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Home > used car buying guide > What to look out for in a test drive

What to look out for in a test drive

Admit it, the idea of test-driving a car fills you with dread. You're an adult, for heaven's sake and you've been driving for years. Yet the thought of getting into an unfamiliar, if not expensive car with a stranger - the private vendor or the car salesperson - can fill many of us with an anxiety that makes us completely forget about the things that we're actually supposed to be looking out for. 

To help allay these understandable fears, it helps to know in advance what you should be paying attention to. With that in mind, here's our ten-point guide on what to look out for in a test drive:

Before you leave:

1) Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.
One of the most important and yet easily overlook aspects when undertaking a test drive is familiarising yourself with the car before you pull away from the dealers forecourt. When you undertook your first driving lesson you were told to ensure that the seat was correctly positioned to allow easy and comfortable access to the controls, particularly the pedals, that the mirrors were then adjusted and that the steering wheel was at the correct distance and height. Which side of the column are the indicators and which side houses the wipers? There is nothing more embarrassing and potentially dangerous than setting your wiper swishing when you mean to indicate and how do you turn the light on if it gets dark? Don't be afraid to ask the sales executive how to use the new fangled handbrake button or whatever else you may need assistance with, they are there to help - after all if you have a good test drive you are far more likely to purchase the car which will help pay their wages.

2) Accessibility, space and comfort
In an attempt to appear knowledgeable about cars, many test drivers may overlook the basics - chiefly whether the car is big enough to accommodate all of the intended passengers and load. These are important considerations, so check how far back the seats move and whether there is still sufficient room in the rear for any likely occupants. Remember to check that the boot is large enough for a pushchair, golf clubs or whatever you may wish to transport. It might be the smoothest, sexiest ride in the world, but if you can't get that baby seat in the back, then what's the point? 

3) The gadgets
Depending on the car you are buying, the gadgets might range from an ancient cassette player to a swanky reversing camera. Regardless, you need to make sure that all of the features you are forking out for work as they should - including the lights and the air conditioning. Test everything, even plug in your iPod to test the speakers if you need to. It's a fact that non-engine issues cause more faults than engine-related ones these days, so take your time and check.

On the road:

4) The engine Twenty years ago diesel engine were only found in lorries and taxies and for good reason; they were noisy, smelly and unrefined. However all the major manufactures have worked tirelessly over the years to ensure that todays engines are much smoother, more responsive and refined. Despite this there is still a difference between a petrol and a diesel engine so if you are making the switch for the first time don't expect quite as smooth a sound from the diesel engine. On the plus side there are distinct advantages to the diesel (not only generally better mpg) and when driving normally you should notice that the car pulls more strongly from lower revs resulting in a more relaxed driving experience.

5) Visibility Car dimensions differ from model to model, which is great as we humans differ considerably too. However, it's not always going to be a perfect fit - for instance, a car with tall headrests might obscure the vision of shorter motorists when checking back at their blind spots. And while we appreciate an obscured blind spot is clearly a contradiction (or is it?), from a safety perspective, drivers need to have a clear view of the road at all times, so it's worth doing a few reversing manoeuvres to ensure that you can see properly when your seat is in the correct position.

6) Steering and gears Pay attention to the steering by carrying out a few actions, such as a three-point turn, reversing and turning. It should be responsive and turn smoothly, without pulling. The gearbox should be quiet, no matter whether it's manual or automatic, and transitions between gears should be smooth, not jerky.

7) Handling To assess performance, it's a good idea to drive on as many road surfaces as possible. How does it feel? Does the car rattle or lurch to one side? Is it a smooth ride? Ultimately, you should feel in control when at the wheel. Much of this comes down to personal preference, are you a sporty driver who appreciates a firm, dynamic ride or are you looking for a smooth ride to eat the miles? The choice is yours!

8) Brakes The braking efficiency of cars from different manufacturers varies considerably and can come as a surprise when you first push the middle pedal. It is therefore best to test the brakes when there is nothing in front that you need to avoid or anything behind you that you don't want to rear end you. As long as the brakes work properly you will acclimatise to pushing more or less firmly, remember that just because it may be different from your current car it doesn't make it better or worse.

Upon reflection:


9) Security and safety Now that you've returned the car to the dealership, you can turn your attention to safety and security aspects. All modern cars should ideally include the usual safety standards, so check on the airbags, stability control, laminated safety glass, working locks on doors and windows. Don't forget to check in the boot for a spare wheel or tyre inflation kit.

10) Finance  Once you are happy with the test drive and are ready to buy the car you can ask the sales staff about the car finance options available from the dealership. Dealers can finance cars quickly and simply while offering low rate monthly payments tailored to your budget. Specialist used car finance option are available from top lenders and reputable companies such as Blackhorse or MotorNova are amongst the best. No deposit or buy now pay later options may also be available so again it is well worth asking. You may also wish to try a used car fiance calculator or undertake a free motor credit check prior to visiting you dealer of choice just so that you know what to expect.

There are lots of things to think about when test driving a car, but if you bear in mind the points above, do your homework and arrive prepared, then not only should your anxiety disappear; you should find yourself driving an incredible car.