Direct Line magazine

How to test drive a car

Updated on: 21 May 2020

a couple test drive a car

Going for a test drive can reveal all kinds of things about a car that a private seller or dealership might not tell you.

The Government’s Money Advice Service highlights just how important it is - especially if you’re buying a car privately, as you’ll have limited comeback if something goes wrong.

So, with this in mind, here are our top tips for test driving a car…

Have the right cover

First of all, it’s essential that your car insurance allows you to test drive the car legally. Then, if you’re buying privately, arrange to meet at the seller’s home so that you can be sure all relevant paperwork matches their address.

Use your eyes and nose

Look around at the condition of the plastics, inside the boot and even the roof lining. If the car is full of air fresheners, ask the owner if you can remove them. They might be hiding a nasty pong.

And don’t forget to see if the ashtray has been used. If a car smells of smoke, it’s unlikely you’ll get rid of the stink. Some dealers say cars owned by smokers are so hard to sell they won’t take them in part exchange.

Are you sitting comfortably?

All cars have different driving positions. There are now multiple ways of adjusting seats, steering wheels and occasionally even pedals. Spend some time setting the car to your liking. Then if you can, go for a long drive. This will reveal how comfortable the seats are.

Many cars, particularly those built by European manufacturers and originally designed to be left-hand drive, have a slightly offset driving position. This means that the seat, pedals and steering wheel can sometimes be out of alignment to each other, causing backache on longer journeys.

Do the warning lights go out?

When you turn the ignition on, the dashboard should light up like a Christmas tree. Those lights should then all go out. If any linger, it could be a sign of trouble. To know what they mean, check this helpful guide to warning lights.

Start the engine from cold

First check that the engine is cold. If it’s been warmed up prior to your arrival, the car may have a problem starting from cold. When you turn the key or push the starter button, the engine should turn over and fire immediately, even if it hasn’t been recently used.

It’s normal for a small amount of steam to come out of an exhaust when the engine starts, but you don’t want any white, blue or black smoke. These all signal impending problems that will cost you dearly, so walk away from the car and ignore any excuses.

Try all the switches

Cars are filled with all kinds of electronics, from windows and parking sensors, to sound systems and sat navs. So, be sure to thoroughly check that everything is working as described. Anything that isn’t working is going to cost money to fix, so do your research into what the cost of repair will be.

If there are small things, try and get the cost of repair knocked off the asking price. If lots of stuff appears broken, you might be better off giving the car a miss.

Listen up

Turn off the sound system. And if you’re with a salesman or private seller who insists on talking, ask them politely to be quiet. You’re listening for squeaks and rattles. If they’re coming from the underneath, they can hint at worn or faulty suspension components. From the engine bay, they could be something serious like a driveshaft that’s about to fail.

Try the right roads

Think about the sort of motoring you do and try to take appropriate roads on your test drive. If you can, take a familiar route. It’ll give you more ‘head space’ to concentrate on the new car, how easy (or otherwise) it is to drive, what’s rattling and so on, rather than worrying about where you’re going.

Does the steering wobble or the car pull?

Find a straight and quiet stretch of road and lighten your grip on the wheel. The car shouldn’t wander excessively. Then lightly jiggle the steering wheel to check that your actions have a precise effect on the wheels. When you’re not being followed by anything else, apply the brakes heavily. The car should stop in a straight line without veering one way or another. This also lets you check that the anti-lock brakes work correctly.

Time to make up your mind

If any of the above problems manifest themselves, be wary of handing over any of your hard-earned cash. If you love the car but are worried about a couple of points from the test drive, it could be worth asking a professional technician to inspect the vehicle.

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