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What to check when you test drive a car

What to check when you test drive a car

Taking a brand new car out for a drive can be daunting if you're not sure what to look out for. We'll show you what to check, and what to do to avoid being caught out…

Drive it!

First things first – if you're about to part with several thousand pounds make sure you actually drive the car. Yes, there are people out there who are willing to hand over a large chunk of cash for a car they've not even driven!

If possible drive more than one example. It's hard to know how a car should drive, if you've not driven one before.

Many car dealers are well versed in the art of detecting who they think are non-serious buyers, and as a result are often very reluctant to let you have a test drive.

If it's a car you're genuinely considering buying, and the dealer doesn't seem happy to let you take it for a spin then consider doing the negotiating bit first.

Tell the dealer that the negotiations are subject to a test drive, and never shake on the deal before you've been out in the car.

This also gives you a cooling off period where you can go for a short drive and make sure the car is for you. If you find any faults either return the car and walk away, or use them to haggle the price down further.

Some Car Supermarkets have a policy of not letting you test drive the car, and will only take you out as a passenger. There's not a lot you can do about this – but instruct the dealer to carry out your requests, and never, ever feel obliged to buy the car just because you've been out for a drive.

If it's a private sale, you really need to be the one doing the driving, not the seller. Clarify with the seller whether this will be ok before you view the car, and be prepared to prove that you have sufficient insurance.

Most fully comprehensive policies allow you to drive someone else's car with third party cover so you'll be legal – but check the wording of your policy first to make sure.

How long should a test drive last?

You don't have to spend ages in a car to decide whether it's a 'good un' or not – it will be pretty evident early on if it's not as it should be, or if it feels wrong. A ten minute drive should be more than enough – as long as it allows you to experience a variety of driving conditions, particularly being able to get up some speed.

What to look for on the test drive

Cold start

You ideally want to test the car when it's cold. A warmed up engine can hide a multitude of sins, particularly on a diesel. If when you first see the car it's already been started (the engine will be warm when you lift the bonnet, and the temp gauge will have gone up a little) be cautious.


If the car has been sitting on a forecourt for a while, then it's likely the brakes will need an application or two to clear any surface rust and perform properly.

If the brakes feel spongy, weak, or that they're just not stopping the car with any degree of confidence don't fall for the “it's been sitting for a few weeks” line. If they don't feel fine after 5 minutes of driving, they're not going to get any better.

On a straight piece of road make sure there's no one behind you, and warn your passenger/s you're going to brake hard. Then while hold the steering wheel lightly, press firmly on the brake pedal.

You want the car to come to a controlled halt – and in the case of cars fitted with ABS you should feel the ABS 'pulsing' under your foot.

The car may veer slightly to the left if the road is cambered, but it should brake in a straight line with no fuss or drama. If it pulls to one side then something's amiss, either with the brakes, the suspension, or even with the tyre pressures.


Don't bother bouncing up and down on the front of the car like they do on the telly – drive the car and listen out for knocks or bangs, or, more likely, creaking and groaning.

Again, cars that have been sitting for a while shouldn't have noisy suspension so if it's making a racket when you go over bumps then it may need replacement bushes, or other suspension components.

At slower speeds when you're manoeuvring listen out for clonking, or creaking noises.


Is the steering wheel straight when you're driving straight (it's fixable, but it demonstrates that the car's had work on the steering components)? Is it vibration and wobble free under braking and acceleration?

Often wheel wobble is only apparent at higher speeds, and can indicate issues with wheels, tyres, suspension, or steering. Often the fix is as simple as having the wheels re-balanced, but it's still something to consider. 

With the car stationary, and with the engine running, turn the steering wheel as far as it will go from lock to lock – the power steering pump will probably make a little more noise as you get to full lock, but it shouldn't make a racket, and there should be no noises from the suspension.


When you're cornering at decent speed (within the law obviously) listen for a humming sound from the wheel bearings – it's more likely to come from one side or the other, so you may only be able to hear it when you go round left hand bends, or only when you're cornering to the right.

If there's a noticeable change in pitch then it could be a wheel bearing on the way out. You can also gently sway the car from side to side on a wide, clear stretch of road which will also result in humming noise if a bearing is shot.

Give it some beans

While you've always got to drive within the confines of the law, plus be respectful that it's someone else's car you're driving – don't drive like a little old lady. Where conditions allow put your foot down, and change gear swiftly.

Is it smooth and without hesitation, does the car change gear without any baulking or crunching, does the clutch slip?

Glimpse in the rear view mirror as you accelerate – any signs of smoke? You don't need to drive like you're in a Formula 1 race, but you do need to make sure that nothing untoward rears its head as the speed increases.

Don't feel intimidated

Always remember that the seller really wants you to buy their car. They want you to shake their hand, give them a pile of money, and drive off in it. Despite this some sellers, and many car dealers, like to have the upper hand and like to intimidate the buyer.

Always remember that they need you, and never play your hand too early – if you're enthusiastic and full of praise for the car they know that they can be firm when it comes to doing the deal. If you keep your cool, and your cards close to your chest you stand a better chance of haggling the price down.

Finally - it's always worth putting in a low, but fair bid and stating that you'll shake on that amount right now, but if it's a penny more you'll need to go home and have a think about it.

Dealers hate for you to walk away, as they know that once you're gone it's highly unlikely you'll come back.