Find a new car? Don't test-drive it
What's a 10-minute spin going to tell you about the car? Here's a better suggestion.
I was chatting with my friend Cary Lockwood, the automotive guru and local radio show personality, over the phone the other day when I happened to mention that I might soon be in the market for a new (or less old) car.
He made a startling -- and, IMHO, startlingly brilliant -- suggestion: Once you've narrowed choices down to two or three cars that you could be serious about buying, don'ttest-drive them. Instead, rent them.
He pointed out that, in the first place, a 10-minute spin around the block and up the freeway is no way to determine whether the car fits your needs or to become familiar with its handling characteristics.
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And second, it's hard to evaluate a vehicle with a salesman hanging over your shoulder pitching the thing. The test drive is one of several tools car sellers use to pressure you into buying. Even when you know this, most people easily succumb to the emotional appeal of a shiny new vehicle.
Cary observes that today's vehicles are built to run, relatively trouble-free, for 10 years or more, if you take care of them. The smart frugalist figures that the longer you can drive a car, the less it costs over the long run. I, for one, plan to drive a car for 10 years or until it falls apart, whichever comes last. Because it's a big investment and you'll have to live with it for a long time, doesn't it make sense to invest a few extra dollars and some time to be sure you're making the right decision?
Rental costs for a Prius run about $40 a day -- maybe less with a coupon or corporate account. The New York Times calls hybrid rental prices "excessive," but it's hard to assess the truth of this. Car-rental companies play coy about pricing; I haven't found one that will quote a price unless you sign up to reserve a vehicle. A survey of various websites suggests rental rates in general run from about $38 to $150 a day.
Forty or 50 bucks for an entire day of test-driving time looks reasonable when you intend to hang on to a vehicle for upward of a decade.
Cary suggests that you take plenty of time to test the air conditioning, the seating capacity and comfort, the gasoline mileage, and the car's handling characteristics. You might even consider renting it for a three-day weekend, giving time to drive it under different conditions and maybe take it on the open road for a day trip.
Here are a few things to check out:
- How quickly and effectively does the air conditioning cool the car?
- If you have kids, does the interior accommodate your car seats? Don't guess: Install the car seats and observe how they fit and how difficult it is to get the car seat and the child in and out of the vehicle.
- Does the trunk or storage area hold a week's worth of groceries? How about your golf clubs or skis?
- Can all the drivers in your family see the speedometer and other dials clearly when the driver's seat is adjusted to fit them?
- Get in and out of the driver's and the passengers' seats several times. How easy (or difficult) is it to get in and out of the vehicle?
- How responsive is the steering?
- How well does the vehicle take curves?
- Does the car accelerate fast enough to enter a freeway safely?
- With the car moving at the legal speed limit, brake hard. Observe the time it takes to bring the car to a halt and the car's performance during braking.
- Make a U-turn. How large is the vehicle's turning radius?
- Find a bumpy stretch of road. How's the comfort factor on a rough surface?
- If you decide to drive the car out of town, how does the comfort in the driver's and the passengers' seats hold up over the long haul?
- What, really, is the gasoline mileage?
While many of these tests can be done during a standard car dealer's test drive, several require time and the absence of a pesky salesman. Renting the model you'd like to buy is a smart way to go.
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