Buying a car is a big commitment — at their cheapest they can cost thousands of dollars, and you will probably own it for at least a few years. This is why test drives are so important, as they can help you pick a car you know you like driving and spot any flaws or defects before you buy it. This guide will help you learn how to test drive a car so you know how to get the most out of them, and help you make an informed buying decision.
How to Test Drive a New Car
Taking a new vehicle for a test drive is not the same as it is for a used vehicle, which is covered below. When you buy a new car it will automatically be covered by a warranty from the manufacturer, so you do not need to worry as much about any mechanical or manufacture issues or defects costing you more money after you buy it. You also have more choices available for any given model, as you can test drive different trims and options packages and customize the vehicle the way you want. You might wind up test driving a few different variations of the same model.
As an additional note, not every new vehicle will be available to test drive. For example, highly expensive luxury or performance models are never available to test drive due to their greater cost. There are some performance vehicles that aren’t as expensive that have limited times for test drives due to the weather or the season. Make sure to ask the dealership ahead of time
New Car Test Drive Tips
All this choice also means that it can be daunting to think of all the different vehicles you have to test drive, but it can be short and simple with some preparation. Here are some tips for test driving a new vehicle:
1. Do your research
Read reviews, try out build and price tools, and learn as much as you can to narrow down the vehicles you want down to a few choices. This can save you a lot of time and help you avoid testing more vehicles than you’d have to, as you will most likely be able to narrow down your shortlist to a few models that meet your criteria. This research will help you figure out what you really want and don’t want going into any test drives too, which makes it easier to notice things you love or hate while on a test drive.
2. Bring someone with you
If you are not the most car-savvy person, having a friend or family member who is to come along can be a big help. Even if they aren’t a mechanic or a car person, at the very least they’re an extra set of eyes who might notice something you don’t and can tell you what it’s like to be a passenger in the vehicle. They can also point out potential issues you wouldn’t think about yourself, especially if you are relatively inexperienced in driving or buying a car.
3. Walk around it for inspection
Once you’re all set to go on a test drive, make sure to do a visual inspection of the exterior and interior of the vehicle:
- Size — measure the vehicle to make sure it isn’t too big or too small compared to what you wanted or expected, so your know it will fit in your garage, etc
- Interior Space — sit in the driver, front passenger, and back seats to see if there is enough legroom
- Buttons — play around with all the knobs and buttons to make sure the locations make sense and intuitive to use
You’d be surprised at how effective this step can be at eliminating a vehicle from your considering before you even take it on a test drive! These are all small issues by themselves, but if you find that a lot of them are issues for you it can add up to a deal breaker.
4. Start using the car (before actually driving it)
Owning and using a car doesn’t just mean driving it, so before taking off you can try everything out to see if you like the way everything works. Some examples:
- Storage space — take a look at the space in the trunk, the back seats, the glove compartment, etc. and maybe even break out some measuring tape
- Folding seats — try collapsing and raising the folding seats (if they have any) to see if they are easy and intuitive or not
- Seat adjustments — adjust the seat position to see if you can set it easily and comfortably
- Electronics — use the radio, GPS, Bluetooth, and so on to see if everything works the way you want or if they are buggy or annoying to use
If you’ve never had a vehicle with mirror adjustment buttons placed awkwardly, or had GPS that was difficult to set up, or Bluetooth that would never stay connected, or folding seats with difficult to reach lever, you might not realize how frustrating that can be. When you test out a vehicle, you might discover it would drive you crazy and choose a different vehicle that is more intuitive.
5. Drive it like it’s everyday
Once you start driving, the most important thing is to drive it the way you would on any given day so you really get to know if it feels right:
- Speed & Acceleration — take the vehicle on the highway to test whether it accelerates well enough and feels safe and sturdy at higher speeds
- Maneuverability — drive it in a parking lot or try doing a U-turn or three-point turn on a residential street to make sure it can turn easily and maneuver in tighter spaces
- Bumps & Comfort — make sure it feels safe and comfortable to drive on rougher terrain if possible, especially if you work in construction or do things like go on camping trips
You do not need to put it through unrealistic stress tests, not only because the dealer will not allow you to use it in an unsafe manner but also because you just want to learn what it’s like to have the car normally.
