How to test drive your next car

  • Ten tips on what to look for when car shopping
  • Try and drive your chosen cars back-to-back
  • No matter how small a problem, don't ignore it

When you're buying a new or used car, it's incredibly important that you test-drive it before handing over the cash.

After picking the selection of cars that might take your fancy, then the next step is to get behind the wheel. You may have your favourite already, but you'll soon know which one tops your list after a short test.

If you do have a group of cars to pick from, the best thing to do is to try to drive them back-to-back or within a short time period. If you don't then you'll soon forget how the cars compare and end up making the wrong choice. You'll need to check with your insurers that you can drive the car before, especially if it's a used car.

Make sure you cover all manners of things when testing a car. Finding those annoying little nuances after forking out your money won't be much fun. We've put together some top tips to help you know what to look for and help separate a potential disaster from a hidden gem.


1. Get comfortable

If you are going to spend a lot of time in your car you need to be satisfied that the seating and driving position are right for you. Not all cars are the same - some have the pedals set to the right, or even the left rather than being dead-centre and offset pedals can cause you problems. Can you adjust the steering wheel enough and can you get the seat into the right position? If you can't get comfortable, then the car you are testing has fallen at the first hurdle.

2. You are the passenger

It's not just about your comfort. Get in the back and see if there's enough leg- and headroom. If you have kids, take them with you to test out the space. If they look a bit squashed then walk on by.

3. Go the distance

Take the car out for 30 minutes, driving in city streets, on a motorway and an open stretch of road. During this time you'll find out whether you like the handling and the ride. If it's too jittery, noisy, and bouncy then, again, move on to the next car. If it's annoying you after 30 minutes, then you'll really start to hate it after two weeks of ownership.

4. Mirror, signal manoeuvre

See if there's good all-round vision without blind spots and try reversing into a parking space to check you have good rear visibility. Do some parking or a three-point turn to find out how tight the turning circle is, whether the steering's too heavy or whether you just don't like the dimensions of the car.

5. Be a control freak

What are the brakes, clutch, steering, gearchange like? If you think the brakes are too soft or not progressive enough, or the clutch too heavy, gearchange notchy, or if you find the steering weight too heavy or light, it's time to move on.

6. Try it for size

An undersized boot can be a problem. If you are a golfer bring your bag of clubs and if you have kids and need to transport a pushchair bring that along too. Try your child seats to check they fit and, if you have a tall wife/husband/teenager make sure they are comfortable. Make sure the boot's sill is low enough for you to lift heavy items in and out. If it all seems like hard work, then this isn't the car for you.

7. Play all the instruments

Is the stereo good enough, the dashboard layout simple enough, or do the steering control stalks feel too weedy? Again, if these things are minor irritants now, over the coming months they are really going to grate.

8. Performance test

Find an open stretch of road and take the car through the lows gears up to maximum revs. Obviously, you won't be able to take it to its top speed but you do need to get an idea whether you are happy with the performance.

9. Absence makes the heart grow fonder

If you wanted iPod connectivity, a six-CD stereo, Bluetooth, climate control, rear parking sensors, leather interior and it's not on the car you are driving then don't compromise as you'll never be happy. Keep looking for the car that has everything you wanted. If you don't get that iPod connectivity and end up spending you life faffing around with the less-user-friendly aux-in input, you'll be kicking yourself. If you're buying new then it might be the item you want is on the options list and you won't have to go for a costlier higher spec. One word of warning - don't get too tick-happy with the options list because it does get very pricey.

10. Getting mechanical

It might seem a bit strange, but feel the bonnet before you start. If it's warm then the seller may have driven to hide some starting problem. Check for any signs of smoke when out on the road and when you start it up. The engine should be relatively quiet and smooth, so listen out for excessive noise or unnecessary 'judders'.