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I rode along on many test drives as a former car dealership employee. I always noticed how customers interacted with a salesperson or me and what they did in the car. There are many things customers said or did that could lose them money. Additionally, apparent problems with a vehicle almost always go unnoticed. Here are five tips for the dealership test drive to help you save money and get an excellent car.

1. Turn off the music during the drive

A person uses the Ford Sync 4 infotainment system, tips for the dealership test drive include hitting every button.
Ford Sync 4 infotainment | Ford

My first tip for the dealership test drive is that the radio and sound system in the vehicle will be there when you park. During the test drive, it’s time to listen to the sounds of the car. I can’t tell you how many people instantly get into the vehicle they’re interested in and blast music through the speakers. Save the sound tests for afterward when the car is parked back on the lot. Moreover, test drives are for testing the quality of the vehicle, and very few people do this.

Turning off the music allows the driver to listen to the sounds of the vehicle. Do the brakes squeal or grind? Does the engine sputter or make abnormal sounds? Are the tires louder than you’re used to while they roll down the street? These and other odd sounds could be signs of more severe issues. In short, test the sound system in the parking lot, and listen to the car while you’re driving.

2. Press every single button in the car

Press every button in a car is a tip for the dealership test drive.
2022 Toyota Corolla Cross Infotainment system

I can’t tell you how many times someone bought a car and didn’t discover that a particular feature didn’t work until weeks, months, or a year later. Especially in modern vehicles, loads of buttons control many features. Most of them won’t get daily, frequent use. However, you will use them eventually, and some might not work. My next tip for the dealership test drive is to hit every single button inside the vehicle. It might be best to wait until parked, but remain inside and use everything.

That means the heating and seat heater, even in the middle of summer, plus the rear AC controls. Next, change every setting back and forth, no matter what it is, to make sure it works. Many of the buttons not working will be a simple fix. Fortunately, finding it before purchasing the vehicle means the dealer will fix it for you. Contrarily, if you discover something doesn’t work months later, you’ll probably have to pay.

3. Start the car multiple times

Mercedes key fob, start the car multiple times while testing a car.
Mercedes-Benz key fob | Uli Deck/picture alliance via Getty Images

As an eyewitness to salespeople and their tactics, I can tell you that starting the car multiple times is essential, especially if the vehicle is running when you come outside for the test drive. The salesperson likely jumped the battery or solved some issue and didn’t want to turn off the engine because it might not start again. Starting the vehicle multiple times allows you to find a few things.

Firstly, if the vehicle sounds like it is struggling to start, there’s an underlying issue. Next, if the car needs a battery, the dealer could hide that from you. Keeping the car running means the battery is charging and will start for a while. However, when you take the car home later that day, it might fail to start. Make sure the car turns over quickly and easily when you start the ignition.

4. Don’t show your excitement

Salespeople will always point out exciting features and details about the car you’re interested in. While some might be amazing, don’t show your excitement to the salesperson. From that point forward, every time you question the price or try to negotiate, the excellent features you love so much will be used against you. I’ve seen it thousands of times, and the person is so happy about a specific quality that it costs them more money.

I’m not telling you to be utterly deadpan during the test drive. However, saying something like “oh cool” when the salesperson shows a feature is much better than being overly excited. You’re interested in the vehicle, but you don’t want to seem willing to pay a premium price.

5. Monitor the temperature gauge during the test drive

2019 Toyota Camry engine
2019 Toyota Camry engine | Toyota

My final tip for the dealership test drive is always watch the temperature gauge. Fluctuation in the temperature, or nearing overheating, is an awful sign. The dealer can easily hide it by not running the car for a while. However, driving and accelerating for a few minutes will heat it enough to notice. Keep in mind a well-maintained vehicle likely won’t heat up passed the midpoint of a temperature gauge.

If the car is in danger of overheating (or another problem), the salesperson will likely keep the drive short. If there is a set route, try to go just a bit further than they want you to. It doesn’t matter if it’s another minute down the road and back; drive it long enough to determine if the car will overheat or have another issue. Additionally, accelerate to highway speeds and feel for abnormalities and high temperatures.

Tips for the dealership test drive

Going on test drives with a salesperson inside the vehicle is very awkward. However, the salesperson will do anything to make sure you are in love with the car. While you’re there to see if you like the vehicle, ensuring it works well is more important. NPR recommends some more general practices when visiting a dealer. That’s why I recommend turning off the music, pressing all the buttons, starting the car repeatedly, staying calm, and monitoring the temperature. You never know what the sales team is trying to hide from the customer, especially with an older used vehicle. Doing these things can help you discover problems before it’s too late.


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