Test driving a car: what to look out for

Test driving the vehicle you’re thinking of purchasing is an integral part of the car-buying process. Whatever your feelings towards the car, they can quickly change once you start driving around. In this blog, we outline the most important factors to consider when test driving a car – whether the car is new or used.

Make sure you have insurance before you drive

Before you head off, make sure you have the correct insurance in place. If you’re test-driving a vehicle at a car dealer, chances are they will have set this up for you already, but if you’re buying a car privately, it’s likely that you’ll have to take out your own insurance. We offer short-term insurance if you need to test drive a car, whether you’re still a learner driver or you’ve already passed your test.

And while you’re at it, you could even ask for an annual insurance quote for the car. This will give you an indication on whether the vehicle plus insurance is within your price range.

Display L or P plates if necessary

If you’re still learning to drive, make sure you display your L plates as by law, you need to display these even on short test drives. If you’ve just passed your test, P plates can help let other people know that you’re new to driving so they give you more space.

Consider bringing someone with you

Two legs of people walking down the street together

Image source: Adobe Stock

There’s no denying it: some private sellers want to get rid of their car as quickly as possible or are looking to get as much money out of the deal as possible. As a result, you might find that they rush you or try to convince you about how good the vehicle is.

As you’ll be parting with a good chunk of change when you buy a car, it’s important that you buy the right one, so don’t be afraid to take your time on your test drive and while inspecting the vehicle. If they rush you through the process, this might be an indication that there’s something wrong with the vehicle and they don’t want you to find out.

If you’re not familiar with cars and you’re buying second hand, it’s usually a good idea to bring someone else along with you who knows their stuff.

This could be a friend or relative, or you could ask an engineer to come with you to check the car is in full working order. You’ll have to pay for this service, but it could help you save money on repairs – or even buying another car.

Check the engine first

Before you turn the car on, check to see if the engine is warm by placing your hand on the bonnet (or wherever the engine is located). It’s best to wait for the engine to cool down completely before test driving. A warm engine suggests that the car has recently been driven, which could be a sign that the seller is trying to hide a problem with how the car starts.

Turn the car on

Now it’s time to turn on the ignition. Listen out for any unusual noises, bangs or rattles. This would be an indication that there’s an issue with the engine or suspension.

Check the lights and exhaust are working before you set off

Front car light turned on on white car

Image source: Sara Kurfeß

Take this opportunity to check the lights work and that the exhaust isn’t smoking. Switch on all the lights and go around the car checking that they’re all working properly.

If someone else is with you, get back in the car and press the brakes while the person is behind the car so they can make sure the brake lights are working. If you’re looking at the car by yourself, you can park the car in front of a reflective surface – such as a window, or even a lightly coloured wall. If the brake lights are working, you should be able to see their reflection in the rearview mirror.

The exhaust shouldn’t smoke profusely when you turn on the car. You can get out and check this when you check the lights.

Check the steering wheel

With the car parked but switched on, turn the steering wheel all the way to the left, then all the way to the right. Although this might cause some noise, the noise shouldn’t be too loud.

Start driving the car

White car driving down a built-up street in the UK

Image source: Kyle Bushnell

Start driving off. It’s a good idea to plan a route that would allow you to drive at a range of speeds and in different conditions. If you’re able to, find a route that includes residential driving (including speed bumps, preferably), built-up areas, single or dual carriageways, and even a motorway if you’re near one.

Check the brakes

Make sure you check the brakes early on as cars that have been left idle for a while can develop brake issues. The brake pad should be responsive and shouldn’t feel spongy or weak when pressed. If you feel like there’s something wrong with the brakes even after driving around for a few minutes, it’s best to head back as brake issues can be dangerous.

Test the brakes further by performing this simple test.

Pick a straight stretch of road and brake when it is safe to do so. The car should brake without veering off to the side (unless the road is sloped slightly). If it does veer in a specific direction, this is a sign that there is an issue with the brakepads, tyre pressure or suspension.

Test the gears

If possible, test all the gears on your test drive. You should be able to change gears smoothly without any crunching noises – if not, this could indicate that there is something wrong with the car’s gearbox.

Focus on the steering

Close up of steering wheel with person's hand resting on the wheel

Image source: Dan Edge

Next, turn your attention to the steering. Make sure the steering wheel doesn’t vibrate or shake, especially when speeding up or slowing down.

You should also check that the steering wheel is straight when you’re driving on a straight road. If it isn’t, the steering wheel might need to be adjusted.

Listen out for odd noises and look out for fumes

Make sure to listen out for any odd noises while driving. This could include bangs, groans or creaks.

It’s a good idea to check your rearview mirror for any signs of unusual fumes from your exhaust when you’re driving.

Finally, make sure you’re comfortable driving the car

Woman sitting behind the wheel of a car smiling

Image source: Adobe Stock

Make sure that you take some time to consider how you feel when test driving the car. Do you feel comfortable? Or do you feel anxious when driving it? When it comes to choosing your next or first car, it’s a good idea to trust your gut. The last thing you want is a car you don’t enjoy driving, or one you’re just itching to get rid of.

Buy it – or move on

If you’ve performed all the tests and the car has passed with flying colours, you might want to consider buying it! Just make sure that when you leave with the car, you’ve got insurance in place, whether it’s temporary cover or insurance for a whole year. And if you’ll soon be driving the car by yourself for the first time, read our tips beforehand.

And if you aren’t 100% certain you want to go ahead with buying the car, no worries – there are plenty of new and used options out there. Read out blog on the best cars for new drivers if it’s your first time buying a car.