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Recently by Eric Peters: It May Be More Than Just a FenderBender

I test drive a new car every week – and have developed a checklist I use to help me do the subsequent write-up. This checklist might help you buy the right car for you, too.

Seating position/comfort and ride quality

Don’t buy a vehicle before you’ve spent at least an hour behind the wheel – and in the seat. Chairs that seem comfortable and supportive for a couple of minutes in the showroom may feel like church pews after an hour on the highway. Or, they might prove too soft – another problem. Either way, the key is to find out what they’re like in real life, day-in, day-out actual driving. And the only way to do that is to insist on an actual test drive. A real one, not just a 10 minute toodle around the block.

If a dealer won’t let you take a car out for at least an hour – ideally, an afternoon – walk away. It is better to spend another day shopping than the next several years driving a car that kills your back.

Like the seats, it’s hard to know whether a given car’s ride quality is too soft, too firm, or just right without a test drive that lasts at least an hour – and takes place on a variety of roads, including not-so-great roads with potholes and uneven pavement.

If you haven’t gone new car shopping recently, one thing you’ll discover is that “sporty” (read: firmer) ride quality is now the trendy thing. Aggressive, performance-type tires (short, stiff sidewalls and tread patterns designed to provide maximum grip and response to steering inputs) are being fitted to even family-minded sedans and crossover SUVs – and most luxury cars, which are now marketed as luxury-sport cars. The high-speed handling may be excellent as a result – but the ride quality could be harsher than you want to live with every day for hours on end.

Be sure to try the vehicle out on not-so-great secondary roads as well as smooth highways. If the vehicle offers different suspension levels – for example, a standard version and a “sport” upgrade – try both out. Never buy the sport suspension package just because the (usually larger) wheels that come with it look better than the ones fitted to the standard suspension model. Larger/wider wheels – and tires with shorter/stiffer sidewalls – will almost always give you a firmer – even harsher – ride.

Visibility, sight lines

How much of the outside world can you see from inside the vehicle? Does the car have physical obstructions (such as thick “B” or “C” pillars) that obstruct your view to the side? A small rear window? Or one that’s shaped in such a way as to give you a distorted or otherwise inaccurate view of what’s behind you?

I have driven some new cars that are – in my opinion – dangerous because of egregious blind spots. This is something that’s easy to overlook when you’re looking at the car in the showroom, from the outside. Only by driving the car – dealing with intersections, merging and cross-traffic – will you discover design flaws that may make the car frightening, frustrating – even dangerous – to drive home.

Controls

How easy is it to change the radio station, adjust the climate control system and operate other vehicle controls – while the vehicle is in motion?

In their quest to stand out, automakers sometimes graft what are arguably over-complex, hard-to-use controls onto their cars that can be awkward – and distracting – to use. Especially when the car is moving.

For example, the use of scrolling menus and LCD displays to toggle through vs. a simple knob or button to adjust fan speed. Some of these interfaces can be very aggravating – even after you figure out how they work.

Sometimes, simpler is better.

Make sure you can work all the features of your next vehicle without having to take your eyes off the road – or fumble with complicated controls. If the car stresses you out, it’s not the car for you.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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