Here are a few simple tips that can narrow down which cars to take on a test drive:
Things to look for in the front seat:
Legroom and headroom specifications don't always add up to usable space in real life. Sit in the front seat of each car you're interested in at the show. 'Get comfortable and adjust the seat and steering wheel as if you were about to put the car in gear and drive away,' says Cars.com executive editor Joe Wiesenfelder.
It is important to check for telescoping steering, which is a steering wheel that moves forward and back until you are comfortable with it. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recommends you have at least 10 inches or about two hand lengths of distance between yourself and the steering wheel.
Make sure controls for the stereo, heating and air conditioning are easily reachable.
Look over both of your shoulders to judge if there is adequate visibility to the sides and back.
Things to look for in the back seat:
After checking out the front seat and adjusting to your driving position, Wiesenfelder suggests heading to the backseat to see how the front seat position affects rear legroom. 'Even if you are primarily the car's driver, this is a great way to see how comfortable your rear passengers will be if they aren't with you to test for themselves,' he says.
Evaluate how easy it is to get in and out of the rear seats of sedans, as well as judging how hard it might be to access the second and third rows in SUVs and minivans. Check out how wide the rear doors open for loading cargo.
In SUVs, see if the second row slides and reclines for additional legroom and comfort.
Look for an intrusive floor hump. 'These annoying humps are usually in place because of all-wheel drive or exhaust systems underneath the car. Cars without the hump give rear passengers more side-to-side legroom and overall rear comfort,' says Wiesenfelder.
Evaluating the cargo area:
A trunk or cargo floor that is too high makes loading heavy objects more difficult. 'Stand next to the car and see how tall the highest point of the cargo opening positions next to your body,' says Wiesenfelder. Some cars have a low floor but require lifting objects up and over a tall opening first.
Make sure the liftgate of an SUV is within reach when it is fully open. Additionally, check out how wide the trunk opens on sedans. Look for outboard trunk hinges that don't intrude into the trunk. Some sedan hinges that extend into trunk space can mash your cargo or groceries. Make sure you check for folding rear seats, too.
Take your kids into consideration:
Chances are if you have kids, they're coming with you to the auto show. So be sure to check how easily they can climb in and out and buckle themselves in.
Since carrying child-safety seats on the show floor for test fitting isn't practical, look for visible Latch anchors, which are easiest to use if they are clearly visible. Bring your car seats to the dealership once you've reached that stage to confirm ease of installation. If you brought a massive stroller to the show, fold it up and throw it in the trunk or cargo area to see how easy (or not) it is to load.
Third-row access could prove more difficult for kids because each automaker has its own way of folding seats with straps, levers and multiple folding stages; some are easier than others, so test them all out, and have the kids try too.
Wiesenfelder urges car shoppers not to replace dealer visits or actual test drives with visits to auto shows. 'While auto shows provide shoppers a fantastic opportunity to evaluate a wide variety of cars side-by-side outside of a sales environment, they can only serve as an added opportunity during the entire shopping process, and test drives are an absolute must when picking the perfect new car,' he says.