A thorough test drive is vital. It's your best chance to make sure you're comfortable, that you'll enjoy driving the car and that it's right for all your needs. Main dealers might even be prepared to let you test drive a new car for an extended time or even overnight – don't be shy to ask.
If you're buying a second–hand car, the test drive is even more important. It's your main opportunity to make sure everything's in good working order – unless you've arranged for an engineer to look over the car for you.
Dealers will have special cover in place but there's a good chance you won't be covered if you test drive a car sold privately.
Check your own car insurance – you are looking for the words on the policy that says you can 'drive another car with the owner's permission'. This is known as DOC or Driving Other Cars cover.
Your own insurer may offer you comprehensive cover over a short period of time so that you can test drive cars you are thinking of buying.
Try to take your time on a test drive, even if you feel the seller breathing down your neck.
Try to drive more than one example if you're looking at an unfamiliar model. This will give you a better idea of what that car should feel like to drive and may help you to tell the difference between characteristics and possible faults.
- Allow at least half an hour and drive on all kinds of road – a test drive in a town is of little use if you spend most driving time on a motorway.
- Can you get in and out of the car easily?
- Can you adjust the seat and steering so you're comfortable?
- Can you see the instruments clearly and reach the controls easily?
- Try reversing into a parking space to check all round vision and blind spots.
- Take your children with you – are they comfortable in the back?
- Take any child seats you use with you and check that they fit
- Is there space for your regular shopping bags, luggage, golf clubs, pushchair etc? Can you fold the rear seats easily?
- Is the boot sill low enough? Will you be able to unload shopping and luggage easily from the back?
- Is it easy to take out and re–fit removable seats? Ask the owner's permission before you try.
What to look for...
Engine and suspension
The engine should be cold before you start – feel the bonnet. If it's warm, the seller could be trying to hide a starting problem.
Check for signs of excessive smoke when you start the car and when you're driving. The engine should be quiet and pull smoothly.
Listen for unusual rattles or clonks from the suspension.
Steering and brakes
Steering should be responsive with no vibration or 'free play'.
Brakes should give confidence and stop the car in a straight line.
Clutch and gears
Can you engage all gears smoothly without crunching?
If the clutch doesn't start 'biting' until the pedal has nearly reached the top, the clutch could be worn and may need to be changed.
For more information on what to look for during and after the test drive, see our DIY inspection.
If you're buying a family car then take your children with you – it's better to hear their objections before you buy, rather than every time you take them out.
Electric cars such as the i-MiEV, iOn, C-Zero and LEAF are starting to appear in dealer showrooms now but should you approach test driving a new electric car any differently
There are two aspects that need special consideration – range and charging time.
Disappointing fuel consumption from a new petrol or diesel car - compared with official figures – means only more frequent visits to a filling station. But an electric car that doesn't live up to range expectations could leave you walking the last few miles home from work every evening.
If you're expecting an electric car to be a practical alternative to a petrol or diesel then you really need to borrow one for a day or two.
You need the car long enough to be able to make sure that it suits your lifestyle:
- Can you get to work and back on a single charge – or can you charge it enough while you're there to make the return journey?
- Once you've got home is there enough left in the batteries to make your regular evening trips – children, sports, shopping – without a recharge?
- If you only make shorter journeys how often are you likely to have to recharge – and what would be the consequence of forgetting to plug the car in one night?
You will also need to find out where public charging points are located – particularly in and on the way to places you might visit frequently.
Check with your employer too rather than assume you'll be able to charge the batteries while you're at work, if that's in your plan.
Cold weather, use of electrical items such as lights and heaters, and carrying loads/passengers will all reduce the car's range on a full charge as will a heavy right foot.
To get a good idea of the car's true range:
- Drive as you intend to drive normally
- If you regularly carry passengers take them with you on the test drive
- Switch on everything electrical
Even then you'll need to allow some safety margin as maximum range will drop over time as the batteries get older.
(Updated 3 April 2012)