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How to test drive a car: Tips and advice

Last updated June 02, 2023

A car should always be a considered purchase. After all, if you buy one and then discover something you’re not happy with, this can prove to be an expensive mistake!

Therefore, when you’re thinking about buying a new or used car, taking a test drive can help you get a feel for whether the vehicle meets your specific needs.

Reading online reviews is no substitute for getting behind the wheel yourself. Inspecting the car in person, driving it on a variety of road types – and seeing how it handles parking and reversing can arm you with the confidence needed to decide whether to buy or look elsewhere.

In this guide, we will explain the insurance requirements for taking a test drive. We’ll also cover the various factors to consider when test driving a new, used or electric car – and clarify the differences between a standard and extended test drive.

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Test driving and car insurance

If you will be taking a test drive at a dealership, they will usually have insurance cover in place. With that said, it is still advisable to check that you are covered before getting behind the wheel.

However, if you are taking a test drive with a private seller, you will have to make sure that you are covered by your own insurance. Check your car insurance policy to make sure that cover for ‘driving other cars’ (DOC) is included. If you have any doubts, call your provider to clarify before taking a test drive.

If you don’t have the necessary cover in place, you can contact your provider to arrange ‘temporary car insurance’. This type of insurance provides cover over a very short period (sometimes as little as an hour) to facilitate a test drive.

What to check before test driving a used car

If you are test driving a brand-new car, it is highly unlikely that the vehicle has any significant wear or mechanical issues.

However, if you are thinking about buying a used car, it is wise to inspect the vehicle more closely before even getting behind the wheel for a test drive. This will help you to pick up on any major faults that could deter you from the sale (or any minor issues that could help you negotiate a better price if you are otherwise happy with the vehicle).

If a seller refuses your request for a test drive, but alleges that the vehicle is roadworthy, you should treat this with suspicion. They could be attempting to conceal a hidden fault.

Before test driving a used car, you should check the following:

  • Service history - Ask the seller to show you the car’s service history. A full service history will give you the assurance that the car has been regularly serviced, in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

    It is not uncommon for part (or all) of the service history to be misplaced, particularly with older used vehicles. However, don’t give up – you may be able to turn detective and piece together the car’s missing service history.

  • V5C logbook and MOT certificate - Ask the seller to show you the vehicle’s V5C logbook. This document contains key information about the vehicle and was issued by the DVLA when it was registered.

    When transferring ownership of the vehicle, the seller should detach the ‘new keeper slip’ in this document to give to the new owner, who should complete and send it to the DVLA in order to register the vehicle in their name.

    Although there are no laws against selling a car without a V5C logbook, the DVLA advises against buying one. When the logbook is missing, it is more difficult to determine whether a vehicle has been stolen, has an insurance write-off category – or whether the seller is legally entitled to sell it.

    You can check the vehicle’s MOT status by entering its registration number into our free MOT check tool. This tool will show you the outcomes of any previous MOT tests, including any faults and advisories highlighted.

  • Check for rust - Severe rust is a sign of corroded metal and if present may weaken the car’s structural integrity.

    Although a small amount of rust does not present a significant issue, anything more than light pitting or surface-level rust can be considered too much rust. Bear in mind that any level of rust will also affect a car’s value.

    You should check for rust around the wheel arches, sill edges and the underside of the vehicle. Pay close attention to any plastic coverings on the arches and sills, which may conceal developing rust. If there is corrosion or rust in certain prescribed areas, this may also cause the vehicle to fail its next MOT test, so beware!

  • Check out the bodywork - Take a good look around the bodywork, as any dents and scratches will reduce the vehicle’s value. More severe damage to the bodywork may hint at structural damage, which could also mean the vehicle is unsafe to drive.

  • Check the exhaust pipe - The exhaust pipe should be firm and supported. Ask the seller if you can observe the exhaust emissions. Diesel cars will often emit black smoke. In colder weather, you may observe what appears to be white smoke (but is actually steam). However, if you see blue smoke, this could hint at oil-burning issues.

  • Test all lights and indictors - Do they all work correctly?

