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.
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
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
- 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.
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
- 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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