How to get the most from your test drive

How to get the most from your test drive

Whether buying new or used, privately or via a dealer, car shopping can be an exciting journey but one that requires attention and patience. A key part of the car buyers’ journey is of course the test drive and is the best opportunity to learn more about the car you intend to buy.

Today’s car market has a huge variety of makes and models, most of which may be more advanced than a previously owned car. That’s why a test drive is important, not only to uncover any hidden problems but to also acquaint yourself with how a car drives and feels.

While it’s tempting simply to buy a car without making any checks, a test drive is typically your one and only opportunity to make an informed decision – So take your time and follow the steps in getting the most out of your test drive. Unsure how to start your car buying journey? Try taking a look at our car buyers guide first.

Test Drive Car Insurance

UK road laws require all vehicles to have an insurance policy in place before being driven with no expectation for cars that are being tested. Luckily, most car dealerships typically have a specialised form of car insurance in place so that buyers are able to test drive cars before purchasing. While this is a standard practice within the car market, it is always worth double-checking a dealership has this insurance as well as any liable excess before testing any vehicle for peace of mind.

Insurers can also offer policies that protect drivers should you wish to test a car for a longer period of time. For example, dealers offering 24-hour test drives may not offer the appropriate insurance policy and so it may be up to the driver to cover themselves. In this case, there are many insurance providers that can provide short term insurance for this purpose. Alternatively, check if your existing policy allows you to drive other vehicles.

Buying vehicles privately requires a slightly different approach as most individuals will not have car insurance that covers test drivers. In this scenario, there are similar insurance products that can protect private sellers and buyers.

In any case, car insurance is required to drive a car for any period of time. As a buyer, it’s always important to check that the car you are testing is fully covered.

What Should You Take To A Test Drive

For most car test drives, all you will need to take with you is a valid driving licence without the paper counterpart. Insurance and finance documents are all finalised once you have agreed to purchase the vehicle.

However, if you are certain you will be purchasing the car after the test drive and want to drive away as quickly as possible, it is worth gathering all information ready for policies such as insurance and tax.

What To Look For When Car Shopping

Before and during the car test it’s important to know what to look out for in case the vehicle has any undiagnosed issues. Every car will be different but knowing the main areas to check will give drivers more confidence when car shopping. You could also consider carrying out a brief car safety test.

The Car Engine

For many car buyers, performing a full engine check isn’t always possible. However, identifying obvious problems early on could reduce the amount required to spend on car maintenance in the future.

For example, leaks, smoke, and unusual noises coming from the engine are easily identified after ignition and could highlight an internal problem. Try testing multiple versions of the same car to learn how the engine should sound – All engines should sound smooth and consistent.

Open the car bonnet and inspect the general condition of the engine bay, looking for signs of damage, rust and leaking. It’s always worth checking fluid levels where possible as well. If confident, you can also inspect under the oil cap to determine the condition of the internal engine as all parts found here should look clean and free of carbon build-up. Also, pay close attention to electrical equipment such as the battery and connection terminals as these can rust over time.

When the ignition is turned, keep an eye on any dashboard warning lights and in particular the engine temperature.

Finally, be aware of cars that have recently been driven or are already warm around the engine and bonnet as this might indicate a dealer is attempting to hide a start-up problem.

Consider using a car history checker or ask to see a vehicle’s service history as this can quickly highlight whether the car has been maintained well.

Tyres And Brakes

All car tyres wear over the course of time during regular use, so it can come as no surprise to find inadequate tyres when car shopping, particularly on used cars for sale. Obvious signs of wear and tear typically include reduced tyre tread or balding as well as bulging or damage to the sidewall where information is typically displayed.

Vehicle brakes should also be in top condition when car buying. In order to test these before driving, make sure the pedal is not slack or spongy and pressing the pedal keeps the vehicle stationary. Once confident, it is advised to also test car brakes in a safe place while driving by applying firm pressure to the pedals. The car should slow to a stop quickly and not pull to either side. Should the car pull to the left or right, this could be a sign of damage to the wheel or braking system.

Steering And Suspension

Like with most car components, steering should be smooth and responsive without causing any unusual sounds throughout the car. While most steering wheels can be adjusted for driver convenience and even feature useful tech, the role of the steering wheel extends far beyond simply turning the vehicle left and right. A well-balanced steering wheel can help the driver feel the full weight of the car while moving as well as highlight any unusual vibrations.

Similarly, when working correctly, the suspension system should make little to no noise. One main giveaway that there could be a problem with vehicle suspension is that a car may not sit level while stationary. This combined with squeaking or strange noises while cornering in particular could be due to a suspension fault.

