4 questions that determine if a new car passes the test drive

The test drive is the maiden voyage for what could be a lengthy relationship between you and your next car.

Was 2015 the Year of the Car? It might as well have been when you consider all the people who bought themselves a new set of wheels.

Thanks in part to lower gas prices, Americans were geared up for automotive purchases last year. In fact, automakers sold a whopping 17.5 million cars in the year that was, according to data collected by The Wall Street Journal and vehicle valuation firm Kelley Blue Book.

For automakers and dealerships, that's a lot of test drives, perhaps the most crucial aspect of the car shopping process.

Next to their home and their workspace, there's no place that Americans spend more time in than their car – particularly for those who have lengthy commutes and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Because of this, it's important that you are happy with your car – both the inside and the outside. The test drive serves as a car's first – and sometimes last – chance to make a good impression.

The following are four qualities to look for when taking a potential new-car purchase on its inaugural spin:

1. How does it feel?

With some drivers spending between 70 to 80 hours stuck in traffic per year, an uncomfortable car can bring a new meaning to motoring misery. When you first set foot in the interior, take an assessment of how the seating material feels. Test out the adjustable elements to see which position is best. You should also reach for the equipment surrounding you – like the radio settings and temperature control – to see if they're easily reachable.

2. How does it handle?

Handling refers to how a vehicle maneuvers through steering. Some parts of the country have more winding roads than others, so a seamless transition is important to make sure you feel comfortable driving the vehicle. Also, be mindful of the steering column's sensitivity and what your hands have to do to direct its path.

3. What's the visibility situation?

Since we don't have eyes in the back of our heads, a car with high visibility is essential. Test your peripheral vision by using the side and rearview mirrors. You should be able to easily see what's behind you and have a generous field of vision along the driver and passenger sides of the vehicle. More cars today come equipped with blind spot monitoring, making visibility conditions as advantageous as they've ever been.

4. How do the brakes respond?

Smooth braking is critical to driving safely, especially in the winter time when conditions can be slippery. Throughout the course of your test drive, apply the brake in different driving scenarios, whether it's to slow down on a highway or to come to a stop at an intersection. How responsive is it to your foot's press? How much force does it require for the car to decelerate or stop without rolling?

There are many other factors that may help determine whether a car is a right one for you. With our tips, however, you should be able to have a good understanding of how your test drive went.