How to Test Drive a Car

Top Tips

What You Need to Know

  1. Bring your license with you and, if the car belongs to an individual rather than a show room, make sure your car insurance policy allows you to drive another’s car with permission.
  2. If you do not know much about car maintenance, bring along a friend who does so they can give the car a proper inspection.
  3. You can use the car's VIN or license plate number to find out if it has ever been reported in an accident, written off or stolen.
  4. Make sure the test drive lasts at least half an hour and includes all sorts of roads. If you have a family be sure to bring them with you so you can get a full sense of what the car is like to use.
  5. Before the test drive check that the bonnet is cold. If it is already warm the seller might be trying to hide a starting problem.
  6. Check that the exhaust fumes are white, rather than black or blue, which can indicate burning oil or engine trouble.
  7. When buying second hand be aware that, whilst a new paint job may look nice, it may be an attempt to cover up after an accident.

Prepare Before Hand

Obviously, when buying a car you will have an idea of your budget and how much you are willing to spend. Do not forget to extend this planning to the cost of the car insurance you would have to pay.

Likewise, do some research and try and figure out how much the car will cost to run. Perhaps the price is initially attractive, but the saving might be wiped out by high fuel consumption.

It sounds obvious, but you should remember to bring your driving license along with you as the other party will require proof that you can legally drive.

You also need to make sure you are insured before stepping into a car you intend to drive. Showrooms will normally have a policy that will cover you. If you are test driving a car being sold by a private individual you will need to check your own policy to see if it allows you to ‘drive another car with owner’s permission.’ This is called DOC (Driving Other Cars) cover.

Inspecting The Car

It is important to inspect the car thoroughly, do not feel like you have to rush this. If you are buying a new car from a showroom, try not to let the sales person pressure you into looking at a car you don't want or can't afford.

This can be easier if you bring along a friend. It can make a sales pitch less intimidating, especially if they are a motoring expert. This can be an especially wise move with second hand cars, as you can have them take a look under the bonnet if you don’t feel confident doing so yourself.

With new cars you'll probably not be able to drive the exact vehicle that you buy, but make sure the dealer arranges a test drive in a model that is the same, or as similar as possible to the one you would take home.

When inspecting the bodywork of second-hand cars, look out for scuffs, dents and scratches. You may be able to negotiate a better price because of these.

If the vehicle looks like it has had a paint re-spray then ask the owner for information, it may have been in a crash. You should also check the oil filler cap. It there is a layer of sludge around it this can indicate poor servicing.

Second-Hand Vehicles: Checking the Log Book

If the car that you're booking for a test drive is not new, you should also ask the seller to have a look at the maintenance log book. These days, many cars come with electronic log books. These provide a record of the car's service history, and should clearly show oil changes, tyre rotations, brake inspections and replacement parts. It is also good practice to look at the vehicle registration certificate, which should contain details of exhaust emissions and engine specifications.

Make sure the VIN (Vehicle Information Number) matches the number on the car and check the MOT. The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) can carry out a Vehicle Identity Check (VIC) using the VIN and license plate number. This will tell you if the care has ever been written off or reported as stolen.

When looking at the mileage, compare it to the car’s wear and tear. This will give you an idea of whether it has been adjusted or not.

Testing the vehicle

Make sure you take the vehicle for a long test drive, ideally around half an hour. You should test the car on a variety of roads and take it somewhere that enables you to get the speed up and shift through all of the gears, especially on hills.

Adjust the seat and steering wheel to make sure that you are comfortable. Test the radio and CD player while you are driving, and check indicators and windscreen wipers.

Ideally you should make the test drive experience as close as possible to circumstances you normally drive in. For example, bring your kids and their booster seats along to check that they are comfortable. Perform manoeuvres such as reverse parking and be sure not to limit your testing of the car to its performance on the road. Check all the other features, such as the locks, windows and radio work as well as you’d like.

The drive

The engine should be cold when you start it. With second-hand cars, be wary if it is already warm, the seller may be hiding a starting problem. Listen out for any unusual noises. The engine should be quiet. Brakes should be responsive and should not vibrate. Make sure you can move between gears easily, there should not be a crunching sound.

As you set out on the drive, 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.

Further Reading

  • Selling a car? Autotrader’s site can help make the process less of a hassle.
  • The AA have a host of tips on all motoring topics.
  • See UK Net Guide's dedicated page to pick up motoring advice.

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