How to test drive a car

By the time you consider test driving a car, you may already have your heart set on it. But, a test drive shouldn’t be seen as just a formality, it’s your opportunity to really see if you’re happy with what is potentially one of the most expensive purchases you’ll make. If you’re a bit nervous, or haven’t got a clue about what to look for, then here’s some test driving advice.

By the time you consider test driving a car, you may already have your heart set on it. But, a test drive shouldn’t be seen as just a formality, it’s your opportunity to really see if you’re happy with what is potentially one of the most expensive purchases you’ll make. If you’re a bit nervous, or haven’t got a clue about what to look for, then here’s some test driving advice.

Daniel Hutson
From the Motor team
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Posted 10 FEBRUARY 2020

How old do I have to be to test drive a car?

While the legal age to hold a full UK driving licence is 17, you may find that you’re unable to test drive a car at that age. 18 is a fairly common age limit for booking a test drive, but different car dealers may have their own age requirements for test driving a car. You may find further variation if you’re looking to test drive the car on your own, or take a 24 or 48-hour test drive.

What should I check on a test drive?

If you can get into the car, then that’s a good start. It’s worth checking that doors open wide enough for you to comfortably get in and out. Make sure the same applies to the passenger doors, especially if you have elderly relatives or anyone else with mobility issues who’ll be using the car too. Doors should also be big enough to let you add and remove any child car seats you need.

Once you’re in the driving seat, have a look around. Can you see all the instruments on the dashboard, are the mirrors adjustable and can you alter the seat position and head rest? If you’re the main driver, you need to feel comfortable and safe.

Check that you’ll also be able to start the car from cold. A warm bonnet suggests that the seller may be hiding a starting issue. When you turn on the ignition, make sure everything works and that there are no funny noises such as clanking or rattling. Try the washers and wipers, the horn and any navigation and sound systems. Fancy car gadgets can be great fun but the novelty will soon disappear if you can’t get them working.

Here are some other important things to look for when test driving a car:

  • Brakes – make sure to check that these aren’t spongy and work efficiently
  • Clutch and gears – check to see if the clutch engages and disengages properly, are there any strange noises while changing gears?
  • Steering – does the car handle well? Does it have appropriate power steering? If it’s an older, used car, this may not be the case
  • Suspension – does the car drive smoothly? How does it handle different types of road surface?
  • Bearings – check the wheel alignment, are there any strange noises, or does the car pull to one side?
  • Acceleration – does the car pull away well? It’s important to know the car’s capabilities at junctions etc.
  • Air conditioning - is there air conditioning and, more importantly, does it work?
  • Fuel type – petrol, diesel or electric?
  • Check with your family – how do they feel about the car?

When you’re out and about

Driving on as many different roads is good practice, it’ll let you get a feel for the car in a variety of contexts. You should also try parking, reversing and even going around roundabouts. Carrying out all these regular driving tasks will give you a better understanding of how the car handles and whether you like it or not. You could have the car of your dreams but, if you can’t park it, it probably isn’t the right one for you.

What to consider before buying a car

Think about how you’ll be using the car. If you have a family, can you get all the car seats in, is there room for the buggy in the boot as well as all your other shopping? If you do have kids, consider taking them along. It might feel like a pain, but you need to be sure that the car works for all of you. 
At the end of the day, anyone selling a car, whether it’s a new car at a dealer, or a used car from a private seller, should appreciate that you’ll want to thoroughly investigate what you’re buying. Take your time, sleep on it if you can – chances are it’ll still be there tomorrow. 
Whatever car you decide to buy, you’ll need to insure it. Look for the cover you need, not just what’s cheapest, because it could end up costing you more in the long run. 
That’s where we can help you, we’ve got a variety of trusted insurance providers giving you choice, value and peace of mind; start comparing today. 

What questions should I ask while test driving a car? 

Driving a new car for the first time can be quite eye-opening, with each model handling differently from the last. Before you set off, you should start by asking the sales advisor for any tips they’d recommend, to make you as comfortable as possible, and get the most out of the car. 
You should also ask for demonstrations on the various features the car has. It’s great to have all the latest tech built into your car, but if you can’t figure out how it all works once you’ve taken it away, then you may as well not have it.

If it’s a used car, you should also ask about the number of previous owners and service history. Ask to see any relevant documents, which can reveal any potential issues with the vehicle. 
You could also ask if you’re able to have the car checked by a mechanic. If you’re willing to pay the extra for their services, you can get peace of mind knowing that you’re buying a car that’s fit for purpose, or avoid a potentially bad deal.

How long should a test drive last?

We’d recommend getting as long as possible when test driving a car. This allows you to get comfortable with the model, which may drive differently to the cars you’ve driven previously. It’s also a good idea to drive it on different types of road, to see how it performs in a city centre, versus country roads, motorways etc.

We’d suggest getting at least 30 minutes, to get a good idea of how the car handles, but you can normally get up to an hour. More recently, it’s not uncommon for dealers to offer 24-hour, and even 48-hour, test drives, while there are some rarer occasions when a dealer will allow you to test drive a car for a week. These offer you the ability to see how the car would work in your daily routine, and whether it’s suitable for your lifestyle requirements.

How far can you test drive a car?

Normally, someone from the dealership will accompany you on your test drive, and you may find that they have a pre-determined route that they’ll take you on. You may be able to take an alternative route if you ask, but you’ll normally find that you’ll be driving around the local area for 30-60 minutes.

If you’d like to drive further, it may be best to book a 24-hour test drive, which will give you a bit more freedom to drive how you would normally. It’s best to check the terms and conditions of a test drive carefully, to avoid any potential limits to driving distances etc.

Do I need to test drive a used car?

It’s arguably even more important to test drive a used car. If it’s an older car, you may be more likely to find issues. Don’t be fooled by the nice pictures, take it out for a test drive yourself and see how it feels to drive. If they refuse to let you drive it, it’s usually a sign that something’s wrong.

With a private seller, it’s important to know that you’re insured to drive the car. Even though it’s a test drive, you still need appropriate cover.

Can I test drive a car alone?

Most test drives will see you accompanied by someone from the dealer, who will discuss the car’s features as you drive. You can request to drive the car alone though, and an increasing number of dealers will allow you to do this, although you may need to meet some further criteria to do so.

If you’d like to get the most thorough test drive possible, with a bit more freedom, consider booking a 24-hour, or even 48-hour, test drive. This allows you to test the car as part of your normal daily routine, giving you a better idea of how suitable it is for you.

If you’re buying a used car from a private seller, they may insist on coming with you. It’s always worth asking, but it’s their decision whether to trust you with their car.

Do I need insurance to test drive a car?

Even if you’re only test driving a car, you still need to be insured. Always check you’re insured before you set off on your test drive. If you’re buying the car from a main dealer, then this usually won’t be a problem as they’ll have cover in place.

If you’re buying from a private seller, you’ll have to make sure that your own insurance will cover you. You can check by looking at your policy, if it says you have driving other cars cover (DOC), then you’re okay. To be absolutely sure, it’s worth calling your insurance provider before you get into the car.

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