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How to test drive a car

Before you buy a new or used car, you’ll want to take a test drive. Here’s how to do it well.

The test drive is a crucial part of the car buying process. You might think it’s as simple as snatching the keys from the salesperson’s hand and heading out on the road to see what the vehicle will do, but there are some important things to remember if you want to get the most out of your test drive experience. 

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At Auto Express we test drive hundreds, if not thousands, of cars every year but we don’t end up buying very many of them. The average car buyer has a much higher test drive to purchase ratio than the average car journalist and that’s why it’s crucial for you to fine-tune your test drive game before heading down to the dealership and getting behind the wheel.

We’re going to explore the whole test drive process covering our top tips for new and used car test drives but also looking at test drive insurance issues, extended test drives and what to do once your test drive is over and the salesperson moves in for the kill.  

Test drives and insurance

Before you climb into any car with the intention of driving it on public roads, you need to be 100% certain that it’s roadworthy and that you are insured to drive it. If you’re buying the car from a main franchised dealer, insurance is unlikely to be a problem and we’d certainly expect the car to be fully road legal. Things may get a bit more hazy at smaller dealerships selling used cars and when you’re buying a car in a private sale you need to be even more careful before taking a test drive. 

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A large dealership will usually cover you to take a test drive on their insurance but make sure you take your driving licence with you as they’ll want to see it, and will probably take a copy.  If you’re buying from a private seller, the responsibility will be on you to make sure that your insurance policy covers you to drive the car in question.

Our advice would be to always contact your insurer to double check that you are insured and what level of cover you have before taking a test drive. If you have a fully comprehensive policy it shouldn’t be a problem but the cover on the car you’re test driving may only be third-party, so you’ll need to pay for any damage you cause on the test drive. 

Only drive the car if both you and the seller are happy with the insurance arrangements and if you’re happy that the car is safe and roadworthy. If in any doubt, don’t take the risk. 

Test drive insurance top tips

  • Don’t drive any car unless you’re 100% sure you’re insured to do so.
  • Large dealerships will usually cover you to drive their demonstrators at smaller dealers you may need to get your own insurance cover.
  • Understand the terms of the insurance cover before driving, it’s likely to only offer third party cover.
  • Take your driving licence with you when you go to take a test drive.

How to take a test drive

With the thorny issue of insurance out of the way we can get to the good bit - the test drive itself. The danger here is that you’re handed the keys to the object of your desires and you spend the next 30mins or so having the time of your life without casting a critical eye over the vehicle in the way that a savvy buyer should.

A test drive should be treated as an extension of your car buying research process where you can gather first hand information on the car and how it suits your needs. Don’t let your heart rule your head and don’t let the salesperson, who’ll probably be perched in the passenger seat, sway your judgement.

How long is a test drive?

In the interests of getting as much information about the car as possible, take your time. You’re the customer and, within reason, a test drive can be as long as you’d like it to be.

Most dealers will have a predetermined route that they’ll suggest you take and this will typically be around 15 to 30 minutes, taking in some different types of road and traffic conditions. If you want longer with the car, however, just ask. Salespeople can be very accommodating if they think you’re about to drop thousands of pounds on a new car.

Some franchised dealerships even run extended test drive offers from time-to-time where you can have the car for 24 or 48 hours to get better acquainted. Even 7-day test drives are not unheard of and, naturally, you don’t have to take the salesperson home with you! 

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There will be plenty of people arriving at car dealerships asking to take test drives in new cars who have no intention of actually buying a car so it’s important to make it clear that you are seriously interested if you want to get the most out of the dealership staff. Show that you’ve done your research, have taken test drives elsewhere and are nearing a decision on a new car and they’ll feel that you’re a genuine buyer worthy of their attention.

By the same token though, remember that you’re under absolutely no obligation to buy any car after taking a test drive. If it’s not right for you, just walk away. 

Test drive length top tips

  • Your test drive is most likely to be between 15 and 30 minutes but don’t be afraid to ask for longer if you feel you need it.
  • Some dealers offer special extended test drives of 24 or 48 hours from time to time. Even 7-day test drives are not unheard of.
  • Make the most of the time you have in the car to form your opinions and gather information. 

Before you drive the car

First things first, you need to be sure exactly which car it is you’re driving. If you’re at a main dealer buying a new car, there’s a very good chance that the demonstrator won’t be the exact specification of car that you intend to buy. Find out exactly which engine and trim level the car you’re driving is, if any options are fitted and what it costs. Then compare this to the model you’re thinking of buying because it’s likely that the top-spec demonstrator will show the model in a better light than the version you can afford.

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You’ll probably have already had a good poke around the car before taking a test drive but you should continue to evaluate questions around its size, how comfortable you feel in it and how easy it is to use before you get out on the road and worry about how it drives.

Your car needs to be big enough to comfortably carry all the things and people you need it to. If you regularly carry bulky cargo like a pushchair or golf clubs, take it along and see how it fits in the boot. 

Before the test drive, adjust the seat as you’d like it, checking that you’re comfortable and that there’s enough legroom left in the seat behind. Adjust the mirrors and check to make sure you’ve got a good view to the front and the rear of the car. 

Familiarise yourself with the important controls - lights, indicators, gearbox but also check how easy the minor controls are to locate and use. It’s a good idea to try pairing your phone with the car to see how that works, if you regularly do this in your own vehicle. You need to make allowances here because you’ll be unfamiliar with the car but clear menus, logically placed buttons and easy-to-read graphics are all obvious plus points. 

