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Giving the test drive a new spin

Kicking the tires, turning on the air conditioner and a two-mile cruise aren't enough. Nowadays, you need to figure out the navigation system, sync up your smartphone and give the vehicle a 30- to 40-minute tryout.

November 13, 2011|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times
  • Savvy car buyers need to take a modern approach to the old-fashioned test drive.
Savvy car buyers need to take a modern approach to the old-fashioned test… (SuperStock Inc. / Jupiterimages )

A quick spin around the block won't cut it anymore.

Today's vehicles pack so much technology that savvy car buyers need to take a modern approach to the old-fashioned test drive. It's no longer enough to kick the tires and turn on the air conditioning. Now drivers must not only figure out how to use the navigation system but also make sure their cellphones, music players and other gadgets are compatible with on-board systems.

Meanwhile, manufacturers are quietly eliminating features that used to be standard. For example, some new models no longer come with spare tires and jacks — something you should know before you hit that pothole, not after.

Whether you're heading to your local dealership to shop for a new vehicle or plan to browse the hundreds of new models on display at the annual Los Angeles Auto Show, which opens Friday, here are 10 tips for checking out a new car.

Take your time: Too often car shoppers are content to cruise through the auto mall without ever truly putting the vehicle through its paces. A two-mile drive is no way to seal a marriage that could last 100,000 miles or more.

If the dealership resists a thorough test drive, find another dealership.

"A test drive should be 30 to 40 minutes, and you should drive on roads that you are familiar with so that you can pay more attention to the car and don't have to figure out where you are going," said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' Automotive Test Center in East Haddam, Conn.

Drive on streets and a highway or freeway, and be sure to merge and change lanes. Parallel park and try parking in a crowded lot. Those are among the best ways to discover how the vehicle maneuvers and to check for blind spots.

Champion recommended bringing another person along as the "designated sales staff monitor." This person distracts the salesman with small talk so that you can focus on the vehicle's performance and characteristics.

Do the night test: One thing's for sure since you last bought a new car. You are older. And there's a good chance your night vision has gotten worse, and that's going to make finding the controls harder.

"A lot of people are surprised at how different a car is at night," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for AutoPacific Inc., an industry consulting firm.

Have the dealer drive you to a dark corner of the sales lot, and turn everything off, including switching the lights to the manual on/off setting. Get into the driver's seat and fire up the car. Can you quickly figure out how to work controls for the interior lights, headlamps, climate control and the windshield wipers? Can you find the defogging switches? This test is crucial for drivers who have poor or declining night vision.

Check illumination: A night check is especially important because automakers have changed their dashboard and interior lighting in recent years, adding varied colors to the display. That's not necessarily a good thing for all drivers.

"Now you see different shades of red, blues and whites, and some people have trouble distinguishing those colors," said Sullivan, who is 32 and doesn't wear glasses. "Hyundai blue is blurry to me. It is so bad I cannot read the switches at night on the steering wheel."

Work the controls: As cars have become more complex, so have the controls. Some manufacturers do a better job than others of making the switches, dials and buttons convenient. You need to check out several vehicles and discover what works best for you. Try the controls out when the car is parked and when it's moving.

"If some functions are a distraction or require you to look away from the road for too long, then the controls probably aren't as intuitive as they should be," said Dan Edmunds, test director for automotive information company

Take your phone: The ability of smartphones to connect to a vehicle's onboard information and entertainment system has changed dramatically since most people last purchased an auto.

Check to see if the vehicle has a Bluetooth connection that will allow you to talk and dial in a hands-free mode. If it does, attempt to sync your phone. Do it yourself, and don't rely on the salesperson. You don't want to be driving to the dealership or leafing through the manual every time you lose the connection or get a new phone.

Next, see if there are other functions powered by a smartphone. Depending on the automaker and the model's internal electronics, you can get turn-by-turn directions and Pandora Internet radio, make dinner reservations on Opentable and receive other services via your telephone.

Test navigation: Navigation systems come as options, in higher trim levels and with the better technology packages. But not all auto navigation systems are equal. Spool up the system with a destination and see if you like the maps and directions.

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