Guide to taking a test drive

Buying a car is the second largest financial investment for most people behind buying a home – and just like few people would take out a mortgage without looking around the house first, a test drive is vital to make sure your future vehicle is really up to scratch.

The key point to remember about the test drive is that it is for your benefit. It’s your chance to see what the car can do and if it lives up to your expectations. Yet many feel uncomfortable taking a test drive and say they don’t know what they are looking for – this guide to taking a test drive will put you on the right road.

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Make sure you come prepared

Hopefully you will have put a lot of research into the car buying process up to this stage (by searching for quotes online, looking into the makes/specifications available, familiarising yourself with the market) and you certainly shouldn’t stop at this crucial stage.

Use the knowledge that you have acquired by researching the make and model. Does the car have all of the specifications in place that you expect? Visit motoring forums online and see if there are any common complaints when you read reviews of the vehicle you are interested in. If a model is prone to a certain technical glitch you can find out beforehand and then see if it applies during your test drive.

Don’t forget to bring your driver’s licence – you’ll need proof that you are legally able to drive the car. Also make sure that you are insured to drive the vehicle. Your car insurance policy should state that you can drive another car with the owner’s permission – known as ‘Driving Other Cars’ (DOC) cover. Check with the seller to make sure they have extended their cover to any driver so you can comfortably test drive the car.

You might wish to consider extending your policy over a temporary period to cover all cars that you test drive.

Also if you’re not comfortable with the test driving process or feel you don’t know enough about cars, then why not take along someone who is knowledgeable in this field? If you know someone in the motoring trade, a mechanic for example, then they could offer some crucial advice.

Things to look for on a test drive

There are many sights and sounds to look out for when you test drive a car and they begin before you even enter the vehicle:

Before you start your test drive

  • Price – Hopefully you will have a budget in mind that you will stick to. Don’t be persuaded to spend more money than you can comfortably afford and make sure the current owner/salesman is willing to sell at the price you expected before you carry out a test drive.
  • Look at the statistics – Remember to research how economical the car is, the levels of CO2 emissions it gives off, its safety performance and interior space.
  • Check its validity – Request the vehicle’s paperwork and study it thoroughly. Make sure the VIN matches the number on the car and check the MoT certificate and its service history. Also look at the mileage and compare it to the car’s wear and tear to give you an idea of whether it has been adjusted or not.
  • Maintenance – Check the oil and anti-freeze levels to see how well the car has been maintained.
  • Interior space – Think about your purpose for using the vehicle. Do you need a lot of load space? Also test the passenger space – could you sit comfortably in the back? What sort of state is the interior in?

While you’re driving

  • Driving position – How comfortable are you behind the wheel and how is your visibility? Can you see into the mirrors comfortably?
  • Engine – Feel the bonnet to make sure the engine is cold before you start the test drive. If the car is warm, the seller could be attempting to hide a starting problem. Ideally the engine should make little noise while driving, and you should test it on hills to see how many gear changes are required. Always bear in mind that it is likely to be just you and the seller in the vehicle at any time – consider how the car would react if it was full, or pulling a caravan for example.
  • Take your time – Don’t be pressured by the seller into taking a short route ‘around the block’. Give the car a substantial run out, ideally for around half an hour to give it a thorough test.
  • Brakes – Practise an emergency stop on a deserted patch of road. The car should stop without grinding or swerving. Excessive noise could indicate worn pads.
  • Clutch and gears – The gear-stick should move smoothly and you should release the clutch pedal with the engine running to test for a worn bearing.
  • Sounds – Listen out for anything unusual, especially a banging noise. You can test this by moving on to an open road where it’s legal to speed up and see if there are any distracting noises.
  • Suspension – How well does the car take corners – if it is too soft or too hard over a short journey this could make driving difficult over longer periods.
  • Tyres – Think about how they grip the road and ensure they meet legal requirements.

Test drive tips

Here are ten more hints and tips to help you get the most out of a test drive:

  • Take your family with you – It’s much better to know that the car satisfies everyone in the family before you buy, rather than hear their objections afterwards.
  • Think about how easy it is to get in and out of the car, particularly if you have young children or elderly relatives.
  • Take your child seats with you to see how they fit into the vehicle.
  • Test any removable seats with the owner’s permission. In some cases it may require two people to adjust them.
  • Consider reversing into a parking spot during your test drive to ensure rear vision is good.
  • Remember to test the locks and windows to ensure they work properly.
  • Check for accidental damage such as scratches. Look under the carpets and check for signs of repainting. It could be a sign of a larger problem.
  • Look at the exhaust emissions when you start the car – white vapour is normal when the engine is cold, but blue smoke indicates burning oil. In diesels, black smoke indicates a serious problem.
  • Check the oil filler cap for sludge – this could be a sign of poor servicing.
  • Ensure the mileage levels recorded in the service records increase at a consistent rate and are indicative of the current mileage.

There’s plenty to look out for when you take a car for a test drive but hopefully these tips will steer you in the right direction. Remember, if there’s anything you’re unsure about you can always ask for a second test drive to put your mind at ease. You’ll feel much better knowing you have found any problems before you buy, than once it’s too late.

You must be especially careful before signing for a car ‘as is’ – if you do this, you will have no legal right to complain. A test drive is your chance to make sure the vehicle is right for you – make the most of it.

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