  • Check the tyres - Check the tyres are above the minimum legal tyre tread depth limit of 1.6mm. If they are below 3mm, we would recommend getting them replaced soon, if you decide to purchase the vehicle.

  • Inspect the seatbelts - If you drive or travel in a car without working seatbelts, you could be liable to pay a seatbelt fine. Statistics show that seatbelts save lives, so check that all seatbelts are present and work exactly as they should.

  • Check out the mileage - Mileage affects cars’ value, so pay attention to the number on the odometer and whether the vehicle has a good mileage for a used car of its age.

    However, bear in mind that if there is a wrong mileage on the MOT certificate – or the vehicle has more wear and tear than you would expect for its claimed mileage, this may indicate odometer tampering has occurred.

  • Test the electrics - Make sure that features such as the electric windows, heaters, air-conditioning and climate control are all working correctly.

  • Check under the bonnet - Check that the engine oil has been filled to the correct level and look for any signs of oil leakage or build-up. Pull the dipstick to verify the condition of the oil. If it is golden in colour rather than black, this is a positive sign, as it indicates the vehicle has recently been serviced.

    Watch out for mustard-coloured buildup (particularly inside the oil filler cap), as this may suggest head gasket problems. (Floating particles in the water expansion tank can also be an early indicator of head gasket failure.)

How to test a drive car (instructional video)

Tips for test driving a car

  • Bring a friend

    If you don’t have a good working knowledge of cars but have a friend or family member who happens to be a mechanic (or at least a petrolhead), consider inviting them along to support you. They may be able to help you by asking the right questions about the car’s features and specifications so that you can decide whether it’s right for you.

  • Bring your family

    Consider bringing your spouse/partner or children along for the test drive if they will be travelling with you on a regular basis. It’s better to hear any qualms about the car now rather than a month after you’ve bought it!

  • Take photos

    Take photos of the car from various angles (including the interior). Feel free to take a selfie at the wheel if it helps you to visualise whether the car is right for you. Please note that photographs should not be taken while operating a vehicle. The car must be stationary and parked in a safe location.

    If you are viewing a second-hand car, you can also photograph any damaged areas. Revisiting these photos after the test drive can ultimately help you make an informed decision.

  • Pre-plan your route

    Discuss the test route with the seller or salesperson prior to the test drive. Make sure that it covers a variety of roads, surfaces and speed limits.

    Ideally, the test route should cover all the types of roads you regularly travel on, as this will allow you to decide whether the car’s overall handling and performance is to your liking.

  • Test the brakes

    Before setting off, ask the seller or salesperson if you can incorporate a planned emergency stop into the test drive. They should honour your request, as this can provide you with the assurance that the vehicle handles well in an emergency stop situation.

    Whilst driving, note how the vehicle responds to both soft and forceful braking; it should be smooth in both cases. Brakes that are sluggish or uncomfortably harsh should raise concerns.

  • Is the ride comfortable?

    Different types of cars will handle differently. After experiencing how a car handles over a variety of road conditions, you can assess whether the ride is comfortable enough for everyday driving. For those unfamiliar, here is a quick explainer of the different types of riding experience cars may offer:

    • Soft suspension: Feels ‘pillowy’ when navigating holes and ruts but allows the vehicle body to move up and down after hitting large bumps. The best vehicles with this type of suspension feel controlled when encountering bumps and recover stability quickly.
    • ‘Sporty’ ride: Sportier models typically have a firmer ride, trading off some comfort for superior handling and performance. Although sporty handling has its benefits, make sure the ride comfort is up to par if you’re planning to make long trips on a regular basis.
    • ‘Busy’ ride: Riding in a car with a ‘busy’ ride can feel jittery, as the body may move from side to side or up and down as you travel. This does not usually translate to a comfortable riding experience.
  • Test the steering and handling

    Ideally, steering should be easy, but you should also remain in control. It should not be so fast that it feels jittery – and not so slow that every maneuverer requires excessive turning of the steering wheel.

    When assessing the handling, pay attention to how the car responds to quick turns. The ability to turn the vehicle away quickly is crucial for accident prevention.

    Observe whether the car tracks well or whether it needs small steering corrections to maintain a straight course.