Test drive preparation top tips

  • Make sure you do your research and find out exactly which car you’ll be driving before getting behind the wheel.
  • Understand any differences between the car you’re driving and the one you’re thinking about driving.
  • Take any bulky items you regularly carry in your car to see how they fit in the new one. 
  • Familiarise yourself with all the controls and try pairing your phone with the car before setting off.
  • Take time to set the seat, steering wheel and mirrors as you like them. 

Test driving a new car

If you’re buying a new, or even nearly new, car from a main dealer there should be no worries about faults or the condition of the car so we can get straight onto the driving experience. 

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Once again, you need to make some allowances. Recognise the fact that this is a car you haven’t driven before and it will take some getting used to but you can certainly evaluate all the key aspects of what it’s like on the road. Secondly, be aware that you’re unlikely to be able to form a sound judgement on how a car drives compared to the other models you’re considering after taking them all on short test drives. Hopefully, you’ll read Auto Express reviews for that kind of in-depth insight. The test drive is more about whether you like the way it drives, which options you want to choose and how you feel about the car overall - that’s the most important thing after all.

Think about the steering. Is it light enough for you to turn easily at low speeds and does it have enough weight to make you feel confident when positioning the car on faster roads? If there’s a manual gearbox, does it shift smoothly and how does the clutch feel? If the car is an automatic, does it shift promptly on your throttle inputs and can you comfortably reach the steering wheel paddle shifters?

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The car’s suspension is also crucial. Is the ride as smooth as you’d expect on the kind of roads you’re driving along? How well does it cope with potholes, large undulations and sharp changes in direction? If the ride isn’t as comfortable as you’d like, remember that opting for smaller wheels or a model with different suspension settings can make a huge difference. 

As far as the engine goes, you should be considering whether it’s strong enough for you. Remember that performance will take a tumble if you regularly carry 4 people and loads of luggage and this can mean working the engine harder to maintain progress. 

You might feel a little reluctant to do so under the watchful eyes of the salesperson but remember to rev the engine to the top of its rev range to see what it sounds like and, if the route allows, check engine, wind and tyre noise at motorway speeds - you want to be comfortable on long trips.

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The clutch in manual cars and brakes can take a little bit of getting used to in a car you’re not familiar with so make allowances for this. Try to do a reverse park or some other manoeuvre, though, to check that you’re comfortable with the car’s size and your view out.

Test driving a used car

Test driving a used car is a far more complex process that test driving a used one, mainly because you’re looking for potential issues with the pre-owned vehicle as well as working out whether you like it or not. Our used car checklist gives more thorough advice to used car buyers but we’ll deal with the basics of the test drive here.

If you’re buying from a main dealer, the used car will have gone through a comprehensive pre-sale inspection so its basic condition should be good, for the mileage and price. You should still give it a comprehensive inspection of your own looking for damaged bodywork or wheels outside and scuffed trim or bad smells inside, such discoveries can help you negotiate the price down. 

Check the mileage showing on the odometer and ask yourself if the condition of the car tallies with the displayed mileage. If you have any doubts, you can check the mileage of the car at its previous MoTs online. This will give a better idea of whether anything is amiss. 

You should also press all the buttons and flick all the switches to make sure that everything works as intended. Then, on the test drive itself keep a close eye out for any dashboard warning lights that might flag a malfunction. In most cases, any defects will be covered by the warranty but it’s far better to get them sorted out before you buy. 

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Check to see whether the car is warm when you start it as dealers often warm-up older cars that have trouble cold starting before customers come to take a drive. On the road, pay particular attention to the way the clutch and brakes feel. You’re looking for smooth pedal travel and progressive stopping power from the latter and a clear biting point from the former. 

The engine should accelerate smoothly with not unexpected or undue noise and not too much exhaust output. Manual gearboxes too, can begin to feel tired after extensive use so check how easily the car slots into every gear - including reverse. The steering should turn the car smartly when you begin to move the wheel and any unusual clunks or squeaks from the suspension should definitely be investigated before you part with any cash.

Keep an ear out for any kind of rattles or hums emanating from the cabin and ask the dealer to investigate if you’re not happy. Indeed, the salesperson is there to help so ask as many questions as you can to clear up any uncertainty. The same considerations around whether you feel comfortable in the car apply with used vehicles just as they do with new ones.

Test driving a car top tips

  • If possible, test the car on a range of different road types and in various traffic conditions.
  • Paying particular attention to how the car feels in the type of driving you do most of.
  • Check the ride comfort on poor road surfaces and the noise levels on faster roads.
  • Think about how comfortable you feel in the car, how easy the controls are to reach and how well you can see out. 
  • Be aware of awkward controls but remember that these things can improve with familiarity.

After the test drive

If you’re going to be testing a few cars, it’s a good idea to make a few notes of your initial impressions straight after the test drive. And also make a note of anything you’d like the dealer to address.

At this point the salesperson will be looking to close the deal on the car but it’s very important that you ignore any pressure to buy. A test drive is just that and you shouldn’t feel obliged to take things any further, unless you really want to. The best advice is to have a little cooling off period. Go away and think about the car, what you like and what you don’t, in your own time, then come back and do the deal when you’re ready, or don’t.

The test drive can be an enjoyable experience but the real enjoyment comes from making the right decision on a great new car that you’ll love owning. The test drive is just an important part of the process towards that goal so it always pays to get it right.

What are your top tips for test driving a car? Let us know in the comments below...

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