Getting the Best Out of Your Test Drive

The test drive is one of the most important part of buying a car and yet some people only take a few minutes driving and pay more attention to the exterior or the colour! To get the best out of your test drive follow our simple tips and drive away with a great car that won’t cause you problems in the future.


Many people forget that they have to be insured to drive another person’s car and that they should check their own insurance before they head off. Make sure you’re sufficiently covered to drive the car you want to test drive as you may only get third party cover to drive other vehicles. You can get temporary car insurance that will protect you for the day of the test drive if your own insurer is unwilling or unable to offer you cover. It is a good idea to take your insurance documents with you on the test drive to show the seller or the police if you happen to be stopped by them. Meet the seller at their home address or trading place as this means you can check with their documents to make sure they are the registered owner of the vehicle.

Car checks

When you arrange to test drive the car, ask the seller not to drive it anywhere for an hour or so, so that you can start it from cold. This is so that you can hear any starting problems that might not be apparent when the engine has warmed up. If there is any excessive exhaust smoke and unusual noises, or if the car struggles to start it may need maintenance or replacement parts. However, a small amount of steam or white exhaust smoke when you start the car is fine, and expect more on cold or humid days as the warm exhaust fumes will show up against the cold air. Be wary of blue, excessive white or black smoke which can all indicate internal oil leaks, head gasket failure or a poorly-tuned engine. These will need to be looked at.

Listen for any excessive exhaust noise. This could indicate a hole in the exhaust and that will need replacing. Any rattles that are made could possibly be made by worn brackets and are usually cheap and easy to replace. Check the revs on the speed o meter. It’s normal for the engine speed to rise to just over 1,000rpm for a few minutes, and then it should settle to less than 1,000rpm when starting from cold. Watch out in particular if the engine speed refuses to stay consistent, it will need attention. And keep your eye on the air conditioning systems, some can affect the cars’ engine speed when stationary, so turn it off for an accurate test.

When you are sat at the steering wheel, turn it from one side to the other; cars with power steering will often produce a slight whining sound, but not too much. There should be no bumps, screeching or knocking and it should require a bit of an effort to turn the wheel. Now is a good time to test the handbrake. Gently release the clutch in a manual car to feel the handbrake resisting forward movement. If the car moves easily, the handbrake is ineffective and will need adjustment.

The test drive

It is important to drive the car on a variety of roads and road surfaces, at slow, moderate and motorway speeds and make sure that you spend between 15 and 30 minutes behind the wheel. Any less makes it hard to get an idea of the car, whilst any more and you will probably inconvenience the seller. Go through every gear in a manual car and ensure each one engages smoothly. Ask yourself, when the clutch is released, does the gear engage at the top or bottom of the clutch pedal’s travel? If it releases near the top and feels heavy to you in the process, it is possible that the car may need a new clutch soon. If the car has an automatic gearbox, the changes should be smooth and not noisy or clunky. Check it ‘kicks down’ by pressing down hard on the gas when cruising. If the gearbox is working in tip-top condition, this should force it to change gear and produce a burst of acceleration

Once the car is travelling on stretch of dual carriageway or motorway, see if you can turn the steering wheel a few degrees without anything happening, if not it could point to worn suspension and steering parts. Check that the steering feels the same in left and right-hand corners; if not, the suspension could need attention, or the car could have crash damage. Test out the suspension by going over a few bumps slowly. The suspension should soak them up quietly and effectively, without juddering or shaking the car.

Whilst on a safe road, accelerate briefly and keep your eye on the rear-view mirror to check for any excessive smoke coming from the exhaust. Test the brakes by braking sharply to see if the car pulls to the left or right. Any vibrations or noises coming from the brakes or suspension could indicate worn or damaged parts which will need fixing.

Test driving a new car

You probably will not be able to test drive the actual new car you’re buying, but you should be able to drive a similar version. When you are buying a brand new car, it is acceptable to ask the dealer to arrange a drive in a car that’s as close as possible to the one you’re looking to buy; in fact, sometimes you may need to drive several cars to test out the bodystyle, engine and gearbox separately. Remember, a proper test drive in a new car need not only be an half an hour affair. Most garages will allow you to take the car away for an evening, or even a weekend to fully familiarise yourself with it. And you can get to test it without the salesman pressurizing you, and under the same conditions as you would at home, i.e with your family filling it up or with luggage in the boot.

The main thing to do if you have the car for a length of time is to make sure you can sit comfortably and that your visibility is good. Good luck!

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