Shop Like a Car Reviewer

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I test drive a new car every week – and have developed a checklist I use to help me do the subsequent write-up. This checklist might help you buy the right car for you, too.

* Seating position/comfort and ride quality -

Don’t buy a vehicle before you’ve spent at least an hour behind the wheel – and in the seat. Chairs that seem comfortable and supportive for a couple of minutes  in the showroom may feel like church pews after an hour on the highway. Or, they might prove too soft – another problem. Either way, the key is to find out what they’re like in real life, day-in, day-out actual driving.  And the only way to do that is to insist on an actual test drive. A real one, not just a 10 minute toodle around the block.

If a dealer won’t let you take a car out for at least an hour – ideally, an afternoon – walk away. It is better to spend another day shopping than the next several years driving a car that kills your back.

Like the seats, it’s hard to know whether a given car’s ride quality is too soft, too firm, or just right without a test drive that lasts at least an hour – and takes place on a variety of roads, including not-so-great roads with potholes and uneven pavement.

If you haven’t gone new car shopping recently, one thing you’ll discover is that “sporty” (read: firmer) ride quality is now the trendy thing. Aggressive, performance-type tires (short, stiff sidewalls and tread patterns designed to provide maximum grip and response to steering inputs) are being fitted to even family-minded sedans and crossover SUVs – and most luxury cars,  which are now marketed as luxury-sport cars. The high-speed handling may be excellent as a result – but the ride quality could be harsher than you want to live with every day for hours on end.

Be sure to try the vehicle out on not-so-great secondary roads as well as smooth highways. If the vehicle offers different suspension levels – for example, a standard version and a “sport” upgrade – try both out. Never buy the sport suspension package just because the (usually larger) wheels that come with it look better than the ones fitted to the standard suspension model. Larger/wider wheels – and tires with shorter/stiffer sidewalls – will almost always give you a firmer – even harsher – ride.

* Visibility, sight lines -

How much of the outside world can you see from inside the vehicle? Does the car have physical obstructions (such as thick “B” or “C” pillars) that obstruct your view to the side? A small rear window? Or one that’s shaped in such a way as to give you a distorted or otherwise inaccurate view of what’s behind you?

I have driven some new cars that are – in my opinion – dangerous because of egregious blind spots. This is something that’s easy to overlook when you’re looking at the car in the showroom, from the outside. Only by driving the car – dealing with intersections, merging and cross-traffic – will you discover design flaws that may make the car frightening, frustrating – even dangerous – to drive home.

* Controls -

How easy is it to change the radio station, adjust the climate control system and operate other vehicle controls – while the vehicle is in motion?

In their quest to stand out, automakers sometimes graft what are arguably over-complex, hard-to-use controls onto their cars that can be awkward – and distracting – to use. Especially when the car is moving.

For example, the use of scrolling menus and LCD displays to toggle through vs. a simple knob or button to adjust fan speed. Some of these interfaces can be very aggravating – even after you figure out how they work.

Sometimes, simpler is better.

Make sure you can work all the features of your next vehicle without having to take your eyes off the road – or fumble with complicated controls. If the car stresses you out, it’s not the car for you.

* Real world gas mileage -

Don’t assume the fuel economy figures listed on the window sticker represent the actual mileage you will get. Especially if you are looking at the sticker on a hybrid vehicle.

The government tests new cars and trucks to get an “average” city/highway fuel economy figure – but the government’s test loop may not reflect the type of driving you do. If, for example, you drive faster than the testers did your actual fuel economy is likely to be significantly lower than the government’s rating. You may also frequently carry passengers – or pull a heavy load. Or perhaps you live in a hilly area and frequently ascend steep grades.

These variables will affect your real-world fuel efficiency.

Never assume that the advertised 28 mpg rating (as an example) is what you will get. Read the fine print. Your mileage not only “may vary” – it almost always will vary. If you are budgeting a certain amount for gas bills each month based on the advertised fuel efficiency, you could find yourself paying more than you expected. Once again, the test drive will tell the truth. Be sure the tank is full before you head out, and top it off just before you bring the vehicle back to the dealership. After your afternoon’s drive you’ll be able to figure out exactly how much fuel the vehicle is likely to use given the type of driving that you – not government testers – do.

And don’t forget: Hybrids typically get their highest mileage in low-speed, city-type driving at speeds under 50 MPH – the reverse of non-hybrid cars – which do best on the highway. If you do a lot of highway/distance driving, a hybrid’s real-world mileage may be very disappointing.

