Best tips and tricks for when you undertake your next test drive

A test drive is a crucial part of the whole car buying process, so you need to make sure that you’re well-prepared in order to get the very best out of it. We’ve picked out some of the best tips and tricks for when you undertake your next test drive. 

peugeot 3008 on a road

Preparing For Your Test Drive

If you have children, then you’ll know the big part they’ll play in deciding your choice of car, so you need to make sure it’s comfortable and has enough room for them - and all of their gadgets! Bringing them to see the car is the best way to do this. While they won’t be able to sit in the car with you while you’re driving (so you’ll need to bring someone to keep an eye on them while you are out on the road), it’s important that they get to check the car over  and see how it copes with everything that your kids can throw at it.

Equally, if you’re buying a car in which you expect your dog to regularly travel, check that they’ll fit in the space where they’ll be taking their trips. Probably wise to leave your four-legged friend at home though!

Ask questions beforehand

If you’re buying from a used dealer, then make the most of having the opportunity to ask as many questions as you can about the car. Ask why it was traded in and what sort of servicing history it has. Also, ask how long they’ve had it in stock - if it has been around for a little while, there could be a reason why other people have been put off buying it. 

Take Cover

The question of insurance isn’t a problem when you take a test drive and someone from the garage sits with you - you’ll be covered under the dealer’s own trade policy. But if you’re test driving a car solo, you’ll have to check that your own insurance lets you do so. Check whether your policy has what’s called ‘DOC’, or ‘driving other cars’ cover, which will usually include wording such as: ‘The policyholder may drive another car with the owner's permission'.

If you know you’re going to be test-driving a few cars, the AA also says you might be able to get your insurer to extend your existing cover - it’s always worth checking with them to be on the safe side.

What Type Of Test Drive?

Once you’ve decided which cars to put on your shortlist, you’ll have to take a look at the type of test drives on offer. It could be that you get the chance to drive on some local roads for 15 or 20 minutes, with a sales person sat alongside you. This is great because it allows you to get a feel for the car and familiarise yourself with a few of the controls.

If you’re lucky, you might be offered the chance to take a car out unaccompanied so you can get to know its features better and at your own pace. You’ll be able to take it along a wider variety of roads to test more of its capabilities. In conjunction with their dealers, many manufacturers offer extended test drives, which might last 24 or even 48 hours.

Does it fit my life?

The first aspect I always look at is real-world practicality and I let me give you a simple, but telling example.  I tried it at a supermarket. The British Parking Association says a standard bay should be 2.4 metres wide and 4.8 long with six metres between the lanes. I had a passenger with me and after parking in a bay between two other cars asked him to open the door. He couldn’t. The car was 1930 mm wide leaving just 470 mm – about 18 inches – in which to open the doors, or nine inches either side if you both want to get out.

I didn’t even bother taking it to the nearby multi-storey car park. Nearer home, would the car you’re looking at fit into your drive? If you have a two or even three car family it’s a consideration.

Try out all of the major controls

Once you’re inside the car, give all of the major buttons and controls a test. Test the lights, the indicators and fog lights, as well as all of the switches for the heating and ventilation.

On used cars, there’s a likelihood that something could be faulty, but making sure that you try all of the key functions will ensure that everything major is in good working order.  

Listen out

Make sure that you’re able to start the car from cold (a warm car can disguise all manner of faults) and listen as you turn the key. Any strange noises or whistles? This could signify issues with the starter motor or fanbelt, both of which could prove costly to repair down the line. Keep the car running and check the exhaust. Is it running cleanly? A small amount of white condensation is normal (particularly on a cold day) but white smoke could highlight a much deeper problem. 

red ds parked on a driveway

Up and running

Once you’re up and running with the car, make sure that you’re concentrating on key parts of the car. Does the steering feel linear and direct? Do the brakes bring the car to a stop smoothly, or do they feel squishy and under-powered? All of these aspects need looking at closely to ensure they’re working properly.

Plus, make sure that the engine pulls strongly under acceleration and look in the rearview mirror when doing so - diesel engines shouldn’t produce any black smoke whatsoever, while white smoke on any car could highlight an issue with the head gasket and is well worth avoiding. 


Of course, the suspension is a key part of a car’s make-up. One of the best ways to test it is to drive to a large, open space - a supermarket car park is ideal - and drive slowly in a circle with the steering on full lock in one direction. Listen out for any grinding and crunching noises before switching the steering to the opposite direction.

Do this when reversing and it should help to flag up any issues with the suspension. 

red ds car on driveway


Don’t forget - try the horn! It’s an often-overlooked aspect of a car and one which is absolutely crucial. So give it a try!

How Safe Is It?

How many of us ask about or even think about it? Well, we should and the time to do it is when you’re trying the car, with a view to possibly buying it, not when you’re skidding out of a bend on a wet road. Every car of recent years will have airbags and ABS, anti-lock brakes, and ESP (electronic stability programme), but I would looking for a car with AEB (autonomous emergency braking).

There is a very handy resource called the EuroNCAP crash test and safety programme, which assesses cars with a star rating from one to five. Don’t assume that just because it’s a new car it has a high rating.

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