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Test driving a car in 2022: a complete guide

Written By David Ross

driving on road
  • What you need to know before taking a test drive 
  • We explain what to look - and listen - for
  • Insurance cover explained

If you’re buying any car, the test drive is a vital part of the process. You can spend hours reading reviews but you only really know what a car is like by seeing it in the metal and feeling what it’s like to drive. But there’s more to it than simply sliding into the driver’s seat and hitting the open road. Read on to find all you need to know about test driving a car

Rules for test driving a car

There are no fixed rules for test driving a car. But there is one legal requirement: to test drive a car you need to be insured for that car.

It used to be the case that when you bought car insurance it covered you for driving other vehicles. If you have car insurance now, it tends to be third party only so check your policy.

If whoever owns the car wants you to have comprehensive cover, there are companies that provide motor insurance lasting anything from an hour upwards. Make sure you print out the certificate and take it with you to prove you’ve bought it.

Depending on who is selling the car, they may want to see your driving licence so have that with you too.

Before your test drive

Think about how and who. How you’ll use the car and who will be using it with you.

If you’re buying a car that will be driven by you and your partner, make sure you take them along. You won’t hear the end of it if you buy a car that they can’t get comfy behind the wheel in.

If you’ve got kids, make sure that they’ve got enough room in the back and that there’s room for their child seats. And ensure that they’ve got room for their legs once you and your partner are comfortable in the front.

Presumably you’ll have some kit to carry. If there’s a pushchair or you regularly transport golf clubs, have them with you so you can check they fit in the boot.

Once you’ve established that, make sure you can get a driving position that suits you. How soft are the seats? Can you reach all the controls? Are there any scuffs, stains or scratches that are going to irritate you? And what does the car smell like? A small forest of air fresheners hanging on the mirror might indicate that the owner is trying to cover up a nasty whiff.

Inspect for faults on your test drive

If you’re buying a car from a dealer it’ll probably be covered by a warranty (you might want to check out the best cars with a 7 year warranty). Nonetheless it’s much easier to get anything wrong rectified before you take the car away so scour it for faults.

You’re looking for dents, chips and scratches in the paint work. You should also look along the sides to make sure all the panels line up. If they don’t it may have been in a crash.

Look under the bonnet. If the engine is warm when you arrive, be suspicious: it might have a problem starting from cold. Check all the fluid levels that you can see. This is a good indication of how well maintained the car has been.

Inspect all the tyres. The legal minimum tread depth is 1.6mm, or the outer rim of a 20 pence piece. If any tyre is approaching that, it’ll need replacing soon. Make a note and ask for a reasonable amount of money off the price to reflect that. Then get back inside.

How well does it work?

Assuming the engine is cold, you want to see how well it starts. And when the engine does fire up, look in the rear-view mirror for smoke from the exhaust. This can be caused by worn valve seals which are a sign an engine is beyond its best.

Once the engine is running, hopefully smoothly with an even idle speed, try all the switches and functions. Do the electric windows work? Is the air conditioning blowing as cold as it should? Does the touchscreen work and can you pair your phone with it? And do all the speakers produce sound?

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Try it on the right kind of roads

If you’re not familiar with the area the car is in, work out a test-drive route before you go. If you spend most of your time driving around town, try the car on those sorts of roads in stop-start traffic. If you drive on the motorway a lot, find a stretch of dual carriageway to drive on.

How long to test drive a car? The longer the better. That way you’ll be able to find out if the seats give you backache or the engine whine winds you up. It’s also why dealers selling new cars frequently offer three-day test drives.

Silence is golden

When you take the car out, make sure the infotainment system is turned off (once you’ve established it works) and don’t be distracted by the owner’s idle chit chat. You’re listening out for sounds that shouldn’t be there. Try the car over some speed humps. This will give the suspension a good work out. You’re listening for creaks and rattles that might indicate worn or broken suspension parts.

Then think about how the noise will be to live with. Is there too much tyre roar on the motorway? Or perhaps there’s an irritating whistling that only happens at 60mph from the wind passing over the door mirrors?

Test the brakes, steering and gears

Find a stretch of straight road and when there’s no one behind you, perform an emergency stop. The car should come to a standstill sharply. There may be some chatter from the ABS anti-lock braking, that’s normal. But the car shouldn’t pull to one side.

Get going again and wiggle the steering wheel. It should move but the car should go with it. If the wheel feels loose and you can move it without the car following the front wheels, there may be a problem.

Think about the gearbox. If it’s an automatic, it ought to change gears smoothly. And when you push the accelerator pedal down hard, the gearbox should change down swiftly (known as kick down).

If your car has a manual gearbox, see how willing it is to go into gear. Some gearboxes are better than others. And in some cars, the gear change can feel a bit sticky until the oil in the gearbox has warmed up. But it should slot into every gear without any trouble.

Thinking time once you've finished your test drive

Any new car is likely to feel like a step up compared to the model you’re replacing so try not to let this blind you to any obvious faults. If you think the car ticks all your boxes, consider getting a vehicle inspection by an expert mechanic. A professional might pick up on some mechanical problems you’ve missed.

It’s easy to get too carried away in the moment so it’s a good idea to step away from the test-drive environment to clear your head and have a think. The seller won’t want you to do this. They’ll probably say they’ve got another very interested buyer to pressure you into signing on the dotted line. It’s the oldest trick in the book; ignore them, go away and sleep on it. You’ll make a much more rational decision when you’ve had time to process the test drive.