* Clutch take-up (manual cars) -

All new cars with manual transmission have hydraulically assisted clutches. This makes pushing in the clutch a lot easier -and reduces or eliminates the need to periodically adjust clutch pedal travel – both of which are good things.

But one of the downsides that you sometimes get with a hydraulically assisted clutch is vague pedal feel – i.e., it’s hard to tell when the clutch is engaging – which can make it difficult to drive the car smoothly, especially when starting from a standstill. The car may be jerky – or make you feel you’re “riding” the clutch. There’s not much you can do in the way of adjustment. The car – and the clutch – were set up this way at the factory. Always drive a stick-shift car in heavy, stop-and-go traffic – and be sure you can drive it smoothly and comfortably.

* The greenhouse - 

Some new cars have lots of glass area – which is pretty to look at but which can also make the car pretty hot in the summertime. In such a car, on a really hot day, the AC may have trouble keeping the car comfortable. Be aware of this when you shop a car with a lot of glass area – especially a car with one of the now-popular “panorama” glass roofs. Be sure it has a shade. And make the sure the AC puts out a lot of cold air. 

* Lifestyle and family -

Unless the vehicle is just for you, it’s wise to see how the members of your family like it – or not. Especially those who will be driving it (or riding in it) regularly. A common mistake people sometimes make is to buy a vehicle that their wife or husband either dislikes immensely or is not comfortable driving. Maybe it’s “too big,” or “too cramped, “hard to get into” or “has terrible blind spots” – ultimately it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that someone else who needs to use the car doesn’t like the car you bought.

Years of listening to complaining could be your penance.

Make certain – especially with SUVs and sporty cars, which can be awkward or uncomfortable for some people to drive – that anyone who will be using the vehicle regularly likes the thing.

Or at least, that they don’t despise the thing.

Throw it in the Woods?

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eric

Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia. 

  28 comments for “Shop Like a Car Reviewer

  1. Eric_G
    July 5, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Another good tip is to listen. Shut off the stereo, turn down the AC fan and just listen to the car, especially at highway speeds. I’m a little disappointed by the amount of road noise in my A3. I’m sure some of that is the tires, but when the noise from the road is louder than a diesel engine at highway RPM, there’s something not right.

    • SM777
      July 5, 2012 at 10:39 pm

      I understand where you are coming from. I have a 2009 Hyndai Accent which used to get pretty loud on the highway. It’s a lightweight car, so this is no surprise. My solution was to purchase a package of sound dampening material at a stereo shop. I applied this to the inside fenders (under the hood), the bottom of the hood itself and part of the inside firewall.

      It noticeably worked. You may have to do some trimming though, but it might be worth the effort.

      • Matt in Korea
        July 6, 2012 at 6:30 am

        That’s a great idea. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, but it is an excellent solution.

  2. mithrandir
    July 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Good comments.

    Another point if you are into DIY maintenance. Open the hood to get an idea how hard/easy it will be to perform basic maintenance. If it does dot look right to you it may be better to avoid the car.

    Find out if the car has any potential issues based on reviews/other owners.

    Is the engine an interference design? (If yes and timing belt snaps you will probably have engine/valve damage.)

    Does the car meet your needs and fit your budget?

    Look at cars that fit your needs and budget.

  3. SojournerMoon
    July 5, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    Gas mileage:

    Rarely have I ever felt “sorry” for a car manufacturer, but I did when Honda got their judgment against them by the woman who claimed she could never get the advertised gas mileage from her Honda Civic Hybrid and sued Honda for, basically, false advertising.

    Thing is, it wasn’t Honda’s fault. They are forced by federal regulations to get every car tested by the EPA and rated on gas mileage. It wasn’t Honda’s numbers but the EPA’s numbers. Additionally, they are not allowed to advertise any more realistic or real-world numbers, even if they are lower than the EPA’s estimates. To do so results in a hefty fine from the EPA. Yet they can’t NOT advertise gas mileage numbers, even if they know them to be unrealistic.

    I’m aware that the reasoning was, originally, to prevent manufacturers from intentionally over-estimating mileage claims, essentially a form of regulation. Yet the unintended consequence was that they couldn’t provide more realistic information, either.

    This actually was a problem for early hybrid car manufacturers as the EPA’s testing methods favored hybrids and unnecessarily exaggerated their gas mileage. Toyota, for one, reportedly asked the EPA for an exception so that they could advertise the actual MPG measurements they had generated in real world driving vs. the EPA estimates that were exorbitant. The EPA denied them, essentially forcing Toyota to lie to consumers.

