Test Drives in the 21st Century

SYNC Home Screen

SYNC Home Screen

When asked for advice on test driving a new car, most people will reply that you should take it on the highway, sit in some traffic, drive over some bumps, and of course play with the radio.  They’re basically telling you to test the car out on a variety of road surfaces and traffic conditions, to make sure it’s comfortable and drives the way you want it to.  Given the sophisticated electronics in today’s automobiles, let’s add another few things to the list:

  • Review the window sticker, looking for any tech-related items
  • Go through each of those items and test them as much as you can
  • Make sure to ask the salesperson about each of the tech features on the car, and make sure he or she shows you how they work

Click past the jump for the why and the how.

On today’s cars, some of the tech features may not be readily apparent, so make sure you read through the whole window sticker on a car you’re interested in buying.  Then, sit in the driver’s seat and play with those features.  Go through all of them, to make sure they work properly.  More importantly, make sure they work the way you’d expect them to.  If pushing a button doesn’t give you the desired response, ask your salesperson about it.  This is especially important if you’re not familiar with the technology.

SYNC Map ScreenAs part of testing the technology, if the car is equipped with navigation, go ahead and take the time to figure it out, entering (and driving to) a couple of destinations.  While driving to those destinations, pay attention to how the navigation is working, whether or not it’s doing things the way you expect them to, and that it is timely in its recalculating.  Take a wrong turn on purpose to see how the navigation system reacts.  Don’t put your home address in the test car’s navigation, but if you do, make sure you delete it before returning to the dealership.

Another popular tech feature is Bluetooth hands-free telephony.  This connects your cell phone to the car so that you can make and answer calls without taking your hands or eyes off of the road.  The salesperson should be able to help you “pair” your phone with the car, allowing you to test it.  Make and receive at least a couple of calls, checking for static or other noises in the audio, for volume, and for ease-of-use.  Some cars’ systems work better with certain phones, which is why this is a good test.  As part of the Bluetooth features is Bluetooth audio, where your Bluetooth-enabled MP3 player can play its audio through your car’s speakers, wirelessly.  Again, this is a job for your salesperson, but you’re checking for audio quality and making sure the system is easy to use.

SYNC Sirius TravelLink ScreenBesides Bluetooth and navigation, some cars offer XM NavTraffic traffic updates (and the equivalent Sirius feature), weather updates, and traffic routing.  The former two are easy to test, especially if you’re already testing the navigation features.  Just get on the highway and the traffic update system should alert you to incidents along your route or nearby.  The weather should be on its own screen, another easy test.  Harder to test is the traffic routing, but if you’re getting traffic updates, chances are that the navigation system will also try to route you around the traffic incidents between you and your destination.

It’s been around longer than some of the other features mentioned, but iPod/MP3 player integration is becoming ubiquitous these days, so I figured I would spend some time talking about it.  By far, the most popular is iPod integration, which also sets the system up to work with USB thumb drives and external hard drives.  Yes, you generally can use an external hard drive or thumb drive in your car!  When providing the USB port for you to plug in your iPod’s dock connector, the tech guys at an automaker usually make sure you can plug in a multitude of devices, and the car will recognize them.  You should bring whatever music-holding device you plan on using while driving, to the test drive.  This allows you to get a really good grip on the features of your possible new car, and make sure there are no surprises if you buy the car.

Other good tech-related items to check on include (but are not limited to) heated/cooled seats, heated steering wheels, adaptive headlights which swivel left and right with the steering wheel, power sun shades, dual-panel moonroofs, automatic headlights, automatic high beams, self-parking systems and blind spot awareness systems.

Post your questions and comments below on tech items you’ve found in cars and what your test drive experiences were like!

by John Suit

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