How to Test Drive and Buy Your Very First Car

I’ve been “adulting” now for nearly a decade, but prior to last week, I had somehow evaded one of the key rights of passage—owning a car!
To be honest, I’ve always hated driving, which is part of the reason city life has always appealed to me. But in the middle of a global pandemic, with extended time outside of NYC and a baby on the horizon (we’re expecting our first in December!), I decided it was time to take the plunge and finally buy my first car.

I was pretty open-minded when it came to exploring my options, but there were several key features that were non-negotiable for me. First, it had to be big enough for the many “things” that come along with having a baby (like a car seat, stroller, etc.,) so this put me squarely in SUV territory. Second, safety features were crucial. I knew I not only wanted high ratings on crash tests, but also some extra bells and whistles like blind-spot detection, pre-collision braking, and rearview cameras with park assist. Lastly, I knew I wanted to take advantage of low-interest rates and finance the car, so I decided on a budget range for my monthly payments, and promised myself I would not stray above my maximum.

With my non-negotiables in mind, I began researching and narrowed my options down to five final contenders and began the test drive process. One thing I found super helpful for test-driving in the time of Coronavirus was to find a good old fashioned auto mall with several dealerships all in one place. This made it super easy to hop from one dealership to the next and compare options while the cars and features were fresh in my mind.

During a typical test drive, a salesperson will sit in the car with you and walk you through the vehicle’s main features and differentiators. Most of the salespeople focused on the fanciest technology the vehicle offered, and one thing I found challenging here was it can be tough to understand what features are standard versus what you’ll need to pay extra for, so don’t be afraid to ask! After the initial intro, I got to hop in the driver's seat and take the car for a spin, which typically lasted about 10-15 minutes.

Here are the five cars I tested and my thoughts on each:

  1. Ford Explorer: This car is so classic to me! It was the largest car I test drove, and I loved how high up and in control I felt while driving it. The standard model here came pretty bare-bones, but there were plenty of options to upgrade and make it more comfortable, like leather seats and a heated steering wheel. 

  2. Volvo XC60: I feel like Volvo has become the unofficial car of cool moms everywhere (Hi, Arielle!)so naturally I wanted to give this one a whirl. I opted for the smaller XC60, rather than the XC90, to stay within my budget. I loved how beautiful the leather interior of this car was, and it had a super sleek touch screen display the size of an iPad. This car drove beautifully! The ride was super smooth and the brakes were sensitive in the best way. 

  3. Lincoln Corsair: This one is a new Lincoln model for 2020 and the interior truly felt like an oasis. The cabin was designed to feel as quiet as possible while you drive, and it had all of the safety features I was looking for, like blind-spot detection, lane-keeping, pre-collision braking, and park assist. I loved the touchscreen display, and the amped-up Revel speakers. The car itself is on the smaller end for an SUV, but the interior and trunk were still roomy. 

  4. Cadillac XT4: Something about the Cadillac name just feels luxurious, so I was really excited to drive this one. This car has incredible attention to detail, including Bose speakers, lane-keeping, and intelligent headlights that automatically switch from high beams to low beams. The interior of this car felt a little small though, so while it was gorgeous I knew it might ultimately regret the lack of space. 

  5. Jeep Grand Cherokee: I’ve always loved the cool vibe this car gives off, and it was top of my list to drive going into the process. Similar to the Ford, there are a hundred ways to upgrade from the standard model and add on features for comfort and safety. Ultimately I eliminated this one from my list when I learned that it had a 4 out of 5-star rating in two of the NHTSA crash tests. 

After each test drive and after I learned more about each car, I shared a list of “must-have” and “optional” features with the salesperson and asked them to quote me their best price. As much as I loved certain vehicles, price was a big factor to me and I wanted to be sure I could have all of my desired features while staying within my target range. This was a big learning during the process, because after my first test drive, the salesperson gave me an offer on a car that was $10K above my budget, and upon digging further I realized it was because they had added extras I didn’t need (like massage chairs or 36-way seat positioning— maybe one day!).

Ultimately I decided to move forward with … drum roll please… the Lincoln Corsair! After all of my research and test drives, I felt this car was the best mix of safety and comfort, and I had room to add a few jazzy extras that still fell within my budget. If I’m being completely honest, the interior is what won me over. I absolutely loved the color options, and ended up picking a beautiful tan interior that feels extra fancy. The Lincoln Corsair also has a sunroof that extends all the way back behind the second row of seats, and I loved the idea that our baby can one day look up at the sky from his car seat. The whole car has a relaxing vibe to it, and I totally understand why they say it’s a “sanctuary” on wheels— the chimes and noises the car makes (like a beep when a passenger forgets their seatbelt) are actually recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, so even something as mundane as a seatbelt warning has detail that makes it feel luxurious. It also has a voice-activated hands-free assistant, so you can say things like “play Y2Country, drive to this address, call Mom” and the car does the rest, which helps me feel even safer!

So far, I’m absolutely thrilled with my purchase and I’ve never loved driving more. Getting my first car was a huge decision, and I’m glad I took enough time to find the perfect fit for me. My best advice for anyone looking to buy during this time is to outline your non-negotiables and be super clear with each dealership about the features you want and your budget. They will be able to tell you super quickly if what you’re looking for is realistic or not, so you’ll save time this way. Lastly, don’t be afraid to go with your gut. Something about the Lincoln just felt right to me, and your overall comfort in the car is super important! After all, you’ll likely be spending hours upon hours there. When you know, you know.

Cover Photo Via Getty Images