Next to purchasing a home, accepting the title to a brand-new car will be one of the biggest financial transactions of your life. So why do so many people make a decision after just a few minutes behind the wheel? “It’s absurd,” says B.J. Killeen, an automotive journalist and former road test editor at Motor Trend magazine. “Fifty percent of people who walk into a dealership have no idea what kind of car they want.”

Ideally, researching cars in your price range, checking reliability ratings, and shopping dealerships for the best price all happens before you decide to take something for a spin. Here’s what Killeen says you should know before you hit the ignition.

1. THE DOOR CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

Don’t just hop into the car without taking a closer look at the door and its handle. “Pull it open, shut it, and do it again,” Killeen says. “Pay attention to how it’s reacting. Is it flimsy? The feel of it opening and closing can tell you a lot about the quality of the vehicle.”

2. TURN OFF THE RADIO.

A high-quality sound system is something any sales consultant is going to want to impress you with—but you, being the savvy consumer you are, can wait until you get back to the dealership before you start messing with it. “It’s a distraction,” Killeen says. “You want to be paying attention to the engine and to road noise.” (The latter is especially important: Poorly insulated cabins can contribute to indoor noise pollution and make long trips more fatiguing, she says.)  

3. DON’T TAKE THE DEALER’S ROUTE.

A salesperson riding in the passenger seat is likely to have an idea of where he or she would like you to take the car: Some paths might better show off features like parallel parking assistance or blind spot monitoring. That’s all fine, but you’ll also want to drive on roads you’re most likely to frequent. If it’s highway mileage, you’ll be able to see how the car performs during acceleration; if it’s rockier territory, you can see how it responds to a little adversity.

4. GO TO THE GROCERY STORE.

“People don’t always have an idea of how big a car is until they try to get out of a grocery store spot,” Killeen says. By squeezing into a parking space, you’ll be able to see if you can comfortably get in and out of the vehicle when there’s less room to open the door; backing out lets you test any rear-shift back-up camera and cross-traffic alert features.

5. DON’T DRIVE ALONE.

Some dealerships are happy to let you cruise on your own, but Killeen believes having a sales consultant in the passenger seat is part of the point. “They should be there to answer questions. If you’re not understanding the features of the car, you’re not really getting the full benefit of the test drive.”  

6. JUMP IN THE BACK SEAT.

You might not spend a lot of time back there, but family and friends will. Make sure it’s comfortable, with sufficient leg and head space. Killeen also recommends popping open the trunk to check storage capacity.

7. TRY TO DRIVE YOUR DESIRED TRIM LEVEL.

Car models come in tiers, or “trims,” that offer more features and luxury touches as you move up in price. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to drive the top-of-the-line version when you’re budgeted for the entry-level model, and vice-versa. It’s even more important when there might be a difference in engines. “You don’t want to drive a Ford Fusion 1.6 liter when you want the Fusion Hybrid,” Killeen says. Even seats—some people don’t like leather—can dramatically affect the driving experience. “If a dealer doesn’t have your car, find someone who does.”

8. COME BACK FOR ANOTHER DRIVE AT NIGHT.

The difference between driving during the day and at night is—well, you get it. “I’d drive both times,” Killeen says. “There’s so much new technology, like adaptive lighting, which changes when you turn the steering wheel. You can’t get a good look at it during the day.” A car’s color can also look a little different depending on visibility: Make sure you like it after dark.

9. CONSIDER AN OVERNIGHT TRIAL.

Some dealers allow customers to borrow a car overnight to get a better feel for how it integrates into their life. If it’s available, Killeen believes you should take advantage of the opportunity. “You get to live with it. Does it fit in your garage? Can you get golf clubs or soccer gear in and out of the trunk?” If a sleepover isn’t an option, you could also try renting the model for a few days—just know fleet cars can take a beating and aren’t necessarily a good example of how a brand-new model would handle.

10. DON’T TALK PRICE.

Salespeople are going to want to take advantage of having your ear during a drive by talking financing, add-ons, and other let’s-close-this-deal jargon. You should be more concerned with how the car is behaving. “People have problems stopping consultants cold. You need to be able to say, ‘Let’s not talk about this now. Let’s talk later.” If the pressure doesn’t let up, remember that another dealer is likely to have the car (and attitude) you want. “You need to be in the driver’s seat.”

All images courtesy of iStock.