There are a number of things to be on the lookout for when you test-drive a car. Ideally, you should test-drive it in the various driving conditions you expect to use it in, such as busy city streets and highways. Below are the categories of things you should evaluate as you drive. If you're test-driving without a salesperson in the car, having a friend with you who can jot down your impressions will be helpful. If you're driving with the salesperson, then hold off on jotting down your impressions until just after you leave the dealership. (But, do it immediately after leaving, within a few minutes, before you forget important details.)

In our Buying a Car area, we've got a very detailed checklist that you can print out and take with you. In the meantime, here's an abbreviated overview of what to examine:

  • Drivetrain performance and acceleration: Pay attention to how well the car accelerates, shifts gears, and takes hills. Listen for any noises.

  • Safety systems and braking: Try the brakes on level ground as well as downhill. Listen for any worrisome noises. Make sure the braking feels solid and even.

  • Steering and handling: Check out how the vehicle responds to your steering and how well it takes curves. Find a legal U-turn spot, and see how tight the turning radius is.

  • Ride comfort and suspension systems: See if the ride is too hard, too soft, too bumpy, too smooth, or just right. See how it handles itself when you shift gears, change speeds, or brake.

  • Cabin noise levels: Pay attention to all the noises you can. Start with the fan off, vents shut, and the radio off. Listen for engine noise, road and tire noises, wind noise, buzzes, squeaks, rattles, vibrations, etc. Open and close various windows and the sunroof (if there is one). Make sure there aren't any worrisome or annoying noises.

  • Overall impressions: Now it's time for the big picture. Is the car a pleasure to drive or a pain? Are you comfortable, and can you see well in all directions? Jot down a list of all the details that stand out as big plusses and big minuses. You'll want to refer to these later.

  • Dealership impressions: Finally, take a few notes on how friendly and comfortable the dealership was.

To learn about the ins and outs of the car-buying process, check out the Fool's How to Buy a Car area and ask any questions on our Buying and Maintaining a Car discussion board. Also, check out these previous articles, on new vs. used, pricing cars, and the real cost of car ownership.

Here are a few more good car-buying resources:

Finally, don't forget to get tips on car insurance and other important kinds of insurance at our Insurance Center.