Clutch and Gearbox

Checking a clutch and gearbox can be more difficult than most other vehicle components as they are generally inaccessible to drivers. Instead, this check is all about feeling whilst driving the car but can be different for manual and automatics. The universal principle is that all gear shifts and clutch movements should be smooth and quiet. Any other outcome could mean either the clutch or gearbox will require attention.


Unless you are buying a brand new car, it’s likely there will be signs of general wear and tear such as scuffs and scratches. While smaller cosmetic damage won’t have an impact on driving a car, larger dents could be a sign of previous unaddressed damage. More significant bodywork considerations could include checking the windscreen, sunroof, mirrors, panels, bumpers and any other fixtures found on the outer parts of the car for signs of damage.

The most obvious sign of previous car damage or collisions that a seller is trying to hide might be that body pannels have gaps between them or do not fully line up. Be sure to inspect every inch of the car bodywork before stepping inside.

The Car Interior

When checking the interior of a vehicle you make sure its general condition matches its age and previous usage. For example, a newer car with less mileage would typically have a nearly new interior, whereas a 5-year-old car with triple the mileage would naturally come with signs of usage.

Car upholstery, dashboard materials and carpet can all wear over time, however, driver tech and safety equipment should always be in working order. Make sure to check the following is featured and working correctly, paying particular attention to all electrical equipment:

  • Airbags
  • Headlights
  • Car door locks
  • Seatbelts
  • ABS System
  • Mirrors
  • Traction Control
  • Spare wheel (Where applicable)
  • Other driver safety technology applicable to the vehicle

The Car Test Drive

Once you have inspected the car, it’s time to drive it to the road.

To get the most insight from a test drive, firstly, aim to drive the car for at least 30 minutes on as many different road types as possible. This should give you a good level of insight as to how the car performs.

Next, avoid driving at busy times and try to test the car in a scenario you will most likely use regularly after purchasing. A test drive on busy town roads for instance won’t tell you much about a car if you intend to mainly use it for motorway driving.

Aside from assessing the general feel of the car under a range of conditions, it’s important to listen out for any unusual knocks and rattles. Pay close attention to the major mechanical controls – do the clutch, gears, brakes and steering all operate ‘normally’?

Get A Second Opinion

Staying focused during a test drive is key to learning more about your new potential car. In most scenarios, a salesperson will insist on joining you during a road test in an effort to get more insight into your purchasing motives. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it can be distracting during your first experience with a car.

This is where bringing a second adult along can be a great benefit to you as they can discuss the finer details during the test drive while you concentrate on the car and road. Not only this but you can also get an informed second opinion on the car you are testing.

Drive more than one

If, as is quite likely, you’re looking at an unfamiliar model it’s a good idea to try to drive more than one of make and model you are interested in if you can. This will give you a better idea of what that car should feel like to drive and may help you differentiate between characteristics and possible faults of the car.

Ask your family or friends.

If you’re buying a family car then it’s important to take the family with you too – it’s important that they’re comfortable and can get in and out easily. Even if you are not looking to get a family car it is always worth getting a second opinion from a friend or family member who can provide additional advice that you may not have thought about.

The Paperwork

Check the car’s logbook, service history, previous MOT certificates and any old bills and receipts to establish if the car has been cared for, identify reoccurring faults and check the car’s mileage is genuine.

Look at each MOT certificate and servicing stamp – the total mileage should increase at a steady rate at each MOT and service interval.

Only accept original paperwork and check for forgeries – the logbook should have a watermark and you can call the garage the last MOT was carried out at and the previous owner to check the car’s past.

V5 registration document – This is the registration document showing who is the registered keeper of the vehicle. When buying, ensure that the seller matches up with the person on the document. If it does not you could be dealing with a stolen vehicle.

Investigate if the car has previously been written off as the insurer will inform the DVSA – who will then not submit a replacement registration document. Use Direct Gov to contact the DVSA and find out if the vehicle is a write-off.

Check the vehicle has no outstanding finance that should be paid off. There are a number of handy sites to help you with this, including Experian.

Getting the Car Keys

Before signing any paperwork, be sure to ask whether the car has two sets of keys available. While there’s no legal requirement for dealers to provide you with more than one key, it’s important to know if you are going to be without it. Modern car keys can be expensive to replace which could be a cost you need to factor in later on. Also, having a spare key can help in scenarios such as losing your first set or being locked out of the car.

Always ask the car dealer whether a car has a spare key. If having a spare is important to you at the time, consider purchasing one directly from the dealer or a professional auto locksmith.