Top Tips for Test Driving a Car

There's such a buzz of excitement when choosing a new car. But while it may look great on paper (or online), a thorough test drive is the only way you'll know for sure if it's the right choice for you. You'll want to check the comfort and feel behind the wheel as well as the engine performance. This is all the more important when buying second hand, as you need to make sure everything's in good working order. There are lots of things to think about and it's easy to get carried away when looking at your dream car, so we've put together a handy list of our top tips for taking a test drive.

Tips for test driving a car

1. Take your time

It’s important to not feel pressurised into a quick five-minute drive when checking out your new motor. Ask for at least half an hour so that you have time to try it out across all different types of roads. If you’re test driving a car from a dealership, you may even be able to borrow it overnight. Private sellers will obviously be more reluctant to let you out on your own, so if they come out with you, make sure they know you want to take it for a proper spin.

2. Try a challenging route

Make sure to try different types of terrain when test driving a car. There’s little point driving at 30 mph for the whole test drive if you mainly do motorway miles normally. On urban roads, you can check how it feels in lower gears, starting and stopping, plus the condition of the handbrake and brakes. Then at higher speeds, you’ll want to assess things like the acceleration, road noise and functions such as cruise control. If possible, try driving up an incline or round tight bends – how the car handles these can be very revealing.

3. Check the comfort behind the wheel

Your car needs to be the right fit for you, so take your time ensuring you can get comfortable behind the wheel. But first, check that you can get in and out of the car easily. If it’s a bit of a struggle then this will likely affect how you feel about your car long term. To find the right driving position, see what adjustments there are on the seat and steering wheel and get the balance right. Once you’ve got yourself settled, look around the cockpit and ensure you’re able to see all of the instruments clearly and you can reach everything you need.

4. Take passengers

It’s really useful to have another person’s perspective when looking at a new car, so we’d recommend having a passenger with you when you’re on your test drive. They can give feedback while you’re concentrating on driving and they can sit in the back to give you the benefit of a completely different experience. If you have kids, you’ll want to make sure that you can fit child seats easily and that there’s enough room in the back for them as they grow, too. It’s perfectly reasonable to take your child on a test drive – as part of the family, you’ll want them to be on board with your decision. Just make sure they’re not munching on snacks during the ride!

5. Try reversing

The shape of the rear of your car can make a big difference when reversing, so it’s best to give this a go while on your test drive to see how the car feels for you. Most modern cars will have sensors and some will also have a reversing camera, so be sure to try out this tech to see what the experience is like. Give parking into a space a go to check your all round visibility and blind spots.

6. Pack the boot

If you’ve often got your car boot bursting at the seams then it’s really important to see if your new car has a big enough space for your needs. Use the test drive as an opportunity to check the configuration of the rear seats too, and see if they go down easily to give you extra space. Look at the boot lip – if it’s higher than your current car, will you still be able to get things in and out easily? Can you fit in all you need such as shopping bags, a buggy or golf clubs?

7. Try other versions

Part of the challenge in selecting a new car can be finding the right model. That’s why when you go for a test drive in an unfamiliar car, you should try other examples of that same range. Even cars with the exact same specs can feel very different, especially from the used car market, so don’t assume that if you don’t like one you won’t like another. Our article on what to think about before buying a used car has some useful pointers on putting together a shortlist of cars to look at.

8. Check if you need insurance

As with any car on the road, you need to have adequate insurance to test drive a motor. Dealerships will have specialist insurance in place, so you’ll be fully covered in the event of a prang when driving. But if you’re buying from a private seller, you need to investigate your policy before getting behind the wheel. Look at your insurance and see if it states that you can drive another car with the owner’s permission. This is known as DOC or Driving Other Cars cover. It’s important to note, however, that normally this only gives you third-party cover.

Alternatively, the seller may have temporarily changed their insurance to cover ‘any driver’, so be sure to check with them about their policy. Or, if you’re planning on trying out a few different cars, it might be worth upgrading your own insurance policy so you’re safe in the knowledge that you have comprehensive insurance if the worst was to happen.

9. What to look out for

Here are a few handy tips on what to look out for when going for a test drive:


  • Feel if the bonnet is cold before you start. The seller may be hiding a starting issue if they’ve had to give it a run around before your drive.
  • Look out for any smoke from the exhaust when you start the engine.
  • Listen out for excessive noise from the engine or rattles and clunks from the suspension.

Steering and braking

  • The steering wheel should be responsive to your movement and there shouldn’t be a lot of vibration.
  • Make sure the brakes are fully working and give you confidence when stopping abruptly.

Clutch and gears

  • The gearbox and clutch can be expensive to replace, so make sure you can go up and down through the gears without that horrible crunching sound. If you find the clutch ‘bite’ is very high then this could be a sign of it being worn.

10. Don’t be afraid to walk away

After your test drive, take the time to think about your experience and don’t feel pressured into making a decision straight away. You may want to try out other examples of the same model or a completely different type of car altogether. If you’ve found a problem with the car during the test drive, that doesn’t necessarily rule it out either – it could be a good way to negotiate on the selling price. Go away and think about it, and do a little more research such as checking the MOT history.

By following these simple steps, you’ll be able to get the most from your test drive so that you end up really happy with your next car purchase. Draw up a checklist in advance, take your time on the day, and give yourself time after a test drive to think over your options.

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