Test driving a carThe test drive is crucial in helping you decide whether to buy a car. Find out how to take the perfect test drive.

Golden rules

• Print out Auto Trader’s Buyers Checklist as a useful guide
• Make sure you’re insured – and check you’re sufficiently covered as you may only get third party cover to drive other vehicles
• Temporary car insurance can protect you for the day of the test drive if your insurer is unwilling or unable to offer you good, cheap cover
• Take proof of insurance with you to show the seller, or the police if you are stopped or involved in an accident
• Only meet a private seller at their home address or a trader at their premises, as it’s your guarantee they are the documented owner of the car

Car checks

• Insist on starting the car when the engine is cold as this is when starting problems, excessive exhaust smoke and unusual noises are most apparent – you may need to arrange this with the owner before you visit
• If the car struggles to start it may need maintenance or replacement parts
• Steam or a small amount of white exhaust smoke when you start the car is normally fine, and expect more smoke on cold or humid days. Blue, excessive white or black smoke can indicate internal oil leaks, head gasket failure or a poorly-tuned engine – work will be required in these circumstances
• Listen for excessive exhaust noise, which could indicate a hole in the exhaust and that it will need replacing. Rattles may be caused by a worn bracket and are usually cheap and easy to replace
• It’s normal for the engine speed to rise to just over 1,000rpm for a few minutes, and then settle to less than 1,000rpm when starting from cold. If the engine speed refuses to stay consistent, it will need attention. Air conditioning systems affect some cars’ engine speed when stationary, so turn it off for an accurate test
• Turn the steering wheel from one side to the other; cars with power steering often produce a slight whining sound, but it shouldn’t be excessive. There should be no bumps, screeching or knocking and it should require consistent effort to turn the wheel
• Test the handbrake by gently releasing the clutch in a manual car to feel the handbrake resisting forward movement. If the car moves easily, the handbrake is ineffective and will need adjustment

The test drive

• Drive the car on a variety of roads and road surfaces, at slow, moderate and motorway speeds
• Spend between 15 and 30 minutes behind the wheel – any less makes it hard to get an idea of the car, while a longer drive could inconvenience the seller
• Make sure you use every gear in a manual car and ensure each one engages smoothly
• When you release the clutch does the gear engage at the top or bottom of the clutch pedal’s travel? If it releases near the top – and feels heavy in the process – the car may need a new clutch soon
• Automatic gearboxes should offer smooth gear selection, and shouldn’t be noisy. Check it ‘kicks down’ by accelerating hard when cruising – this should force the gearbox to change gear and produce a burst of acceleration
• Take the car on at least one stretch of dual carriageway or motorway
• If you can turn the steering wheel a few degrees without anything happening, it could point to worn suspension and steering parts
• Check the steering feels the same in left and right-hand corners; if not, the suspension could need attention, or the car could have crash damage
• Ensure the suspension soaks up bumps quietly and effectively, without juddering or shaking the cabin – noisy, bouncy or shaky suspension probably needs replacing
• Accelerate briefly while keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror to check for excessive smoke from the exhaust
• Brake sharply to see if the car pulls to the left or right. Vibrations or noises from the brakes and suspension could indicate worn or damaged parts which need fixing

Test driving a new car

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to test drive the actual new car you’re buying, but you should be able to drive a similar version.
• Ask the dealer to arrange a drive in a car that’s as close as possible to the one you’re looking to buy; sometimes you may need to drive several cars to sample the bodystyle, engine and gearbox separately
• A test drive needn’t be five minutes round the block – ask to borrow a car for an evening or a weekend so you can get familiar with it, without the pressure of a salesman in the passenger seat
• Make sure you can get comfortable behind the wheel and are satisfied with the way the car drives and you have sufficient visibility
• If you regularly carry passengers or luggage, load up the car to see how it copes

How Auto Trader can help: Vehicle Check and car valuation

More in-depth buying advice:

How to choose the right car:
Buying a used car | Buying a new car | Setting your budget
Comparing new and used cars | Choosing the right car
Buying an imported car | Buying a classic car

How to buy a car:
Contacting the seller | Inspecting a used car | Test driving a car
Haggling with sellers | Doing the paperwork

How to pay for your car:
Understanding car loans and finance | Checking your credit rating
Returning a car