The Test Drive

Buying a Car
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At last! It's time to test drive. But before the rubber meets the road a burning question needs to be answered: "Once on the lot, just what is the salesperson going to ask me, and how should I answer?"

First off, always be honest with your answers, and above-board in all your dealings, and demand the same from all the dealership personnel. For example, if you find that the car is not equipped as you had specified, tell the salesperson, and say you'll only look at the model you requested. If they don't agree in short order, use those feet. Walk.

Remember, car salespeople are in the business of selling cars. They spend a lot of time with the customer qualifying them -- trying to figure out if you're a real buyer, what sort of buyer, and what it might take to get you to buy. They have all sorts of subtle cues and questions. Quite frankly, we think it is in the consumer's best interest to cut through the game-playing. If they haven't asked you within the first ten minutes on the lot if you're a buyer, go ahead and tell them. Don't forget your real mission here: to take the test drive so you can assess the feel and functionality of the vehicle.

Yep, be honest and tell them your plan. "I'm committed to buying a vehicle in the near future, probably the next ten days. I won't be buying today, but I want to see if this vehicle fits me. I have my selection narrowed down to a few vehicles, different makes, and this is one of them, so why don't you show me this car's features?" At this point the salesperson knows that you're not a looky-lu, and you mentioned that this make has competition, so selling the car's features takes precedent over the issue of money.

It generally takes the salesperson about 10 to 15 minutes to demonstrate a vehicle's features while parked. Don't drive until you've been shown everything at a standstill. Listen carefully to what they say, but don't take it as the gospel truth; many salespeople know their product well, but some don't know the first thing about their product line. We once had a salesman show us a button on the dashboard which he claimed was a rapid defrost feature, which turned out to be the air conditioning button!

During the "parked demo," ask a lot of questions, keep the salesperson focused on selling you the features, and have your Foolish Test Drive Checklist out and ready to jot down notes. Yes, you might look like Chaz the Spaz with your clipboard and pen, but don't worry about that. "Show me how I check the oil level. Is this an aluminum-block engine? This luggage rack, is it a dealer-installed option? How does the pass-through back seat work? Can I lock it? What about the spare? Is it a full-size tire? The jack, how does that thing work? How far can I go on a tank of gas? Is premium unleaded required, recommended?" The list goes on and on.

Often a salesperson will demonstrate a feature and look to you for an approving response. Note the feature; it may be something that the competition doesn't have. But never express any emotion above a pleasant acknowledgement of these features. For example:

Him: "Hey Foolish Car Buyer, look at how easy our heated driver seat controls are to use. We put them on the steering wheel so you don't have to fumble around and take your eyes off the road. How do you like that?"

You: "That's interesting. How about the separate climate control features -- how does that system work?" Not only have you shown little emotion for this "unique" feature, but you've maintained control of the demo by asking another question!

Once the parked demo is complete, the salesperson might ask you if you have any questions, or if you'd like to go for a spin. Try to maintain control of the negotiation: say something like, "Yes, a spin would be nice, but I'd like to get a price on my trade as well. Here are the keys. It's parked over there, can you do that for me?" (Incidentally, don't give 'em any more keys than they need -- keep your house, safety deposit, and post office box keys.)

This little change of pace will usually give you a few minutes alone while the salesperson rounds up the used lot manager to do the appraisal. Actually, you're doing several things that are to your advantage. Being present at the appraisal of your vehicle is not something that you want to do: shaking your head while the used car manager walks around your vehicle touching every blemish and scoffing won't increase the price of your vehicle one iota.

Instead, use the time to write down all the pertinent information. Get the VIN #, usually up under the windshield on the drivers side, take down the car's mileage from the odometer, and check the manufacture date on the inside of the driver's door. This information may come in handy down the road.