    Thus the EPA created, for Honda in this lawsuit, a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

    Compare this with, for example, the Mazda RX-8 snafu of a few years ago where the company claimed higher horsepower output than the engine actually produced. Private owners at multiple sites around the country had their cars tested, as some folks are want to do, and found that they produced significantly less power than advertised and complained. The complaints slowly grew until Mazda was forced by public pressure to report the actual power output numbers and also refunded a portion of the purchase price to existing owners. (http://rotarynews.com/node/view/206)

    • jharry3
      July 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      I’ve read that the EPA uses pure gasoline without ethanol for testing as well.
      I had an opportunity to use pure gasoline for part of a recent highway trip and got 5% better milage driving 65 to 70 mph.

  4. Matt in Korea
    July 6, 2012 at 6:38 am

    Eric,
    What do you think about renting the car model you want for a week to see if this is a car your family will really be happy with? It seems like a big expense, but considering how much money the car costs, and considering many people are now stretching out loans 6 to 7 years, I think it’s worth the investment.
    I have driven station wagons (although I guess they’re not called that anymore; sounds too bourgeois) for years. Recently I had to throw my 1995 Hyundai wagon into the the woods. I bought a sedan. I really regret that now. I have no complaints as to the quality of the car, the gas mileage, the looks, or even the storage space (the trunk is cavernous). It’s all about the fact that I am accustomed to the wagon and I loved just lifting the hatch and having all that wide open space to put groceries in. So next time I buy a car (2015) I am going to drive a rental version for a week and see if I really want a particular model. I’m thinking of becoming a suburban warrior and going with an SUV. My wife does a LOT of grocery shopping.

    • July 6, 2012 at 9:19 am

      Hi Matt,

      It’s a good idea – if the car is available. If you’re looking for, say, a Camry or a Malibu – it’ll be easy (and affordable) to do that. But renting, say, an Audi Q7 might be harder – and a BMW M3 a lot more expensive!

      • Matt in Korea
        July 6, 2012 at 9:32 am

        Very true. I guess I’m a man of modest desires. When I lived in the US, I had to rent cars for work all the time. I drove just about every middle-class mid- to full-size sedan available in rental inventories. Believe it or not, I liked the Hyundai Sonata the best, versus cars like the Nissan Altima, Mercury Milan, Buick Lacrosse, etc.
        Do you guys have the new KIA K5, K7, and K9 in the USA?

        • July 6, 2012 at 9:40 am

          Hey Matt,

          Over here, Kia sells the Cadenza, Forte (coupe/hatchback/sedan), Optima, Rio (sedan and hatch), Sedona, Sorento, Soul and Sportage.

          My favorite is the Optima – it’s one of the slickest looking cars out there and a great deal, too.

          • Matt in Korea
            July 6, 2012 at 10:04 am

            After a little sleuth work (not very hard with the internet) it seems like the Optima is what we call the K5 and the Rio is what we call the Pride. The SUVs all have the same name, as does the Soul (fun car) and Forte (a hot little car).
            We have a tiny car here for women called the Morning, which sells in the USA as the Ford Fiesta. KIA also makes what I think is a hideous knock off of the Nissan Cube called the “Kia Ray.” I do not like it one bit. I hope you guys can get the K7 and K9 soon. If you think the Optima (K5) is nice, the K9 will knock your socks off.
            Love your website. I’m always happy when Lew Rockwell links to it.

        • methylamine
          July 6, 2012 at 3:59 pm

          The Hyundai Sonata is a BMW 3-killer.

          I rented that car once a couple of years back, and it blew me out of the water, onto the shore, and into a lifeguard stand.

          A willing, revvy engine with plenty of torque and a ferocious top-end, easily as playful and roarty as a BMW six.

          Very good handling without overly harsh ride; it really hid its front-wheel-drive well.

          Fine brakes.

          I’m watching Hyundai. Their latest entry into the luxo-sport sedan market with the 5-liter M5-esque V8 is quite tasty…if they refine the handling a bit, it’ll be a keeper.

  5. July 6, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Another big problem is the fad for digital read outs, particularly for things like speed that evolution has hard wired us to handle in analogue form. Just as we can instinctively integrate the movements when we have to answer “can I reach that tree before the lion, or do I have to pick another one?”, so also we can instinctively integrate “can I bring that speedometer dial down to the zero mark before the front of the car passes that line?” – but we have far more trouble doing that with a digital speed reading. On top of that, digital readings lend themselves to a peculiar error: say your speed is moving from 49 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h. and your eye scans over it just then: it will pick up 4 then 0 (this is why serious analogue to digital converters do not give readings in straight binary but in a variant called “Gray Code” that avoids this problem, and then the computing circuits using the data convert that to straight binary if they need that).

