The best way is to see for yourself. Here are 10 of the key things to look for at the dealership:
10 keys to look for
- Look at the seams.
- Match colors.
- What lies beneath?
- Under the hood.
- Eye the glass.
- Door "thunk".
- Interior design.
- Exposed wiring.
- Little things mean a lot.
- Serious test drive.
First, check out the body of the car, looking beyond the styling and paying attention to the details.
1. Look at the seams. Check the gaps between body panels. Are the gaps uniform throughout? A well-engineered and constructed car will show the same body gaps around the doors, the trunk and the hood. Pay particular attention to this on vehicles that have been significantly redesigned or are all new to the market. Although the old adage about not buying a redesigned model in the first year generally no longer applies, varying body gaps may indicate the assembly process needs some adjusting.
2. Match colors. Pay attention to the places on the body where different materials are used, such as where a nose made of a composite plastic material meets the steel of the rest of the body. The paint should not noticeably change hue from one surface to another.
3. What lies beneath? Look under the car to see what protrusions, particularly at the front, could get hung up on parking berms and rip free. Most cars have some sort of air dam underneath the vehicle at the front to aid in cutting aerodynamic drag. But such air dams should be mounted far enough back so parking berms won't rip them off or should be mounted in such a way as to bend rather than break when encountering an object.
4. Under the hood. Even if you're no mechanic, closely inspect the engine bay. Most cars have a cover that surrounds most of the top of the engine. Make sure it's mounted securely -- you shouldn't be able to shake it. The same test should apply to any battery covering. Look at the wiring. It should be either covered or tightly bound together to prevent anything from coming loose.
5. Eye the glass. Look at the window glass and see how the side windows fit against the rubber gaskets when closed. Anything less than a perfect fit will result in wind noise that will only get worse as the car ages.
6. Door "thunk". Open and close the doors, looking for how many so-called "stops" are built into the hinges. A vehicle's door should have two settings so that it will stay open in a half-way position and fully opened. Shut the door and listen for any sort of hollow boom, which could indicate there's less sound-deadening material in the door, which will mean greater road noise.
7. Interior design. Check out the finish on the interior panels. While plastic is the industry norm when it comes to door panels and dashboards, there's a wide variety of grains and finishes applied to the plastic. The dash and panels should have a rich-looking color and have a textured feel to the casual touch. As with the body, the gaps between interior panels should be close and uniform. Look especially where the air bags are hidden.
8. Exposed wiring. If the car you're interested in has power-adjustable front seats, feel under them to see how the wiring and motor coverings are secured. Loose wires or coverings could lead to problems in the future.
9. Little things mean a lot. Pay attention to things like seat latches. They should work with minimal effort and all handles should feel secure, not prone to bending or twisting. Check the stitching and seams of the seats for any loose threads or less-than-straight sewing. Open the trunk and see how the floor covering is secured and whether it's made of a material that will stand up to carrying heavy or dirty cargo.
10. Serious test drive. Lastly, when you've all but settled on the vehicle you want, take an extended test drive, not just a spin around the block. Drive at freeway speeds and pay attention to wind and road noise. Pay attention to how the automatic transmission shifts. It should change gears smoothly and quickly. On a manual transmission, feel where the clutch starts to engage and how long or short the pedal travel is. It should engage gradually and not have any abrupt lurches. Find a safe area to test the brakes. You're not so much looking for what the car will do in a panic stop, but rather how the brakes feel when you apply the pedal. Depending on how far the pedal travels, the feel of the brakes should inspire confidence that the vehicle will stop in a relatively short distance.
All of this may sound like a no-brainer step to buying a car, but according to a recent study, more than 40 percent of new car buyers closed the deal without even taking a short test drive.
Smart buyers will pay attention to every aspect of a car in order to get a vehicle that will deliver value.