Test driving cars is a vital part of the car buying process. It gives you the chance to see what the car feels like on the road. And you can poke about inside it to make sure it really is as the seller described. Here are the main points to bear in mind.
Most importantly, if you’re test driving cars you must be insured. Back in the day, regular motor policies covered you for driving other people’s cars. Now if at all, to cover tends to be third party only so check your policy. There are companies that do very short-term insurance so get cover from them and print out the certificate as proof. Many sellers will want to see your driving licence too so have that with you.
Have a crib sheet
There’s a lot to think about when test driving cars so it makes sense to write all the following points down. That list should include what you want to use the car for and things like whether the boot has room for what you need to carry.
Make yourself at home inside. Are the seats comfy enough? Can you and whoever else is going to be driving the car get a suitable driving position? If you’ve got kid’s seats, make sure they fit in the back and try the boot for size. Finally have a good look for scuffs, scratches and rips in seat material.
Carry on looking for faults
Once you’ve given the inside a good inspection, move outside. Are there any dents, scratches and chips in the paint work? If so, how bad are they? Then look at the tyres. The minimum legal tread depth is 1.6mm. If any tyre is approaching that, get that money knocked off the price. Finally, look under the bonnet. Are all the fluids at the correct level? And is the engine warm?
Start it up
If the engine has been warmed up, be suspicious: it might have a problem starting from cold. If it is cold, look in the mirror for smoke on start-up which might indicate the engine isn’t in great shape. Make sure all the dashboard warning lights go out once the engine is running. Then try all the switches such as the electric windows. Make sure the electronics work if the car has them. Pair your phone with the Bluetooth and make a call with it to confirm that it works. And does the air-con blow as cold as it should?
Choose your drive
Plan your test drive route before you head off. Make sure it includes the kind of roads you’ll be using the car on. If motorways are part of your driving routine, find some dual carriageway to drive on. Go out for as long as you have time for; the longer the better. You want to be able to make sure that the seats don’t give you back ache and the noise of the engine doesn’t become too tiring. You should have tried the radio when the car was stationary. Try it again on the road but then turn it off. You want to be able to concentrate.
What you’re looking for
Listen for creaks and rattles when you take the car over speed bumps. This could indicate worn suspension. Then wiggle the steering wheel. It shouldn’t feel too loose and the front wheels should follow when you turn it.
Test the brakes on a quiet straight stretch of road. Perform an emergency stop when there’s no one behind. The car should come to a standstill sharply. Expect a chattering sound from the ABS anti-lock brakes but the car shouldn’t pull to one side.
Check the gears. If it’s an automatic, how smooth is the change and does the gearbox change down smartly when you press the accelerator? If it’s got manual gears, how willing is it to go into gear?
Lastly, how noisy is it? Is there lots of roar from the tyres against the tarmac? And what about the engine? If so, does it sound unusual and can you live with it?
Have a think
There’s a lot of new information to process on a test drive. And it can be confusing. For a start, a new car should be a step up from the car you’re replacing so try not to be blinded by the fact that it feels better in every department.
You then need to ask yourself honestly if it ticks all your boxes. The crib sheet should act as a memory aid here. Finally, try to be as rational as possible. The seller probably won’t want you to walk away without buying. If they’re a dealer they’ll say someone else is very interested in it. It’s probably a lie and if there is someone else interested in it, let them have it. We guarantee yours isn’t the only car of its kind for sale at that moment.
I’ve been writing about cars and motoring for more than 25 years. My career started on a long-departed classic car weekly magazine called AutoClassic. I’ve since pitched up at Autosport, Auto Express, the News of the World, Sunday Times and most recently the Daily Telegraph. When I’m not writing about cars and motoring, I’m probably doing some kind of sport or working in my garden.