NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
No matter how good the reviews are, never buy any car without a thorough test drive. And that means more than just taking it for a sip while a salesman points the way.
Plan a real test route
Vary the terrain: Cruise curvy, bumpy side roads, not just straight, well-paved freeways.
Turn, turn, turn: Find an open parking lot to assess the turning circle. Then simulate an emergency lane change at 30 mph.
Leave the salesman behind: Let him demonstrate features, but when it's time to really drive, ditch him or ask him to zip it.
Examine design and construction
Slam the door, tug the seat belts: Run your hands over exterior and interior surfaces, gaps and seams, and don't worry about leaving fingerprints. You'll get an engineer's perspective on how everything fits together. Does it feel cheap or well constructed?
Survey roominess and comfort
Adjust the seats: Pay special attention to support and movability, your driving position and visibility in all directions.
Climb into and out of the back seat: And the third row, if there is one. Is moving around easy?
Fold and erect the third-row seats: Obviously, this goes for minivans and SUVs. Some are third-row seats are a breeze, others are heavy, clumsy or confusing.
Study interior layout
Sit with the motor idling: Tune in to the car's total environment with your eyes, ears, hands and the seat of your pants.
Use the controls: Fiddle with every knob, switch, vent, cup holder and cubby. Are audio and climate controls easy to understand and reach? Are gauges and displays readable and well positioned?
On the road
Floor it: Find a freeway merge or open road where you can safely step on the gas to test pickup. Speed up under full throttle to at least 60 mph.
Accelerate hard from both 30 mph and 50 mph: Pay attention to passing power and shifting smoothness.
Listen to the engine: Does it beg for more or protest with loud straining noises and jarring shifts?
Watch out for jerks: Automatic transmissions should shift smoothly and with a minimum of hesitation or lurching.
Reset the trip computer: So you can see what fuel mileage you can expect.
Let go of the wheel (a little): Make sure the car tracks straight and feels stable with the wheel in the straight-ahead position.
Take curves at a brisk speed: Does the car feel steady, easily holding its lane? Or is it tippy and hard to steer?
Seek out some bad road: Hit the broken pavement, potholes, or dirt and gravel you've mapped out. You'll get a real-world sense of the ride quality and be able to pick up on any body rattles or vibrations. Listen for tire, engine and wind noise
The trunk test
Pop the trunk: Assess overall space and the size of the opening. A neat-looking, well-finished trunk or cargo area-with a lining that's perfectly aligned and fitted, not sloppy-is a sign of a thoroughly detailed car.
Brake hard: Find a safe spot and brake hard to a full stop from at least 50 mph, then do it at least twice more. Do the brakes feel just as powerful the third time?
Notice how smoothly you come to a halt: The car's nose shouldn't dive too sharply when braking.