    Drive on an uphill road at some point if you can, to see how the car handles on an incline. See how easy it is to park on a slope – and assess how well the car manages a hill start.

  • Reverse, park and check visibility

    Take the opportunity to reverse and park the vehicle during the test drive. Try parking in a public car park and parallel parking on a busy residential street. Note how easy the vehicle is to reverse and park – and the degree of visibility the cabin provides. If the car features parking sensors and cameras, you should also assess how intuitive these systems are.

  • Check the noise levels

    When test driving a car, you should also assess whether the level of noise in the cabin is acceptable to you. Switch off the radio and close all the windows so you can clearly hear the engine. Try accelerating to the national speed limit on a motorway and assess how the engine sounds.

    If you can barely tolerate the current level of engine noise, remember that engine performance will inevitably deteriorate as the vehicle ages. Unfortunately, this also means that the engine will get louder. So, whilst the hum of the engine might be a mild annoyance right now, it could become intolerable a few years down the road.

    Other noise contributors include side mirrors and roof rails (which are both sources of wind noise). Some tyres are also louder than others; high-performance and off-road tyres are usually noisier than standard alternatives.

  • Take a day to think it over

    Even if at the end of the test drive you’re gravitating towards buying the car, we would still recommend taking another day to mull it over before making a final decision.

    The salesperson will no doubt have highlighted the various benefits that this model offers throughout the drive, but now, you must also consider any drawbacks. Is the car economical? Is it practical for day-to-day use? Is there enough room for the kids and the family dog?

    Don't forget to consult any friends and family members who will travel with you on a regular basis. Remember that even though you have taken a test drive, you are under no obligation to buy the car if you don’t feel it suits your needs.

Test driving an EV

When test driving an electric car, most of our advice for traditional powertrain test drives applies, but there are several additional factors to consider:

Regenerative braking

Most EVs have a feature called ‘regenerative braking’, which recovers energy that would have been lost whilst decelerating and braking - and returns it to the battery to help maintain charge. Regenerative braking power will vary from model to model.

However, some models allow drivers to adjust the level of regenerative braking to either boost energy re-capture or provide a more normal driving feel.

When test driving, you should assess whether the car’s regenerative braking is to your liking – and if you are able to adjust it to a comfortable setting.

Electric range

Ask the salesperson or seller about the car’s electric range. Consider whether this would be enough to cover your regular commute and day-to-day driving.

Ideally, an electric car test drive should commence with a fully charged battery. This will make it easier to observe how quickly hard acceleration and the use of features such as the heater and air-conditioner affect battery life. Consider whether the vehicle’s electric range is sufficient to quell your range anxiety.

Electric charging

As you are test driving an EV, you should incorporate a stop at a charge point. Ask the seller where the charge port is located on the vehicle and how to use it. Note how easy it is to charge and whether you encounter any difficulties during the charging process.

Charging your vehicle at home is much cheaper than solely using public charge points. Therefore, you should also think about whether it would be feasible to install a charge point at your home.

Aside from familiarising yourself with how electric car charging works, you should also consider how the cost of charging this electric car stacks up against rival models.

Questions to ask whilst test driving a car

  • What car warranties are available?
  • How often does the car need servicing?
  • What features does the infotainment system offer?
  • How does the cruise control system work?
  • What is the safety record of this car? Do you have any crash test data?
  • (For brand-new cars) What new features have been added for this year’s model – and what benefits do they provide?
  • How much will I get for part-exchanging my current car?
  • Are there any incentives, deals or sweeteners available?
  • If you’re viewing a used car, ask whether you can have the car checked over by a mechanic. Although this will cost a little more, you’ll benefit from the reassurance that the car is reliable (or avoid a poor deal).
  • How much will the car cost to insure? (Bear in mind that EVs often cost more to insure than their petrol and diesel counterparts, as spare parts are less readily available - and EVs often require specialist mechanics for repairs.)

How long should you test drive a car for?

A standard test drive typically takes around 15 to 30 minutes. However, remember that your aim is to learn as much as possible about the vehicle so you can make a decision on whether to buy it.