Next, go over to the sticker and write down everything on it. Some dealerships will give you a printout of this sticker. Go ahead and accept it, but still write down the information for yourself. Record the base model type and all the standard equipment that goes with that base. Then take down the installed options on the vehicle. Again this list can be long, and remember to included any option packages that may group several options together at a "lower" price. Put down all the options that the package contains, not just the package name. Precision here is key, so take your time, and if the salespeople seem to be annoyed with this, it's a good time to suggest a coffee run. Don't forget, the MSRP is a suggested price (that's what the S in the acronym stands for) so don't waste your time writing those prices down.

Finally the time has come, and you're taking the wheel to give Miss Daisy a ride! But wait -- the salesperson wants to have your driver's license. A number of experts advise not giving it to them, because they are just going to run a credit check. We say, so what? By this point you should have your choices narrowed down to ones that you can afford, so a credit check is basically harmless, and will tell the dealership that you are a reasonable prospect.Your driver's license also gives the dealers a little protection insurance-wise. They don't want the liability of you smashing up the demo and then finding out you had your license revoked six months earlier.

That said, give them the license, but only long enough to make a photocopy. Dealerships tend to misplace these like they do car keys. It can actually be great fun to make a photocopy beforehand and pass it to them when they ask for the license -- some of the expressions you'll get are absolutely priceless. By the way, don't give them your social security number, because that one isn't required for some time yet. Remember, you're only looking at a car; if they insist, walk, or say, "When I shop for shoes I don't need a SS# to try them on."

Test drives often begin with the salesperson behind the wheel. Use this to your advantage. Continue asking questions, turn the radio off, and most of all, remember that a new car test drive is very different from a used test drive. With this kind of testing you're not trying to put value on the vehicle or assess risk; instead, you're attempting to gauge fit, feel, and functionality.

In the driver's seat, pay close attention to how the car handles in various conditions. Does it feel comfortable? Are the controls easy to work, and easy to reach? Does the car accelerate well on the freeway on-ramp or is it sluggish, seeming to be powered by six gerbils rather than six cylinders? How about rough roads: does it have the smoothness you want? When changing lanes, do you have a large blind spot? Can you get the big beast in your garage? What about putting the two year-old in the child seat in back -- will this little routine break your back? Each driver's needs are different, and you need to make sure this vehicle fits your own.

Once you've returned to the dealership, your test drive mission complete, it is time to get outta Dodge. Get your current vehicle keys, a price on the current vehicle, and get out! Remember your promise, Fool: No Buying Today!

The salesperson is going to be taking some lashes from the sales manager if you're not converted into a buyer, so they will almost always attempt to get you into a bargaining cubicle. Don't go, or at least don't sit down. Keep looking at your watch, and muttering something about another appointment. Generally speaking, they don't want to let you walk at this point without some kind of offer, but don't give them anything. If they make an offer, chances are it is what is known in the biz as a lowball. That's an offer designed to get you back after you shop it around town and nobody else will meet it. Sounds great, but the problem is that they have no intention of selling you the car at that price.

There are a few things that you can get at this point that may help. Take each and every business card that passes before your eyes. If they make you a verbal offer, write the numbers on the back of the business card, then stick it in your pocket. In addition to the business cards, pick up every flyer, brochure, color chart, bumper sticker, videotape and other promotional material that's available for the model that you just test drove. The dealership itself may have some sort of manifesto on customer service and pricing. Take that as well; all this information can become useful at a later time.

Once in the safety of your old car, drive down the road a piece, find a convenience store, pull in and buy yourself a snack and a Big Gulp, and sit in your car and write up your impressions of the test drive. While the oven is still warm, begin to cook that vehicle that you're considering. Write down what you think of it. Bulletize your thoughts: "Steering sluggish. Back seat area comfortable and plush." If the salesperson or the dealership showed any attributes far above or below average, write those down as well.

Gather up all the worksheets, file them away, and get onto the next test drive. Once your "drives" are complete then move onto Step 8, where we'll put some hard numbers beside these dream machines. Until then stay Foolish, and whenever possible put the kids in the back, always in approved safety devices!

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