    I have heard that the NASA astronauts had a hard time getting the designers to make the moon lander instruments work properly like this, that even getting feet per second readings they were used to rather than metric ones was hard, but in the end they were able to persuade the designers not to add to their real time cognitive load.

    Interestingly, I have heard that the best smart aiming systems for weapons have (finally!) recognised the merit of presenting operator real time options in an analogue way. But some of the high-tech stuff you see presented in films, say of a fighter pilot locking a missile on target, is screamingly painful with all that HUD digital clutter. I don’t know which would be worse, if Hollywood is being unrealistic to look high-tech, or if that really is accurate representation. The aiming and firing system for ground based weapons I like uses a joy stick with a pistol grip hanging towards you on it, with a trigger that is actually a safety that lights up four green dots (or chevrons) at NW, NE, SE and SW, bracketing the target which is displayed in amber; moving the stick steers the view, and twisting the grip from four o’clock to five o’clock (the grip flips over the top for a mirror image configuration for left handers) zooms a little and damps the response down to steady, bringing the bracketed dots together at a point (offset by the amount of lead needed as shown by the stick’s movements and wind measurements, and by the distance as shown by lidar of whatever is bracketed); if the trigger is still pressed when the dots meet, that triggers the weapon automatically. This basically gives analogue hand-eye control that can aim and fire accurately and reliably in a fraction of a second. Now try that with a set of digital readouts that you have to bring together yourself.

    • July 6, 2012 at 10:05 am

      PM,

      Good stuff!

      I also prefer the analog to the digital – for all the reasons you mention – but unfortunately, the trend is inexorably (apparently) headed digital. Probably because it’s perceived as “high tech” while analog is looked upon as “old tech.”

      One beef I have with new cars is the visual clutter. There’s too much interfering with the object – that is, paying attention to the road and what the car is doing as a result of your inputs. I attribute this to the changing nature of driving for most people – which increasingly, isn’t. The car just moves forward a little, then stops and waits for a moment or three.. then inches forward a little again. Repeat. Hence, lots of toys for the driver, to keep him occupied and allow him to make some use of the time. Internet hook-up. Sail fawn connectivity. Pretty LCD displays to scroll through. Etc.

    • methylamine
      July 6, 2012 at 4:02 pm

      Wow PM! How do you know all that? It’s very cool info to have rattling around in one’s brain.

      And agreed 100% on the evolutionary path of cognition; our internal calculus is analogue.

      We’re fantastically good at doing real-time integrals on balls falling in ballistic paths; it’s much more complicated than the simple-case calculations, and we do it fast.

      Why not leverage that processing power with proper instrumentation?

  6. Wilhelmina
    July 6, 2012 at 11:23 am

    A pet peeve of mine is the space for your knees to the right of the driver’s side. A lot of cars have no room for adjusting the position of your legs on the left side of the console. A VW model – i forget which – that I rented for a week a year or so ago was the worst. It had a rod along the console that I didn’t notice the first day but by the second or third day of highway driving, my right leg was cramping up and there was no way for me to get room to move my legs. Now, whenever I need to rent a car for a week – which the TSA has induced me to do – room for my right leg and knee is a key factor in my evaluation.

    • Rick
      July 9, 2012 at 6:07 am

      Right knee-leg space is my pet peeve, too. My 1999 Yukon had that area open – no console – and it was terrific on trips. After selling that vehicle, a mistake at the time, I’ve had to count on cruise control to let me move my leg around enough to prevent cramps.

      When I test-drive I try to remember to take along a tire-pressure gauge, because sometimes the tires are a bit – this “oversight” gives the impression of a much softer ride than I’d experience if the tires were inflated to recommended pressure. Fortunately, many modern vehicles have tire-pressure readings available through the dashboard computer.

      • Rick
        July 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm

        Whoops – left out “underinflated” after “sometimes the tires are a bit…”

  7. Wilhelm
    July 6, 2012 at 11:25 am

    My name is “Wilhelm,” not “Wilhelmina.” My iPad thinks it knows how to spell better than I do.

    • methylamine
      July 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Or it’s developed some keen sense of your subconscious urges which you’re not aware of…yet.

      :)

      Nah. The technology won’t be there for at least a year or two.

  8. Sporty
    July 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Drive with the windows down, if you do. Drove a Ford SUV once and with the rear window down there was a punishing bass throb that gave me a headache in a 2 mile drive.

