Top Test Drive Tips

What to look for in this important buying phase​

The use of devices as part of the car buying journey has dramatically increased over the last few years. Consumers’ are spending more time online researching which car is best for them. Indeed, it is now integral to the whole purchasing process and few can even imagine looking for a car without first typing their specific criteria into a search engine.

According to research by Auto Trader 97% of all UK households now own a PC or laptop, 79% use a smartphone and 51% own a tablet, with a third of the population owning all three. In the last year, a third of all online consumer interactions for new and used cars across manufacturer and automotive websites were made using a smart phone. This is in comparison to three years ago where only five per cent used their smart phone to research a car purchase.

While this digital trend reflects our technological progress, one area that the internet can’t replace (yet!) is the test drive. That feeling of getting behind the wheel and getting to know a vehicle is a unique experience and one not to be missed. 

But what should you pay attention to in particular? Read on for some top tips.

Some of the main test drive considerations

  • Time. Allow at least half an hour and drive on all kinds of roads – try to replicate your normal daily journey as much as possible. If you spend most of your time driving in town then a test drive on a motorway or dual carriageway won’t help you reach the right decision. Above all - don't feel pressured. Buying a car is one of the biggest decisions you will make and it needs to work on all levels.
  • Engine & Suspension. You should expect to the engine to be cold before you start – feel the bonnet to be sure. If it's warm, the seller could be trying to hide a starting problem. Look out for signs of excessive smoke when you start the car and when you're driving. The engine should be quiet and pull smoothly. Listen out in particular for unusual rattles or noises from the suspension.
  • Steering & Brakes. Once you are seated comfortably pay close attention to the steering which should be responsive with no vibration or ‘free play’. Likewise brakes should be reactive and when applied, should stop the car easily stop in a straight line with no slipping or irregular angles.
  • Clutch & Gears. Can you engage all gears smoothly without crunching or grinding? 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. Don’t be afraid to raise this with the seller.
  • Boot Space. Consider this carefully as its often an area which is overlooked. Is there enough capacity for your shopping, golf clubs, buggy or luggage? It’s very easy to fall in love with a particular style of a car but then regret your purchase when its practical features don’t match your day to day needs.
  • Connectivity & Technology. More and more buyers are looking to maximise their digital lives and connectivity is therefore an addition to the wish list when buying a new car. At a minimum before making a purchase check that your phone is compatible with the manufacturer installed Bluetooth.
  • Family Cars. If you need your car to safely transport your children, then take them along with you on the test drive! Is there enough space in the back of the car allowing for car seats and their various accoutrements? Are they comfortable? Families often need additional space and there many options to consider. If you are test driving a car such as a Vauxhall Zafira which offers flexible seating arrangements, always check the logistics of setting these up. Can you do this easily if required in a hurry?
  • Electric Cars. Electric cars are increasing in popularity in the UK. Sales have increased four-fold in the past year alone with the Nissan LEAF credited as being the most popular EV in the world. While you may have experienced test drives with other vehicles, there are some additional aspects to take into account – range and charging time. You need the car long enough to be able to make sure that it suits your lifestyle: Will you be able to make your journey to work and back on a single charge? Alternatively can you charge it enough while you're there to make the return journey? And once you have driven home, is there enough power left in the batteries to make your regular evening trips? – children, sports, shopping – without another recharge? 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.

Plan ahead to make the most of your test drive

For more information and further tips check out the AA Used Car Guide.

By Tracey McBain