The life of a car journalist isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, we get flown all around the world, sleep in five-star hotels, and get to eat in the sort of restaurants that few of us could afford to visit if we were picking up the bill, but the thrill of it all fades after a while. It can be a non-stop gig; with new cars being launched on a daily basis, some journos leave home on a Sunday afternoon and only stagger back to their family on a Friday evening, jet-lagged and bloated and in search of nothing more than beans on toast and a decent cup of tea.
It doesn’t even given you many transferrable skills (unless you count an impressive ability to dodge the bar bill at the end of the evening). But, because it’s not unusual for us to drive upwards of forty different new cars a year, one of the few skills we do have is the ability to assess and rate a vehicle’s features and character within an hour-or-so of getting behind the wheel.
So, here are my tips to help you winnow the wheat from the chaff when you’re on the hunt for your next new or used car.
Don’t rush your test drive
The typical test drive (assuming, that is, that you take one; you’d be amazed at how many people buy a new car without having driven it first) lasts only a few minutes; the salesperson will often drive first, only handing the keys over for you to drive on the return leg - and that might only be a mile or so in distance.
This makes absolute sense from their perspective, but makes little sense from yours because you really need an hour or more behind the wheel in order to experience what the car is like in traffic, on open A-roads, and along faster stretches like motorways or dual-carriageways.
Also, if you spend the majority of your time in cities then that’s where you should spend the most time evaluating your shortlisted cars. The same goes if you spend hours at a time on the motorway; it might be harder to arrange a test-drive like this but you really do need to spend a decent amount of time using the car as you would if you bought it.
So, don’t be afraid to ask for a longer test drive, and if they’re cagey or refuse, then walk away and look elsewhere.
It’s not all doom-and-gloom because more and more car manufacturers are starting to offer 24-hour, or even weekend-long, test drives - and those that don’t might be open to the suggestion if you ask nicely.
Get comfortable in the car
Take your time to get comfortable, too. Adjust the seat and make sure that you can depress the brake and clutch pedal easily, that you can rest your wrists on the top of the steering wheel, and that the mirrors are adjusted correctly.
If you can’t get comfortable then it might be that this model just doesn’t suit you; I’m oddly proportioned and just can’t get comfortable in the BMW 3-series, for example. It might well be a very fine car but I would never buy one because I just don’t fit in them.
You’ll also need to check that you know where the indicators, lights and wipers are. Then, and only then, can you start your test drive.
Drive the car as you would normally
This is important. There’s no point in trying to show off by driving fast if you normally drive like a short-sighted vicar. Similarly, if you enjoy putting your foot down where it’s safe and legal to do so, then explain what you’re about to do before you do it and ask if that’s OK!
Most salespeople will be happy to accommodate you but you need to ask them first; no-one likes surprises, especially when they’re in the passenger’s seat and there’s a stranger behind the wheel.
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Take note of what’s happening
You’ll also need to concentrate on what’s happening. Driving a new and unfamiliar car can be a sensory overload, so you’ll need a few miles to get used to the way it drives and the noises it makes.
When you’re comfortable, try and analyse how the steering feels: is it light or heavy? Can you feel what’s happening when you turn into a corner? Try to evaluate how it enters the corner too: does it dart into the bend or do you need to haul it in?
Be consistent when you’re cornering: use a steady state throttle (i.e. keep it in one position) and single-input steering (look towards the end of the bend and try not to keep adding and subtracting steering lock) to make sure you can accurately gauge what the car is doing through a corner.
During your test drive, ask yourself: How does the steering wheel feel? Is it comfortable? Or is it too thick or thin? Can you get the angle of the steering wheel right, or is it too upright or flat?
The same goes for the brakes: are they sharp or dull? Can you modulate the pressure effectively when you brake from speed? Can you bring the car to a smooth halt or does it come to a stop with a jerk?
You’ll need to work your way through the car’s full operation on the road: is the gearbox easy to use? Does the clutch take up the drive smoothly, or is it abrupt? Does the exhaust drone or is it quiet? Is there a lot of tyre noise? Is it easy to steer through traffic, park and pull out from junctions? While almost no-one builds a bad car these days, you’d be surprised at how different they feel from one another.
Finally, ask yourself: are you enjoying it? If you’re not enjoying the test drive then there’s a very real chance that the car will never worm its way into your affections, no matter how attractive it might look on paper.
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Check out the gizmos
Find a safe place to stop and then try altering the heating controls. Then tune the radio, input a destination to the sat-nav, and explore the car’s infotainment centre. Some are so intuitive that you’ll never have the need to either read the instruction manual or take your eyes off the road to use them.
Others are so complex that it is all but impossible to alter even the basics without staring at the touchscreen and scrolling through multiple menus. This is not only a real safety issue, it’ll drive you mad if you have to live with it on a daily basis.
What are the back seats and the boot like?
You should also check out how much space you have in the back seat and the boot. If you regularly carry adults or teenage children then you’ll need to make sure that there is enough space behind the driver for them to fit in without discomfort.
If you play golf or have another equipment-heavy hobby, take the equipment with you and put it all in the boot; there’s no point buying a car if you have to reduce your mountain bike to its constituent components every time you want to take it out for the day.
Take a glance back at the car
Take a quick glance back at it as you’re walking away and ask yourself whether you like the look of it. It might sound daft, but the cars we fall in love with tend to appeal on an emotional, as well as a practical, level; while purchase and running costs are important, they are only a couple of the many factors you need to take into account when deciding what car to buy.
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Drive the car's rivals
Motoring journalists do back-to-back tests all the time, and you should too; it’s even worth test driving a few different models of car even if you are convinced you know which one you want to buy because you might just be pleasantly surprised by a car you’d hadn’t previously considered.
And even if they all feel the same to you, test driving different models allows you to play one dealer off against another when the time comes to negotiate the final deal.
Ask your other half
If you have someone in your life then it’s worth asking them for their opinion. I always used to ask my wife what she thought about the cars we had for review and she would often mention a feature or a flaw that I’d overlooked or ignored.
This kind of feedback is invaluable as we all have preconceived ideas about the stuff we think we like, and this can lead to something called confirmation bias, where we seek out information that supports our conclusions and ignore that which doesn’t.
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Sleep on it
Then sleep before making your final decision; you’ll be amazed at how often you wake up with a different opinion to the one you fell asleep with. The brain will have sifted through the information it has - including the unconscious stuff you weren’t aware of - and processed it to come up with a decision.
If you still can’t decide, try listing the positives and negatives. Again, I’ve sometimes started writing a review thinking that I really liked the car only to realise part-way through writing the review that one single positive thing had blinded me to half-a-dozen serious faults.
Toss a coin
If you still can’t decide, toss a coin; there’s no need to wait for it to land because you’ll know whether you want it to land heads or tails as it’s cartwheeling its way through the air. (This works for almost every other decision you’re dithering over; try it, it’s brilliant!)