Passing the test drive

What to look for when you get behind the wheel of a car -- before you buy it.


There is something about a new-car smell that is positively intoxicating. There is something about a new car's shiny interior and gleaming upholstery and glowing Boeing 757-like instrument panel that leaves people giddy and weak.

And sometimes when that happens, they get stupid, too.

How else to explain that people routinely botch what, it can be argued, the most important part of the new car-buying experience: the test drive.

"It's fun to get excited about a new car," said Mitch McCullough, editor-in-chief of, an Internet content provider that publishes 170 vehicle reviews a year. "It's great to be emotional - to some extent."

But not to the extent that your brain turns to mush and you fall in love with a car before determining if it's actually right for you.

For tips on taking a proper test drive, we solicited the opinion of a handful of experts and incorporated them into a road test of the new Audi A3, a sleek 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder hatchback with a base price of $25,000, at Valley Motors in Cockeysville.

Turns out we screwed up even before buckling our seat belt and adjusting the mirrors.

"People make a mistake of taking the nicest day of the week, a sunny day with no adverse conditions, and going for a test drive," said Nick Merenyi, the Valley Motors sales manager who arranged our test. "Now what happens when it's raining? How do the windshield wipers work? How ... is the road noise from the water splashing up on the car?"

OK, it was a sunny, cloudless day. But it wasn't exactly nice. The temperature was in the 20s and with the wind chill factor, it felt like the Yukon Territory in January.

So we didn't get to test the windshield wipers. But the heater - excuse me, the "fully automatic dual-zone climate control system" - worked just great.

Tom McLaughlin, manager of the Automobile Association of America's Approved Auto Repair Program and a longtime observer of dealership practices, said potential buyers need to fully research a car, concentrating on reliability and resale value, before taking it for a test drive.

Then, once the test drive begins, concentrate on the basics.

"Make sure the vehicle meets your needs for accelerating, braking, cargo capacity and general handling," McLaughlin said.

"Take the car through steps outside the realm of normal cruising," he continued. "Make sure the accelerator, braking and cornering [are] what you expect."

Brian Moody, road-test editor for, an online resource for automotive information, said a good test drive should take 30 minutes to 45 minutes.

"It's not reasonable to make a $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 decision based on a five-minute ride," he said.

Our half-hour test drive first took us north on a hilly stretch of Interstate 83. This allowed us to shoot past a number of tractor-trailers and test the A3's responsive 200-hp, turbocharged engine at speeds somewhat past the legal limit without a police cruiser with flashing lights pulling us over.

But, as Merenyi noted: "Everything drives good in a straight line. Take it on a back road."

So we exited at Hereford and drove the winding back roads to get a feel for how the car hugged the turns; it's European-style suspension made cornering a breeze. We also did some quick stops to test the four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes, which also performed well.

One stop - caused by driver error, not the brakes - resulted in a slight, gravel-spraying spin in front of a country convenience store, at which point we were reminded of another piece of advice from McCullough. ("Don't suddenly try to turn yourself into a [tester] for Car and Driver magazine.")

McCullough said a test drive is a time to go over a mental check-list of questions, which becomes, at times, an almost metaphysical assessment of the car.

"Does the vehicle become an extension of me fairly quickly?" is one question potential buyers should ask themselves, he said. "Or do I feel like I'm trying to operate a machine?

"It comes down to the sum of how it handles. Is it responsive, yet not too darty for you? ... Ride quality: does it feel smooth and refined? Are the brakes easy to modulate for a nice, smooth stop?"

On the other hand, he advised, "look for things that annoy you, too. Because some of those annoyances can continue to annoy you over time."

An example, McCullough said, might be window switches on the center console rather than on the door, which can make rolling the window down to pay tolls more cumbersome.

Yet another example: "Does the radio have teeny-tiny buttons that are hard to find?"

Actually, the A3's radio was a gem. As Valley Motors sales consultant Ron Russell noted, the radio - excuse me, the "Concert II AM/FM stereo with in-dash CD player" - has a Radio Data System (RDS) that not only tells you what song is playing, but who the artist is.

(Let's face it: that alone might be worth 25 grand to some people.)

We ended our test drive with a walk-around inspection of the vehicle, as recommended by all our experts.

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