How to test drive a car

James Foxall
Written by: James Foxall
Posted on: 4 August 2016

Just like a first date, test driving a car can be revealing, exciting and sometimes disappointing.

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 in the event of something going wrong.

Yet astonishingly, recent research has revealed that around 10% of drivers – that’s nearly a million people – don’t bother getting behind the wheel of a car before buying it. And the reason one in three of all car buyers were reluctant to do so was that they simply didn’t know what to look for.

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 that 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 festooned with air fresheners, ask the owner if you can remove them. They might be hiding a nasty niff. Equally, look at the ashtray. Has it been used? If a car smells of smoke, it’s unlikely you’ll get rid of the stink. Some car 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 and 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 gaudy 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 getting filled with handy gadgets, all of which can pack up. An electric window motor might not be hugely expensive, but if one doesn’t work you’ll want the cost of replacing it deducted from the selling price.

The complex computer screens that control many of the functions such as the sound system and sat nav in some cars are a different matter. These can cost more than £1,000 to replace so, if one of them is on the blink, you might want to think twice about buying the car.

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. Lighten your grip on the wheel. The car shouldn’t wander excessively. Then lightly jiggle the steering wheel. There shouldn’t be an excessive amount of play in it; your inputs should 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

Still unsure whether to buy? A test drive can be the decider.

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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