Don’t test drive your next car

Trying to make a choice makes us miserable and less happy with the result. Do yourself a favour and fall in love with your next car by not choosing it.

You’d think when spending a buttload of money you should actually inspect the thing you’re going to buy.

Makes sense.

But often, and particularly in the case of cars, you shouldn’t. It can only diminish your happiness and possible satisfaction of the result.

I’ve been looking at cars again

After the road trip to PEI in a rented Chrysler 300, I’ve found myself wanting a car again.

It’s certainly not because the 300 was so good. Here’s a mini-review of the 300 in one long paragraph you can totally skip if you don’t care about cars as such: The 300 was the first car I would label ’annoying’. Plenty of cars are bad (crossovers). Or ugly (Nissan Juke). Or so boring they reduce you to tears (Toyota … anything). Those things are easy to do. But actively annoying, like a child who won’t listen? That’s the 300. For example, we tried to set up in a pitch-back campground at 1am with the lights off to not bother other campers, but every time we opened a door to get something the headlights automatically came on. Even when the switch was turned from ‘Auto’ to ‘Off’. As another example, the radio couldn’t be turned off and if you muted it then it came right back on when you started the car again. Also the screen auto-dimming would be too bright at night and too dim if it got a little cloudy. “Stop doing that, car!” Was a common exclamation. Now, we could probably read the manual and find solutions or develop muscle memory to cope by, say, muting the radio right after you hit the start button. But c’mon. What a bad interface. It was also supposed to have 300hp but highway passing was a struggle with two tiny people on board. Maybe the rental agency disabled all the power somehow or maybe there was an eco setting buried somewhere that was turned on. We couldn’t find anything of the sort. After a week, we happily gave the keys back. At least the wheels themselves were nice.

300 + barn + woman in PEI. As someone put it, 'That's the least Angus-like car you could have driven'
300 + barn + woman in PEI. As someone put it, “That’s the least Angus-like car you could have driven”

There are two points here: even if I didn’t like the car, it was nice to have “our car” for the week. It became a character on the trip. A bumbling moron of a character, but still a character. And we did miss it (a little) after giving it back. The second, is that the trip would have been so much better in a car of my own. I miss that relationship of getting to know a car. There’s something about that bond you just don’t get with a metro car.

A car doesn’t really fit into my city lifestyle and it’s a pretty impractical thing for me to have. And yet that’s why it might be good for me. I’m a little too practical sometimes.

(Yes, I’m aware that there I’m overthinking that it’s good for me to stop overthinking.)

What you can’t learn in a day

Buying a car after a test drive is like marrying a girl after the first date. She seemed great on the lot, but once you get to know her she’s gonna be totally different. (Write your own fart joke about her exhaust note.)

There are plenty of experts reviewing cars and stats online and user forums where you can read all about cars and get a general consensus if something is “good” or “reliable” or whatever. You’ll never know what a car is like to own after a couple short drives in it, so trust the strangers who spend all day long in car after car.

Do a lot of research, pick a car, buy it on the phone. Fundamentally, it comes down to a harsh truth: you can’t trust yourself to judge what a car will be like to live with.

Also, you’re too easily swayed.

For example, car dealers are horrible places filled with people you don’t want to spend time with. It’s very easy to associate a car with the person you dealt with when test driving it. Did he come with you and talk down to you the whole time and smell like pickles and you really hate pickles? You’ll never buy that car. You’ll convince yourself you don’t want it even if it does have the right mix of cargo space and power and mpg and colour and heater knob diameter and whatever else you look for in a car.

To be fair, some car salespeople are completely lovely people. But again, a really good dealer experience can make you want a car more even if it doesn’t have the right mix of wheel width and steering wheel height and seat heater strength and turning radius and vomit-proof seat fabric you look for in a car.

The point is: don’t trust your opinion of a car after a 20-min test drive and an afternoon in an uncomfortable chair in a cubicle in a car lot by the highway. Limit that part as much as you can.

I’ve done this twice

I’ve owned 4 cars and I only test drove the first two. The 3rd and 4th I probably never would have bought had I test drove them.

The 3rd, a MINI, I ordered on the phone then flew to another province to pick up.

When I drove it away, at first it felt very weird. Too tall, too boxy, too upright, too … different. The gear changes were long and the steering felt tight. I was used to a low-down boy-racer sports car (if you can call a Toyota Celica a sports car) and it was a big change to go to a MINI. But I had paid for it, so it was my car now. I trusted the hundreds of reviews that said it was a fun-to-drive wacky-mobile and — after the 1500km drive home — they were spot on.

I loved that car in the end.

The MINI on top of Signal Hill in Newfoundland. Why would I drive it up there in a storm? Because it could.
The MINI on top of Signal Hill in Newfoundland. Why would I drive it up there in a storm? Because it could.

Then came the Volvo.

After my experience with the MINI, I wanted to go further. I wouldn’t even choose the make and model myself. I gave my brother a budget and told him to buy a car and put it in my driveway. I’ve written about this before when I picked out my bike.

Again, it was a shock. Compared to the MINI, it was a very different car. It had a trunk (I always get a hatch), it was soft and comfortable, it was bigger and it was older and my first used car.

Left to my own devices, I’m not sure I would’ve pulled the trigger. But it was my car now so I sank into it and pretty soon: “Hey, I like a bigger car!” “Hey, I like a soft suspension!” “Hey, I like this extra power!”

All these things I didn’t think I needed or wanted became my favourite part. It completely changed my opinion of what I like about a car.

Out with the red and in with the ... red
Out with the red and in with the … red

Will I do it again?

So when I started thinking about getting a car again last week, I thought to myself, “hey, I should go test drive some cars!” It’s been 5 years since I drove a car regularly and stuff has changed. Then I remembered to not do that.

If I do end up getting a car, and dealing with the perma-headache that is owning a car in a city, I’m just gotta pick it and buy it and live with it.

And I’m betting I’ll be damn happy about my choice because I kept the buying process simple. Or at the very least because it isn’t a Chrysler 300.

More than just cars

This applies to more than just cars. Last week, I painted my place. I got 4 sample colours, painted sample squares on the wall, picked one, bought the paint and after doing a full coat of my entire apartment, I … hated it. It was supposed to be grey but in large amounts the purple undertone shone through.

It was like I was in the bedroom of a 14-year-old girl.

So I took myself out of it. I did internet research, found the paint colour that other people said achieved the effect I wanted (light grey, no purple tone, north facing windows, etc) and picked up a sampler of that one. And it was perfect.

I used cars here to illustrate the point because I think it’s a perfect example. But in general: trust the collective wisdom of strangers. They’re smarter than us.


Coming soon: a look at the financial side of car-ing.

Banner photo by Gustavo Belemmi via Unsplash