Buying a car is a big commitment and a major financial investment, and it's not something that should be done on impulse. According to a survey by JD Power, internet savvy shoppers spend about 14 hours researching their automotive purchases before they make a buying decision. Learning what different cars have to offer is just the beginning. It takes time inside the car to help you decide if a vehicle truly meets your needs.

That's where a test drive comes in, but like a first date, a typical test drive only gives you a limited amount of information about a vehicle. It takes hours – not just a few minutes – to decide if the seats are comfortable enough or if the handling leaves something to be desired.

One of the best ways to really get to know a car is to take an extended test drive. It's a great way to spend time learning all the bells and whistles, and it's the most fun you will ever have conducting car buying research.

Friends unpack camping gear from rental car to set up campsite on a hot summer day
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Spend a Weekend Away

Once you've narrowed your choice down to two or three vehicles that have met your criteria during standard test drives offered by auto dealerships, it's time to spend some quality time with each car. Although it costs some money upfront, renting a car to experience an extended test drive could save you from buying a car that won't actually make you happy.

Even if the specific trim level is different in the rental compared to the car you want to buy, you can still experience how the vehicle handles and performs for different types of driving. The specifics like color, fabric vs. leather seats, and other optional features don't matter on a test drive. Focus on what the car delivers in terms of comfort and performance.

If your weekday and weekend driving habits are different, make sure your rental time includes both types of days.

Young couple on a romantic road trip stop for a roadside break
Source: Adobe Stock

What to Consider

On a standard test drive, you only have enough time to decide if the car handles well under limited circumstances and if you like the overall size, look, and feel. Take advantage of an extended test drive to dive deeper into the car's features. Spend some time playing with the interface of the entertainment system, and assess the placement and ease of use of the controls for features like cruise control and the stereo.

Create a checklist of things that are important to you, and use and evaluate those features in each car. Some important things to consider include:

  • Noise: Listen for the level of road noise in the car while driving. Does road noise make it difficult to carry on a conversation with others in the car or to hear the radio? Even at low speeds, is the engine too loud for you?
  • Adjustability: Can you customize settings to make the seats and other features comfortable? Take into consideration the seat angle and height, cup holder and arm rest positioning, and the fit of the seat belt. Taking a car for an extended drive can reveal design features that could move a vehicle to the top or bottom of your list.
  • Safety: Do you feel secure in the car? Does the vehicle feel solid with smooth movement, particularly at cruising speed on the highway? You want to feel safe in your car. Checking safety ratings is important, but you also need to feel personally secure in the vehicle.
  • Power: The trick is to get enough power to do the job but not so much that you feel out of control or burn fuel needlessly. Does the vehicle make it up steep hills without feeling like its struggling? Some drivers are content with 140 horsepower, while others would never consider anything less than 200. If you don't have a preference, then factor in fuel efficiency and choose the smallest engine that effectively handles the job.

As you spend more time driving a rental, you'll develop a better idea of how well the vehicle meets your needs, and that will help you feel more confident in your buying decision. Do you have other tips for making the most of an extended test drive? Join us on Facebook and share your expertise.

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