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Buying for the first time? Here are some do's and don'ts

Bring these tips to the dealership with you -- they might save you from hassle and remorse.

May 21, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

You're unlikely to buy a pair of pants or shoes without trying them on to see whether they fit. And before handing over thousands of dollars for that first car, you have to do the same.

And keep in mind that a test-drive is just that -- a drive in which you test the car. It isn't simply four right or left turns around the block designed to give the salesperson a few more minutes to persuade you to buy.

Here are some quick tips on what a test-drive should include:

Can the car merge? Try it. Can it pass quickly? Try it. Turn smoothly and corner without lean? Try it. Is the suspension soft and cushy or firm and harsh? It takes more than four right or left turns to find this out.

You also should check whether you can see out the back and along the sides, whether the back seat will hold your friends or the kids without overlapping them and whether the trunk will hold the golf clubs and duffel bag or groceries and luggage.

Will it fit in your garage? There's only one way to find out.

If you are interested in a van or sport utility, are there two rows of seats or three? Does the third row fold flat into the floor, or do you have to remove it and find a spot in the garage to store it when you need to haul lots of cargo?

Does it have four-wheel drive? How do you engage the system? You don't want to call the dealer six months from now and say, "By the way ... "

Is the car equipped with an unusual or novel option, such as a navigation, night vision or an emergency communication system such as OnStar? Have the salesperson demonstrate how it works to make sure you understand how to use it and to help you determine whether you'll use it often enough to justify the cost if it is an option.

The test-drive also means that every knob, dial, button, lever or handle must be twisted, pulled, yanked, turned or pushed to ensure they work, and the systems they are designed to activate work as well. That means horn, lights, radio, air conditioning, heater, locks, mirrors, the works.

Don't wait to make out a list of problems and bring the car back two months later to have all the items fixed.

There also are some test-drive don'ts:

Don't test a vehicle with a V-8, then settle on the V-6 to save money without driving that vehicle to determine whether it performs acceptably. Chances are it won't be as quick or as quiet as the V-8.

Don't test-drive a vehicle with the soft boulevard suspension, then order it with firmer sports suspension, or vice versa, or you'll be in for a shock when you learn just how soft or firm it is. Too soft means the car body will continue to bounce after passing over a bump; too firm means your body will continue to bounce.

Don't test the car with cloth seats and buy the leather, or vice versa. How slippery is the leather? How much do you slide on the leather seat in a sharp turn versus cloth?

And don't test-drive a car with an AM/FM stereo with a cassette and CD player and 18 speakers and settle on an AM/FM with four speakers to save money, because it just won't sound the same.

If you buy a car with an AM/FM and four speakers and intend to substitute an AM/FM stereo with cassette and CD player on your own, keep in mind it won't sound the same without those 18 speakers.

Don't settle on a car color based on a 1-inch square in the brochure without seeing that color on a full-size vehicle. You may be stunned to see what that color looks like after you've handed over your check.

If one dealer doesn't have the car equipped as you need to test it, visit other dealers to find the car with a V-6 or sports suspension or that special shade of blue. You always can go back to the original dealer for the purchase.

If you test-drive a car in stock but then order one for later delivery to get the V-6 rather than the V-8 or the boulevard rather than sports suspension, perform the test-drive again once it arrives.

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