Test drive tips: how to test drive a new car

Article Hugo Griffiths
Jan 6, 2016

Test driving a car is a vital part of the buying process, but it’s easy to go awry; here’s our advice on how to conduct a test drive.

You’re looking to buy a new car and have found one you like, in the specification you want and at a price that seems within budget – at this point, it's all too easy to consider the test drive a mere formality. But after houses, cars are the second most-expensive items most of us will buy in our lifetimes. To go through with the purchase without doing an ‘eyes open’ test drive is an error many motorists live to regret each year. 

It's all too easy to get forget your head when test driving a new car – there's something intoxicating about the possibility such a purchase holds and car sales executives can be very good at their jobs.

One thing to bear in mind at all times is that as the buyer, you’re the one in control. Until you’ve paid a deposit, or the price in full, walking away may make you feel uncomfortable or cause inconvenience, but when a purchase is this significant, deciding not to go through with it should be understood by all involved. Our guide for what to look out for when test driving a car should help you avoid any potential pitfalls.

Am I insured? 

Insurance is unlikely to be a problem, particularly if you’re buying from a main dealer, but it's worth thinking about nonetheless. A dealer will want to take a copy of your driving licence for their records and should cover you fully on their insurance. If you’re buying from a private seller, it's likely the insurance will need to come from your side.

You’ll need fully comprehensive insurance to do this, and even then this is likely to only provide third-party cover when you’re driving someone else's car. Make sure that you and the seller are happy with this. It's unlikely you’ll have an accident on a test drive, but with third-party insurance, you may end up with the bill for any damage to the seller's car. A phone call to your insurance company before going out to test drive privately is usually a good idea.

Is it big enough?

You may think you’ll be able to concentrate more easily on the car on your own, but if you’re buying a family car, it's worth taking everyone along – it's not just you who’ll be using the car, after all, and there may be practical aspects others will spot that you might miss on your own. Is the boot really big enough? Can two adults sit in the front with child seats behind them? If you have a pushchair or golf clubs, or any similarly bulky items you regularly want to carry, do they fit in the boot easily? Ideally, arrange a family test drive and get some time on your own with the car. 

Check for faults

If you’re buying from a main dealer, any car they sell should have passed through a comprehensive pre-sale inspection – even new cars sometimes pick up minor damage during shipping, and while this should have been picked up and rectified, you’re buying something worth thousands of pounds, so it's best to be vigilant. 

While defects are often covered under warranty, insisting they’re attended to before you drive away can save a lot of hassle later. Keep an eye out for scuffs or small chips to the car's exterior and wheels, as well as any signs of use or wear inside the cabin, including bad smells. Obviously, the condition of the car depends on its age – if you’re buying new, the car should be perfect, inside and out.

Of potentially greater importance are the car's mechanicals. Check the engine temperature, either by the dashboard gauge or by placing a hand on the bonnet of the car. Is there a reason the seller isn’t letting you start it from cold? A warm engine can cover up untoward rattles or starting difficulties.

Used-car mechanicals present potential problems, so you may want to consider an aftermarket warranty if the dealer does not provide one of their own. Even seemingly small niggles may cost you dear – there may well be a reason the dealer did not fix them themselves. If you still want the car despite any faults you find, either use them as bargaining chips to get the price down or ask the seller to remedy them before you buy. See our comprehensive guide on car purchasing for more details.

Inside the car 

Despite this being a test drive, don’t feel the first thing you have to do is actually drive the car. Get inside and consciously spend a few minutes getting the seat comfortable, the mirrors adjusted and the ventilation system angled how you like it. Familiarise yourself with the major controls, too.

Once you’re happy, comfortable and understand how things work, start the engine and keep an eye in your mirrors for any signs of smoke. Next, turn the steering wheel fully to the left and right, listening for any clunks from the suspension.

Taking this measured, considerate approach before you drive the car can help you remain objective when it's time to drive. If you’re still happy with the car at this stage, now is the time to take it for an actual drive. 

Driving the vehicle 

Make sure the car accelerates smoothly and brakes effectively with precision, and continually listen out for strange noises or vibrations. Driving on a variety of roads is ideal – taking the car on fast dual-carriageways, slow country routes and stop-start, speed-bumped town roads should give you an idea of how it behaves in most of the situations you’re likely to be driving it. Don’t forget to check reverse gear engages smoothly as well – and consider the rear visibility when doing so. 

Try to think about the type of driving you’ll be doing in the car. If you mainly commute in town, do you really want the aggressively shifting sporty gearbox? If you’re more of an enthusiastic driver, does the car have enough overtaking power for you? 

Some dealers – particularly volume-selling car supermarkets – may be reluctant to give you an extended test drive. Be sure to explain to the seller that you expect to be able to fully assess the car before purchasing it.

The electrics 

Make sure you spend a good deal of time checking the gadgets and features of the car. Advanced in-car technology is a wonderful thing, but it can be expensive to fix if it goes wrong. Does the air-conditioning blow cold? If the car you’re looking at has extras such as heated seats, satellite navigation or Bluetooth connectivity, do they work as they should? Try pairing your phone to the car, or have the navigation on for a portion of the test drive. Some systems are more intuitive than others, and if you use postcodes to navigate by regularly, a system that won’t accept them, or takes only partial postcodes, could be a real inconvenience. 

You’re not just assessing the condition of the car and its features, you’re finding out how useable it is for you. Being stuck with the wrong car can be a daily headache, and extra time spent with the car before purchase could save you a lot of annoyance after you’ve paid for it. 

Stay level-headed 

If you’ve decided this is the car for you and everything works as it should, it may still be worth taking some time to think it over. A good night's sleep, the advice of a trusted friend or even a cup of coffee away from the dealership can give you the perspective to assess the car in the cold light of day. 

If you’re buying from a dealer, remember that they’re there for your benefit and you can’t ask too many questions, or take too long to decide. Asking for a second test drive is also perfectly reasonable. The seller will be grateful for your custom if you decide to purchase a vehicle from them. 

It's often said that buying a car should be a pleasurable experience, but that's only partly true: test driving and choosing the car should be an objective process. Taking possession of and driving away in the right car is the pleasurable bit, and conducting a thorough test drive should help ensure you make the correct choice.

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