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new car buying guide

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For most drivers, buying a new vehicle means a big expenditure and a long-term investment. After all your homework is done – asking friends and family for recommendations, reading car reviews and comparing various models, features and prices online – choosing a vehicle that fits you well and does what you need it to do often comes down to the assessment you make in the short amount of time have to test drive the car.

If you’ve bought a number of cars over the years, this process may feel like old hat – but wait. The test drive has evolved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a big impact on how dealers manage test drives. Fortunately, dealers and manufacturers went to great lengths during lockdowns to make it easy for prospective buyers to safely get behind the wheel, and are standardizing these new practices. Many now offer to deliver the test vehicle to your door, fully sanitized, to let you try it at your leisure. Some will even let you use the vehicle for a weekend.

Not only does this mean there is no salesperson riding along, trying to influence you, it also means you can easily see whether the vehicle fits comfortably in your driveway or garage. You can also load it up with your gear, kids and pets to find out if everything fits, without having to leave home.

Making a connection

A test drive today is not just about assessing a car’s physical performance. It’s also about evaluating the on-board technology. New vehicles are loaded with electronics, touch screens, head-up displays and connectivity options, all of which can be well designed and useful or a source of aggravation.

You’ll need to set aside some time in your scheduled test to run through these features while parked and on the move, suggests Malcolm Strachan, a Toronto-based high-performance driving instructor, freelance automotive product specialist and professional driver.

Strachan suggests creating a checklist that includes the functions you use all the time. “Whatever you typically use, you absolutely need to find out how it would work for you in daily use,” he notes.

That might mean connecting your phone, trying any voice-activated commands, using the navigation system to see how intuitive it is, testing Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to see how well they work, playing music, and, navigating through the onscreen menus for functions such as lock and lighting settings.

“If a process is difficult, chances are many of the other technologies may not be very intuitive,” Strachan says. “A major pet peeve for me is when a simple task requires multiple steps or when systems are the furthest from being intuitive. If it doesn’t get better in five minutes, it’ll likely be frustrating indefinitely.”

The basics still apply

Although the new car test drive has changed to suit the times, it still comes down to how you feel driving the vehicle. To get the most out of your test drive, do a little planning to customize the drive.

First, know what you will be using the vehicle for. Is it a long-distance commuter, a city grocery getter, a cottage hauler? Establishing the primary use will let you prioritize space, comfort, entertainment for the kids, or the ability to handle poor road conditions, for example. Also, if it’s to have more than one driver, how easy is it to switch seating positions and device connections from one to another?

Whether you are driving from home or a dealership, plan your route. Ideally, it would be your commute or somewhere you drive regularly, but if that’s not possible, try to mimic the conditions you see every day.

With automated driver-assistance (ADAS) safety features becoming more and more common, chances are your tester will have at least a couple on board. Try them out on a quiet road. Some can be quite intrusive and affect your ability to control the vehicle. Likewise, find an empty stretch of road and do a straight-line braking test from about 50 kilometres an hour to feel the anti-lock system engage – or not – and gauge the braking effectiveness.

Don’t be afraid of bad weather or night driving. If the vehicle handles well in a blizzard at night, chances are it will also behave well on a lovely summer day, says Terry Dale, an Ottawa-based licensed driving instructor, certified automotive service technician and former car salesman.

Dale emphasizes the importance of visibility and manoeuvrability. He suggests taking the prospective new ride to an empty parking lot. Try parking, backing up and slow-speed handling.

“Can you easily see the corners of the vehicle? Are there blind spots? Is the turning circle tight enough to be able to get in and out of tight parking spaces?” he asks.

Most important, Dale says, is to “focus on how it feels and how you feel” while driving it. If it feels awkward or you are not comfortable with it, figure out what you don’t like and move on to another vehicle.

Dale and Strachan agree – whether a new vehicle passes the drive test is personal. What one driver loves, another may loathe, and there’s no way of knowing until you actually get into the cockpit and hit the road.

“It’s all about comfort,” Dale says. “Nobody buys a size 10 shoe if you wear a size 12, no matter how good the price or the deal is.”