A test drive is vital before you decide to buy a car, its one of the last verification steps to ensure the car performs as it should.
We don’t suggest you buy a car without a test drive being carried out, this article will aim to teach you how to maximise your opportunity of’ ‘the test drive’ and the things to look out for.
Remember to take your time on a test drive even if you feel you are being hurried along by a seller, could they be doing that because they are hiding an issue? A genuine seller will allow you to thoroughly test the car to your satisfaction before any purchase.
We recommend you use our Car inspection checklist before you begin the test drive, this covers over 40 crucial checks you need to carry out before you set to drive.
What to look for:
Before Driving Off
- Sit in the car and click the ignition once but do not start the car, wait for all the dashboard light to turn off, the only ones that should really remain on are the handbrake and seat belt light. If any other lights remain on there may be a fault in the system which you will need to investigate further. It can be something simple such as a service indicator light or something potentially more serious such as engine management light. If unsure use the owners manual to see what the light is and what it refers to. We suggest you plug in a diagnostic fault code reader to check for any fault codes.
- Tell the seller you want to drive the car from a ‘cold start’, touch the engine and tyres to see if they are warm, check the coolant temperature gauge (if there is one to see if the car is not already warm. If the car is warm there could be a reason why, as certain sounds and faults only surface when the engine starts from a cold start, is the seller trying to hide any faults from you? If in doubt let the vehicle cool down before starting it up again.
- Once you do start the Car listen for any unusual squeaks, rattles, clonks or grinding sounds, you don’t have to be a mechanic to hear this as it should be fairly obvious to hear. It’s quite normal for an older engine to be a little noisy however unusual sounds should be easy to spot if you have to get out the car and open the bonnet again so be it.
- Look under the front of the car whilst the car is started to see if you can see any signs of fluid leaks whilst the engine is running
- Walk around to the rear of the Car and check the colour of the exhaust gasses. Its normal for some light colour exhaust fumes especially on a cold start, however, look out for either thick white, light blue or thick black smoke which can signify a serious issue with the engine itself.
- As you begin your drive turn off all music and put up all windows, try to keep talking with the seller to a minimum, sometimes the seller taking to you too much can be a distraction technique to put you off so that you don’t spot a fault.
- Check the steering, it should be smooth and not difficult to manoeuvre, slightly older cars may have tougher power steering which is fine, however, it should not be unusually tough and it should not make gurgling sounds when turned. The car should drive straight and not severely pull in either direction, neither should the steering wobble when braking. If you do spot these signs it could be as simple as a wheel alignment or something a bit more like a brake replacement required.
- Check the suspension at lower speeds over speed bumps and potholes, does it seem smooth? Or is it clunky and bumpy and squeaky, it could be signs your suspension components need examining and replacing.
- Does the car rev and pick up power correctly? Is there any hesitation in the acceleration. Does the car make strange sounds when you accelerate? Look out for engine misfires and check to see if the revs drop randomly as you are driving.
- Look in the rearview mirror to see if you can see any unusual smoke coming from the exhaust, especially look out for think white smoke, light blue or dark black smoke when accelerating. This is not normal and can indicate issues such as a damaged turbo.
- Drive the vehicle until it is up to operating temperature, the coolant level needle should now hold its position in the middle and remain there as you drive, look for any signs of overheating.
- Constantly scan the dash for any error messages, some can potentially only surface when the car has driven for a while
- Check all the controls that are used during driving are working, horn, wipers, lights and cruise control (if applicable) along with Sat Nav etc.
- Check the driving capabilities off the car in all possible situations such as low speed, high speed, cornering and going around roundabouts.
Gearbox & Clutch
- If the car has a manual set up, check the clutch by pressing it down with your foot, how does it feel? It should not feel overly spongy or overly stiff, does it quickly return back to its original position. Listen for any grinding sounds when the clutch is depressed.
- If automatic, does the Car go through all gears smoothly without hesitation? Be sure to check all gears including reverse.
- If checking a manual gearbox be sure to go through ALL gears both up and down. Check for any stiffness, sticking and grinding in gears which could indicate a synchro issue or worse an impending gearbox replacement, be sure to check the reverse gear works as it should.
- Listen out for any squeaking from brakes when driving which can indicate worn pads or discs.
- Does the car brake in a straight line
- Does the car feel like it’s being held back when driving? If so it could be signs of a sticking brake calliper
- Any burning smell which could indicate bad brakes (or possibly a burning clutch)
- Park on a hill and test the handbrake, there should not be any slippage, the travel on the handbrake should not be overly high.
- Does the handbrake light on the dash go away when the handbrake is taken off
- The same test applied if the car uses an electric handbrake
Sensors and Electronics
- If the Car is equipped with parking sensors, test both sets work, both the visual and audio indicators should work on the sensors.
- If equipped with a reversing camera ensure it engages
- Certain cars have self-park capabilities – ensure it works
- Do all windows operate when driving? Is there any excessive wind noise from the car at higher speeds which could indicate worn window sills?
- Does the climate control operate properly when driving, does it blow hot air?
- Is the car blowing cold AC when driving
- Does the sunroof, convertible roof work as it should
- Do the heated seats work as they should
- Is there any flickering of lights on the dash when driving which could indicate the battery is struggling to cope with the load of all the electronics
- Switch the car off and then restart it, does it start first time? Does it appear to struggle to restart?
Final Check Over
After the car has been driven for a few miles and is warm we suggest the following final checks before concluding the test drive
- Park the car up with the engine still running, can you hear any strange noises from the car now that it is warm?
- Have a final look under the car to recheck for any fluid leaks now that it is warm and has been driven
- Open the bonnet and listen again for anything unusual, double check the coolant level has not significantly dropped and there is no sign of any fluid leaks in the engine bay
- Double check the exhaust is not blowing any strange coloured smoke
- Double check no warning lights have not illuminated on the car
- Double check the cars operating temperature is still where it should be and has not increased to the point of overheating
- Switch the car off and listen for any strange sounds as the vehicle shuts off such as squeaky belts or noisy filters.
You have now completed a successful test drive
What You Should Do Next
- Never repeatedly alert the seller of any faults you feel you feel you have noticed with the car as this will more often than not annoy them and give the impression your there to ‘low ball’ them.
- Instead, make a mental note off all the things you find to be wrong with the car and use it to, sum up at the end and why you are going to offer less
- Formulate your offer
- Be prepared to walk away if you can’t make the right deal
Here are some helpful resources that can help you
- The Proper way to determine the value of a second-hand car
- Paperwork you need to check when buying a car Privately
- How to check if a car has been in an accident
- 13 Negotiation tips when buying a used car
The test drive process is not merely a formality, but a crucial stage to see if the car stands up to the test. Make sure you test the car thoroughly and comprehensively. We always recommend that if you are unsure about this process or feel like you feel a second opinion on a car then always opt for a ‘pre-purchase inspection’ (PPI), where a qualified mechanic can look over the car for you and give you a professional opinion on it.