Although a seller or private dealer may suggest a particular test route, you should make sure this comprises a variety of road types and speed limits – enough to give you a good idea how the car handles overall.

Therefore, if you feel that you need to take a longer route for your test drive, you should say so. If you’re a serious prospective buyer, the seller should be happy to oblige.

Extended test drives

In some circumstances, franchised dealerships may offer much longer test drives – perhaps for 24 hours (or even up to a week). These more extensive test drives afford you a much greater degree of freedom and an opportunity to evaluate a car’s driving experience without a salesperson at your side.

Whether a dealership will offer a more extensive test drive is entirely at their discretion. However, if you can demonstrate that you have researched the market and are seriously considering making a purchase, the salesperson is much more likely to honour your request.

With that said, it is important to bear in mind that even after taking an extended test drive, you are under no obligation to buy the car if you don’t feel that it’s right for you.

How far can you go on a test drive?

The maximum distance for a test drive is also at the discretion of the seller or dealership. However, test drives with a private seller (which often last 30 minutes or less) will usually cover less distance than an extended test drive lasting 24 hours or more.

When you take an extended test drive, the dealership will usually set a maximum permitted mileage. If you exceed this, you may have to pay an additional fee to cover the excess miles. Therefore, if you are unclear on the maximum test drive mileage, ask your salesperson before you drive away from the forecourt.

Why might I not be able to take a test drive?

A private seller or dealer may refuse to offer a test drive if they do not believe you are seriously considering buying the car. However, you may also be unable to take a test drive if:

The seller should be fully transparent about the vehicle’s MOT and category status. It is also possible that a seller will refuse a test drive in order to conceal a mechanical fault. If you become suspicious, walk away from the sale.

Negotiating a price after a test drive

Although some buyers are a little shy about negotiating, it is perfectly acceptable to haggle when buying a car. Here are a few useful tips to help you secure a great deal after a test drive:

  • Remain polite throughout: If you establish a rapport with the seller, they may be prepared to go further to help you and ultimately, make you a better deal.
  • Don’t be scared to negotiate the price down: The worst that can happen is the seller will refuse your offer! If your offer is rebuffed, ask the seller for their best price, then decide whether you’re prepared to pay more for it.
  • Start low: Begin negotiations with a lower price with a willingness to raise your offer. This can make it easier to reach a price that both you and the seller are happy with.
  • Remember that both you and the seller are working towards a common goal: a completed sale. A little compromise can go a long way; try to meet them in the middle if you’re keen on the car.
  • If you are generally happy with a used car, but noticed a few minor issues during your test drive, these can be used as bargaining chips to secure small discounts.
  • If you are negotiating with a salesperson at a dealership, ask them what sweeteners they can offer to save you a little more cash.
  • Once again, remember you are under no obligation to buy the car – and if you are not happy with the final offer, walk away.

Tip: Want to sell your car and make the switch to a newer model? Make sure you get the best possible car valuation. Check out our guides to selling your car privately and part exchanging.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

To test drive a car, you must hold an appropriate driving licence and valid insurance.

Yes, it is possible to test drive a privately sold car. However, you’ll need to make sure that you have valid insurance for the test drive. Before getting behind the wheel, check that your current insurance allows you to ‘drive another car with the owner’s permission’.

Bear in mind that this type of cover is usually ‘third-party only’, so you won’t be covered for repair costs in the event of an accident.

It is technically possible to test drive a car at the age of 17, providing you hold a full or automatic driving licence. However, 18 is the minimum age for test drives at many dealerships – and the required age for extended test drives may be higher (often 21 or 25).

Yes, you should be able to travel on the motorway as part of your test drive, as long as this is agreed by the seller or dealership.

Although a minority of car dealerships offer week-long test drives under special circumstances, many will not authorise such extensive test drives.

If you are interested in a particular model but want to try it out for a full week before committing to a purchase, your best option may be to rent it.

The average cost to rent a car for a week in the UK is around £282. (Expect to pay more when hiring a premium model.) Although short-term car hire isn’t cheap, it’s a great way to ensure that a particular model ticks all the boxes before committing to a large purchase.