You’ve seen the ad, and the car looks good online. You’ve called the seller, and the car sounds like a great deal. But what about in the flesh? Is the car really all you’ve been led to believe and, even if the condition is mint, is it really the car for you?
That’s why a test drive is so important. It allows a potential buyer to get up close and personal with their prospective purchase, to check if it’s all the seller really said it is, to see whether, in practical terms, it’s a good fit and — just as important as any of the hard-headed stuff — whether the car has that “X-factor” that makes you feel good about it.
It’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed when it comes to test-driving a car, especially if you don’t have a checklist in your head of what to look out for. Luckily, we have a few tips to help whether you’re buying new or used.
Thoroughly inspect the outside
For a few reasons, whether you’re buying new or used, it’s important to thoroughly inspect a car’s exterior. If you’re buying new and the car has a chip, dent, damaged wheel or piece of loose trim, get the dealer to fix it, as a new car should be in pristine condition. Nearly all second-hand cars are going to show some signs of wear and tear, but if a used car has a bunch of significant dings and scratches that the seller hasn’t mentioned, they could be hiding other things and it could be a sign that the car has been neglected or badly driven during its lifetime.
Even new cars can have wonky panel gaps, but on a second-hand car, they’re slightly more important to look for as inconsistent panel gaps or uneven paint could be a sign the car has been crashed (even written-off) and improperly repaired.
Ensure you’re insured
Many — but not all — garages will provide insurance cover for customers test driving one of their cars. Before you take a car out on the road, check whether you’re covered either by the seller’s insurance or your own, as driving a car on a public road without insurance is illegal. Even if your policy allows you to drive cars other than your own, it may not apply abroad, so it’s worth thinking about if, for example, you’re buying a car in Britain.
Start it from cold
Put your hand on a car’s bonnet to check the temperature and see whether the car has been run prior to your arrival. Starting from cold can reveal a range of mechanical issues that may not be apparent when a car is warm, so if a car has been warmed-up before you arrive, ask yourself (and the seller) why.
Pay attention to how it drives
You don’t need to be an experienced road tester to know whether a car drives properly or not. Your eyes and ears will tell you a lot. Buyers need to take a car for a thorough test drive to assess its mechanical condition in a way they can’t when it’s parked. If the seller won’t let you, it could be a red flag.
- Check for excess smoke or rattling on start-up.
- Note whether all the lights (ABS, engine warning) go out on the dashboard once the car is running.
- Check that the mileage on the odometer is consistent with the last NCT cert if buying used.
- See how the car pulls and behaves under normal acceleration.
- Is there excess “play” in the steering, i.e., does it feel loose or vague?
- There should be no clicking or grinding noises when the steering is on full lock.
- Make sure the car brakes firmly and in a straight line.
- Leave the radio off and listen for any untoward noises like creaking or rattling from the suspension, especially over bumps.
- The air conditioning should blow ice-cold.
- The interior electrics should all work.
- Make sure you can change gears easily and without crunching.
- Note where the clutch pedal bites; if the biting point is too high, the clutch could be worn and need replacing. Try pulling away in third or fourth gear — the car should stall and, if it doesn’t, it could be another sign of a worn clutch.
See whether it actually suits you
A buyer may find a seemingly perfect car in great condition, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right car for them. The car may look and drive brilliantly, but it’s still worth keeping your sensible hat on for another few minutes and asking yourself some more questions before you part with your cash.
- Does the car suit you ergonomically? Make sure that you can easily reach all the controls, read the gauges, see the mirrors and operate the stereo/infotainment system while driving. If you can’t, at best the car will be uncomfortable to live with; at worst, dangerous.
- Does it fit what you need it to fit? If you have children, it’s a good idea to take them along on a test drive. Make sure they’re comfortable in the back and that you can easily fit child seats. If you carry a lot of luggage or equipment, make sure not only that it will fit in the boot but that you can easily load it.
- Do you like it? While you need to stay level-headed when buying a car, at the end of the day, a big part of any purchase comes down to whether it has that special something that appeals to you. Remember, you’re the one parting with the cash and you’re the one who’ll spend the next few years driving the car, so if you buy a car purely on practicality and good sense, that could be a bit miserable. Never let heart over-ride head, but a balance is important.
You don’t have to buy a car
Always remember, you’re under no obligation to buy any car that’s for sale. If you’ve driven from Wexford to Donegal and, after test driving a car you realise it’s not the one for you, don’t be afraid to walk away, and don’t buy the car just because you’ve made the journey. In the best-case scenario, you’ll end up with a car you’re not crazy about, and at worst you’ll have a money pit on your hands.