The right way to test drive a car

It's one of the most important financial decisions you'll make. Don't rush it.

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By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- When you're buying a new car, a test drive is an essential step in the process. But once you're behind the wheel, you only have a short time to make some very important decisions. What do you look for?

It's going to take more than a quick spin around the block, so before you climb into the driver's seat, check out the list below.

Take your time

For starters, don't be in a rush. Walk around the outside of the car and check out the trunk. Make sure it's big enough and has a big enough opening. Look for visibility issues, such as body areas that will be hard to see around while parking or in tight traffic. Watch for fenders that flare out or a sloping hood.

Have a seat

Take time sitting in the car while it's parked. Adjust the seat, the steering wheel and the pedals, if possible, until you find a comfortable driving position. Make sure the seat works for you.

"If it doesn't fit your butt right, it's not the car for you," says Lauren Fix, author of the book "Lauren Fix's Guide to Loving Your Car."

If you have kids, bring them along for the ride. If that's not practical, at least bring their car seats. See how well and how easily everything fits.

Test the tunes

This is also a good time to fiddle with the radio. Make sure you can reach and understand all the controls. Figure out how you'll put in CDs and where you'll plug in your MP3 player.

"You're trying to flag anything that might be problematic in the future," says Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for the Automotive Web site Edmunds.com.

Share the fun

It's always a good idea to bring a friend on your car hunt. He or she can take a position in the back seat, ready to judge the ride and comfort back there. Bring your spouse only after you've decided to buy. If you're pressured for an on-the-spot decision, you can truthfully say you have to wait for your partner's input.

Find a way

The salesman will probably have a preferred test-drive route, but you should explore the area around the dealership and pick one out yourself.

You want variety. Ideally, you'd like a route that involves both right and left turns in traffic, highway entry and exit - cloverleafs are ideal - and some rough stuff. Finally, you want to find a parking lot.

Left turn, right turn

During turns, you're looking for good visibility so you can see where you're turning as well as any oncoming cars. If you find yourself straining to peer around the windshield pillars or side mirrors, that's a problem.

You're also checking how easily you can control the car while accelerating and turning at the same time. At least once or twice you should come to a full stop before entering the turn. In some cars, you'll find it hard to "aim" the car straight down the road as you come out of the turn.

Hit the highway

Highway entrance ramps let you see how the car feels under acceleration and how easy it merges into traffic. Can you easily see traffic to your side as you're approaching the highway?

This is also your chance to see how the car feels at highway speeds. A car's personality can change a lot between 35 and 65 miles per hour. Are you comfortable with how sensitive it is to steering wheel movements? Is it easy to keep in its lane without constant adjustment?

"You need to really pay attention to all your senses," says Reed.

Turn on the radio. Sometimes you can hear noises, like continuous tire or engine sounds, that you don't notice until you're trying to listen to something else.

Try a "passing" maneuver. Find a lane where you can safely slow below 55 miles per hour. Now hit it. Press the gas and speed up as much as you can safely and without getting a ticket. Many cars that feel great going from zero to 60 feel sluggish going from 45 to 65 or 70. They may hesitate to downshift and rev the engine when the gas is pressed hard.

Exiting the highway is a good opportunity to feel the brakes. Are they comfortable and predictable, or do they feel weak and then suddenly grab hard?

Curves ahead

A cloverleaf exit or entrance ramp lets you find out how the car feels on a curve. Are you comfortable with how much it leans during the turn, or does it feel too tippy?

You don't need to take the curve too fast - in fact, it's better if you don't. Keep in mind that you're driving an unfamiliar car. You want to concentrate on how it feels, not on how fast you're going. At a safe speed, very gently increase or decrease pressure on the gas pedal to feel how the car's weight shifts from front to back. If the sensation is unnerving or strange, that's a bad sign.

And ask yourself this: Do I trust where the car will go as I turn the wheel, or am I waiting to see what it does and adjusting to that? This isn't just about driving pleasure - in an emergency, you need a vehicle that responds intuitively.

Rough it up

Now go find those rough roads and railroad crossings. How does the suspension soak up the bumps? Don't just drive straight over that chopped up asphalt, either. Try steering the car. When the suspension is getting bounced around, does it still feel controlled or like a boat on water?

Hit the brakes

Find an empty stretch of road and try a "panic stop" or two. As you're driving, choose a spot on the road ahead. At that point, jam on the brakes as hard you can. You'll probably feel the anti-lock brake system start to vibrate the brake pedal. That's your signal to push down harder.

Does the car stop quickly enough? And are you able to maintain steering control as the car slows?

Park it

Take the car to a parking lot and try putting into a typical space. If you live in the city, try parallel parking too. See how comfortable you feel maneuvering it in a tight space. Again, look for visibility problems. Can you see well enough while backing up? Also see if the turning circle is small enough to handle typical driving and parking situations.

"If you can, get them to let you take the car to your house and try to pull it into your garage," says Fix. Many unfortunate buyers have found out too late that their beautiful new SUV had to stay outdoors.

Size up the competition

Finally, even if you have your heart set on this car, go test drive a couple of competitors. If you don't, you'll never really know if you've made the right buy. To top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.