Test driving a used car

Last updated February 04, 2022

Test driving a car can be a good way of checking its suitability and may help you detect some tell-tale signs of damage, from rattling windows to chugging exhausts.

This article provides a comprehensive guide to test driving a used car, covering all the checks you should make throughout the process.

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Used car test drive checks

  • Body and paintwork

    First, check the body for damage, such as scratches, dents, and scuffs. Next, look for uneven gaps between the panels as they could reveal structural problems from accident damage or shoddy repair work. The paint should be a consistent colour unless it has two-tone paint – uneven paintwork could indicate inadequate repair work. Also, be wary of any bubbling paintwork as it could signify rust. If you’re considering a convertible, make sure the roof is in good condition by checking for any tears.

  • Tyres

    Check the tyres have sufficient tread. Ensure any tread wear is even; uneven tread wear may indicate a suspension problem.

  • Suspension

    Check the suspension by pushing down each corner of the car. If the car doesn’t bounce back smoothly, there could be issues.

  • Cabin checks

    Check the lights and indicators work before making sure the lenses aren’t damaged. Ensure the mileage on the speedometer is consistent with the paperwork, then check the wear matches the miles on the clock. If the speedometer shows low mileage, but there are signs of heavy wear, such as a smooth gearstick, worn pedal rubbers or frayed seating, you may consider seeking further information from the seller to ensure the car hasn’t been clocked.

  • Cabin checklist

    Successfully test driving a used car depends on the car’s condition and functionality. You can use this cabin checklist to assess both variables:

    • Do the seat belts pull out and retract smoothly?
    • Do the seat adjustments and steering wheel (including its controls) work?
    • Do the electric windows or mirrors work properly?
    • If the car has a sat-nav, check if it works
    • Check the ventilation blows hot and cold and doesn’t make any strange noises
    • Check all the equipment, including central locking, the stereo, interior lights and any trip computer that’s fitted

Test driving a used car

After you’ve finished your checks, it’s time to take the used car for a test drive. When driving, the ride should be smooth and you should be listening for any unusual noises or rattles. Also, you should check for excessive smoke when starting the car and driving.

The steering should feel even and responsive, with little to no vibration, and gear changes shouldn’t crunch. The clutch should bite at a reasonable point – if the pedal is too high when it bites the clutch might be worn.

If possible you should take your usual route on your test drive, whether it be motorways or B-roads. Driving on different road types provides an accurate snapshot of the car’s handling and brakes; the latter should be responsive and stop the car in a straight line.

Does my car insurance cover a test drive?

If you’re test-driving as part of a private sale, you’ll need to be insured. Your car insurance should specify that you can “drive another car with the owner’s permission”, but bear in mind this is usually third-party only. If your policy doesn’t specify the above option, short term cover is worth considering. This insurance policy offers comprehensive cover and enables you to drive a selected car at your preferred time. Many dealerships have insurance, but it’s best to check with them before getting behind the wheel.

Used car paperwork checks

The car should come with documents detailing its previous owners and maintenance history – always ensure this paperwork is in order before buying a used car. The relevant paperwork includes:

  • V5C registration certificate (logbook)

    The V5C contains the car’s history, including previous owners and its current registered owner. You can use it to check the seller’s address matches the one on the V5C registration certificate. Be sure to check the car’s registered owner because if it’s not the seller, they may not be legally entitled to sell. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a stolen car, but they may be trying to sell the car with outstanding finance. If you buy a car with outstanding finance, you’ll inherit any debt and it’ll be your responsibility to settle it.

  • MOT certificate

    If a car is more than three years old, it must pass an annual MOT and obtain an MOT certificate confirming the vehicle meets road safety and environmental standards. Without an MOT certificate, cars cannot be insured and are not legal to drive on the roads.

  • What if I don’t have the original MOT certificate?

    If your original MOT certificate has been lost or damaged, you can use the government’s free replacement MOT certificate service or ask for a replacement certificate in person from the MOT centre – the latter may cost up to £10. For both options, you’ll need the number plate details and the 11-digit number from the V5C.

    Always check the information contained in the MOT matches that of the car you’re viewing, paying close attention to the vehicle registration number, chassis and mileage. If possible, ask for old MOT certificates as they’ll contain previous annual mileage figures, giving you an idea of how long it’s likely to last.

  • Free MOT history check

    Our free MOT history check tool lets you check any car’s service history. Simply enter the vehicle’s registration number and either the MOT test number or the document reference number from the V5C logbook.

  • Receipt

    If you buy the car, get a receipt that specifies the make, model, engine size, registration and chassis number. It should also include your address, the seller’s address and the amount paid. Finally, ensure both buyer and seller sign and date the receipt.