You Should Always Test Drive a Vehicle Before You Buy It

Test drives are an important part of the car buying process. It lets you suss out subtle differences that might become a big deal over time.

byKevin Williams| PUBLISHED May 27, 2022 1:15 PM
You Should Always Test Drive a Vehicle Before You Buy It
Andrew Collins/Ford
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I guess I live in a bubble because I assumed that most people test drove cars before they forked over thousands of dollars to buy one. But when I went to go casually check out a new Ford Maverick, I was reminded by my colleagues, Twitter, Facebook, and tacitly a Ford salesman, that many people just don’t do that. That is unthinkable. Every potential vehicle purchase, with a few exceptions (like, say, a non-running car), should be test-driven.

I’ll concede that in the age of the electrified luxury car, and the era of the compact crossover, it seems like every manufacturer is essentially making the “same” car. But, every manufacturer has unique ideas, methods, and recipes that come together to create a distinctive driving experience. A test drive will reveal that, maybe, there’s something in that proverbial recipe you just don’t like. But you won’t know until you give it a taste. Recently, I wanted to “taste” a Ford Maverick.

I’ve been doing the “flip car” thing for a long while now, and one of the worst parts of the job is the logistics. Most of my cars are basket cases, usually needing an engine—a big, wide, dirty, metal lump that’s at least 300 pounds. I’ve sort of gotten away with using my friend’s remarkably handy, and free-99 Scion xB for the vast majority of engine hauls. But, admittedly, the older I get, the less novel and fun it is to place a car engine into the rear of a Bush-era Toyota subcompact. So recently I decided to spend a little scratch on a two-hour U-Haul Silverado Rental and I might have fallen in love with the Silverado’s insanely useful bed. Spills of oil and coolant from a dismembered engine could be hosed right out, rather than embedding themselves into the floor and seats of Toyota’s mouse-fur carpet.

I was hypnotized by the allure of a hose-out bed, but I don’t want the compromises in fuel economy that come with a traditional pickup. Really, that brought me the sole option that could work for me - a Maverick Hybrid.  Now, I know I’ve talked a fair amount of shit about the vehicle, but I can’t deny its attractive pricing, stellar fuel economy (at least on paper), and right-sized form factor.

This Maverick XLT Hybrid was a custom order, and already sold.

Yet, despite literally writing multiple pieces about the chaotic used and new car market, I still was shocked to find that my local dealer had zero Mavericks for demonstration. The Ford dealer was sparse, only a survivor Ecosport and a stray Escape made up the new car selection. My salesman tried his best to accommodate me, coincidentally, that morning, two custom order Maverick units had arrived, but were already sold and spoken for. I could prod around them, and sit inside them, but driving them was off-limits. That sucks.

From what I learned from a ten-minute interior and exterior tour at the dealership, I guess the Maverick could work for my needs. The price seemed attractive, and I thought the interior was pretty nifty. It’s still not my favorite trucklet to look at, but it seemed to check every box. But, without a test drive, I wouldn’t much about how comfortable, annoying, or simply not to my tastes a potential vehicle could be. My colleagues all seem to love the Maverick, but I am not my colleagues. I could flat out hate the Maverick’s driving dynamics I won’t know until I drive one.

I like the interior, but my opinion could change after I get some time driving the truck.

Even a brief test drive, no matter if the car is new or used, can paint a picture of what the car is like to live with. I have had too many friends and acquaintances thoughtlessly spend thousands on a car, only to realize a few weeks after purchase, they find some aspect of the vehicle unlivable. A friend of mine purchased a Honda HR-V but didn’t realize how the vehicle’s lack of performance is exacerbated by a CVT. Even a short test drive would have revealed the crossover’s disagreeable performance.

I insist: You should test drive the vehicle before you purchase it. And while you’re at it, here’s a checklist of things you might want to consider. My momma told me once, “you’re the one driving the thing every day, and making the payment, make sure this is the thing that will work for you.” I wouldn’t consider her a car enthusiast, but even the laypeople who are uninterested in cars have an idea of what they like and want in a vehicle.

On a test drive, it may be helpful to think about these things:

  • Are the vehicle’s radio and climate controls within your scope of reach and easy to use? Or, do they have a big learning curve, one that you aren’t sure you can master after a few days? Not all touchscreen-based infotainment systems are created equal. Some are pretty good, others are borderline dangerous. 
  • How's the car’s freeway performance? Does it feel adequate for your local traffic and driving style? Does the vehicle feel confident at freeway speeds?
  • Pay attention to your body; are the seats comfortable? Can you easily find a comfortable driving position? Sometimes a vehicle's comfort level can dramatically change an impression of a stopped vehicle, versus one on the road driving. 

In this current age of supply-constrained new and used cars, it can be tempting to forgo that questionnaire in the interest of getting your rump in the driver’s seat of any old thing. But, please don’t do that. You will be happier when you wait, and make an informed decision based on your tastes and experience with the thing. We auto reviewers, bloggers, and journalists can espouse our own thoughts and feelings, but at the end of the day, you should buy the car that works for your needs. It should be a vehicle that you like because you’re the one paying for, and driving the thing every day.

Take that test drive.