  9. david
    July 6, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Since retiring I’ve gotten a job shuttling rental cars. I’ve driven almost everything: hybrid (they suck!), SUV (not impressed with any), luxury (I now loathe MB and Beemers) and just about all of them. I have decided that I will keep my ’92 Dodge ram and look for an older muscle car.

    I’ve found none that I would buy. I think they’re all pathetic!

    • July 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm

      I hear you, David!

      There are a few – a few – I personally would think about buying:

      Nissan Versa 1.6 hatchback – a good, basic runabout with a usable rear seat area.

      Mazda3 – fun to drive, stylish, affordable and reasonable on gas

      Mustang GT – a great performance value; very much in the spirit of the old stuff.

      VW Jetta diesel – excellent economy, long-haul car; looks nice, pleasant driver, not unreasonably priced.

    • george brons
      July 7, 2012 at 4:59 am

      Real gasoline 100% pure has a higher energy out put than an ethanol blend. Otherwise all our cars would be running on Ethanol? Better alternative would be Natural Gas. We as a country are Awash in it. Big rigs would be wonderful first. Highway routes put up filling stations. Those trucking companies slash their bills over time. It’s a no brain er! Nat Gas vs oil? We got a bunch of brain dead politicians. Public see them

      • JIM Vernon
        July 9, 2012 at 9:01 pm

        Natural gasis coming. FEDEX ;ups and Walmart are sswitching their fleets to Nat. Gas.

  10. Fred
    July 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Hello Eric. Your article makes good sense, along with the comments – but of course like most good ideas the majority of consumers will never do more than a short test drive with the salesman along for the ride.

    For many years I was formerly a top-performing import car brand salesman, and my ranking was among the top 20 salespeople in the US for that brand. My test drive was always part of a very thorough and controlled (by me) sales presentation, which started with my meeting and greeting the customer, and ending the majority of the time 3 or 4 hours later with them driving away in the new or used car they just bought.

    My standard test drive route (with me a long for the ride)included stop and go city traffic and open highway motoring, with right turns only, and lasted about 30 minutes. Upon returning to the dealership I would make my final presentation, obtain the customer’s agreement to purchase, and then move them into the financing department for paperwork before coming back to me for the final presentation and delivery of their new vehicle to them. All in all this usually took 3 or 4 hours, start to finish. (And 72% of my customers purchased from me – when I read that the industry average is about 20%.)

    Anyway, getting back to the test drive – if the customer would not purchase from me during this initial meeting, which was rare, I would always recommend to them to take the vehicle for a no-cost no-deposit overnight or multi-day test drive, like over the weekend. They usually said yes to that, and I have always believed that these longer test drives are an excellent idea, for all of the reasons that you state (as well as for increasing my own sales percentages).

    Upon returning from these longer test drives, the vast majority of these customers purchased the vehicle.

    Long test drives are a great idea. As a customer, one should never hesitate to ask for one. There should be no requirement or responsibility on the part of the customer to the dealership, other than to return the vehicle in like-new undamaged condition, with perhaps a limit to the amount of miles one could drive.

    It was never uncommon for customers to put 100 miles on a vehicle during these multi-day test drives, and again, they were under no commitment to buy.

    Whenever I go shopping for my own vehicles, if I am seriously interested in any particular vehicle, I always ask for a longer test dsrive period. If the dealer says no – and some – I politely remind them that they are not the only seller of that brand, and if they do not yield to my polite request, I move on to their competitors.

  11. Sione Vatu
    July 7, 2012 at 2:45 am

    It sucks gasoline like an alcoholic sucks booze, but the 1975 Daimler Double-Six (same as a Jaguar XJ12) rides better than any of the latest Euro “super” saloons, has simple instrumentation which you easily scan in an instant and it is dead silent. It does need more power, but that aint difficult to arrange. The trick to a long and happy association with one of these cars is to replace all the Lucas switchgear and also all the rubber hoses in the engine compartment with something superior to the Pommy rubbish the car came with.

    I am surprised at the harshness and lack of build for purpose that a lot of modern cars display. Do I need all the electrical trinkets? No. Do I need the cost of the spare parts to service all the gadgets? No. All I ask is luxary and peace and quiet. No worries.

    Si

    • July 7, 2012 at 9:42 am

      I agree, Si!

      Modern luxury cars are – for the most part – not luxurious. They are expensive, yes. Sporty – even aggressive – yes. But not soft and quiet and plush and comfortable… and that’s what luxury used to be.

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