their Subaru Impreza. They loved how versatile it was and were particularly enamored by the many ways the seats could be folded. They also really liked the size and the price. But after their drive, they fell out of love very quickly with the Fit. They weren't fond of the clutch and shifter (my parents are manual die-hards like me), feeling they were light and unpleasant. They really disliked the touchscreen infotainment, and they found the engine to be a bit underpowered. And I want to emphasize, they had pretty much sold themselves on the Fit right up until they drove it. Afterward they stopped by the Mazda dealer next door and fell in love with the 3. They found it to be far more comfortable, a much more enjoyable drive and it fit nicely in their price range.

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Going on a test drive is a good way to determine how much you really need some options. Let's take the Ford Focus ST for instance. One of the attractive options are the heavily bolstered Recaro sports seats. You'll probably see a number of reviews lavishing praise on them for their nice leather and excellent support. But, if you're a bigger person like yours truly, you may actually find those seats a bit uncomfortable, like wearing a tight sweater. As such, you might actually be happier with the standard seats. Another example could be the Subaru Crosstrek. The top-spec model has an upgraded stereo, but having tried it out next to the mid-level one, I could hardly tell the difference. The only way you can know is by sitting in the car and trying them out. You may discover you can save a few hundred in options and be happier.

Basically the only way to find the right car, the one that will make you happy, as opposed to the "best" car that reviewers rate highest, is to try it out for yourself. And it will be worth it to spend this extra time now, because a car is a long-term investment. You're probably going to have this car for a few years, possibly even a decade, and spend thousands of dollars on it. Even if it means braving annoying salespeople, you'll be glad you spent the extra half day or so trying out cars to make sure you're happy for the next few years. So do yourself a favor, make sure you take that test drive.

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