Friday, November 15, 2013

How to Buy a Car: Part 3 - Test Drives

Never, under any circumstances, buy a car you haven't driven!  You need butt time in the seat to determine if you like the way the car drives and if it's comfortable.   

Let me give you an example why the test drive is so important:

Recently I was looking at four cars to replace my Nissan Pathfinder--the Nissan Altima, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Maxima, and Ford Fusion.  I had already done my research and those four cars were in my price range, offered the features I wanted, and had received good reviews from a number of automotive publications. 

The Altima was my top choice, until I drove it.  The steering was vague, and while I didn't mind the CVT transmission, it would drone under full throttle and didn't snap off crisp gear changes, even in the manual shift mode.  It also felt cheap inside, with cheap plastics, and I didn't like the orange font on the stereo or gauge cluster.  But what really bothered me was the noise level and ride quality.  It rode like a ten year old Honda Civic, which is okay… for a ten year old Honda Civic. 

I also drove the Maxima, which despite being built on the same platform as the Altima, was a revelation.  Many automotive journalists have bashed the Maxima for costing as much as an Infiniti without being as good to drive.  They argue that the Altima is a better car for a third the price.  But as a used vehicle, the Maxima is a screaming deal.  It has Nissan's 3.5 liter V6, which is one of the best engines of all time.  It's got immediate power and will go from 50-90 miles an hour faster than you can say, "Scotty, I need warp speed now!" 

But the Maxima also suffers from the same Jack o' Lantern display as the Altima.  And even though the ride was sublime until you gave it the beans, it just didn't feel quite right to me.  I can't explain it, but I just didn't love the car like I wanted to. 

I think part of the reason was because I drove the Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion.  I know it sounds like I'm comparing cream to creme brulee', but hear me out--both the Malibu and Fusion nail the right balance of ride and handling for the midsize car segment.  They also offer more features and nicer interiors than the Maxima.  Neither car will show its taillights to a BMW 3 Series, but they aren't supposed to.  You won't take a Malibu or Fusion to Laguna Seca.  You also wouldn't take a Maxima to Laguna Seca, although Nissan's marking to position it as the "four door sports car" make you think you should want to. 

2012 Ford Fusion 4-door Sedan SPORT FWD Dashboard

The last car I drove was the Ford Fusion with a V6.  It was almost as fun to drive as the Maxima, but it had a nicer interior and more features.  In my everyday slog to work, those things are more important.  A quiet ride, heated seats, Bluetooth connectivity to my phone, are more enjoyable than a snarling exhaust note, track tuned suspension, and whippet handling, when I'm commuting in stop and go traffic. 

If I hadn't driven those four cars, I'd have picked the Altima and never looked back.  Instead, I ended up picking the Fusion.  I liked the looks, and the interior.  It felt like a quality car and checked all my boxes.  I started looking for a used one with leather and a V6.  I found several on the internet within 30 miles of my house, including one in one of my top colors.  And on a cold, damp November Saturday, I headed for a Ford dealer in Raytown to see a man about a Fusion. 

But things didn't go exactly as planned...  

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