6. Test out the features while driving
There are various features and options you would use while driving, so make sure to test them out on the go, such as the following:
- GPS & Radio — adjust the GPS or the radio on the go, make sure you can do it easily and safely and don’t have to fiddle with it for more than a moment
- Bluetooth — call someone or getting your passenger friend to call your phone to test the Bluetooth functionality
- Cruise Control — set and adjust your speed on the go
- Climate Control — adjust the temperature, the strength of the blower, etc.
Don’t just try out how well they work, also test out if they are easily reached. If there is a certain feature you want to use a lot, but it is placed awkwardly or somewhere that would annoy you that might make you less likely to buy it. Make sure to try everything in different situations—for example, if your car has a rear-camera for reverse parking, what happens if someone calls your phone while connected to Bluetooth? Does the incoming call cancel out the camera?
How to Test Drive a Used Car
Test driving a used vehicle is similar as it is to test drive a new one, so all the tips mentioned above are still valid. However, used cars do have important differences — mainly, they will have wear and tear and do not always come with any warranty. Certified Pre-Owned vehicles do come with a warranty from the manufacturer, and some used car dealers will offer additional warranty protection as well. But if you are buying from a private seller there will likely be no warranty coverage at all, unless it is new enough to still be under the manufacturer’s warranty.
This means you need to have a much more critical eye for certain things that you would not when buying a new car. Additionally, dealers might treat test drives differently as far as how willing they are to allow test drives, longer test drives, and so on. It depends on the situation with the specific vehicle, how expensive it is, and so on. Again, make sure you ask the dealership for the specific vehicle. However, if you are buying a vehicle from a private seller it really depends on the person as to how willing they are to allow a test drive.
Do Your Due Diligence
The biggest fear for anyone buying a used car is that it has been in an accident. Almost 30% of vehicles on the road today have had some kind of accident, whether it’s a minor fender bender in a parking lot or a significant collision on the highway. A vehicle having accident history does not mean it is unsafe or unreliable to drive, but it is your right as a consumer to have a fully disclosed history of accidents and repairs done to a vehicle. This is why companies such as CarProof and Equifax exist – they provide such reports for vehicles.
Most large dealerships will provide these reports and information about a vehicle up front, without even being asked. They will also usually disclose various mechanical issues the vehicle might have before you go on the test drive, and fix the issue before you buy it. Smaller dealerships, however, will often not provide or stipulate a vehicle’s history unless asked. This is actually illegal in Ontario so make sure the dealership provides you with a report for any used vehicle you test drive and are interested in buying. Similarly, a dealership should also disclose whether or not a used vehicle used to be a rental.
Here’s a checklist of things to look for when taking a used car for a test drive.
Used Car Test Drive Checklist
1. Do a thorough walk-around of the exterior
Keep a close eye out for the following:
- Panel Gaps — check for any dents or loose panels causing bigger than normal gaps
- Rust, Scratches & Chips — check around the body panels and on the inside of the doors, trunk, etc
- Windshield & Windows — check all glass window panes for chips or cracks
- Tires — make sure they have acceptable tread and inflation in general, if some have greater wear and tear than others there could be a mechanical or alignment issue
- Exhaust Area — look for any dark, oily stains that could be a sign of excess smoke that could be a sign of an issue with the exhaust
- Head & Tail Lights — check that all turn signals, high beams, low beams, brake lights work and aren’t cracked or broken
- Doors — check for any dents, bends in the door frame, or issues with the door being opened or staying closed
You can also look for general defects or wear and tear. Some might be more aesthetic problems that do not affect how safe or how well the car is to drive, but others could either be signs of potential issues that need repair that you should mention to the salesperson if they did not mention it to you ahead of time.
2. Give the interior an inspection
Once you’ve checked the outside of the vehicle, you should give a similar inspection to all the interior parts, such as:
- Seat Material & Trim — look for any wear and tear, loose stitching, stains, etc.
- Seat Adjustments — check that you can move the seats forward and back, Up and down, folded them up and down to make sure they stay secured and don’t get stuck
- Electrical Features — check that all the interior lights, electric windows, radio, centre console, electric locks, electric adjustable mirrors, etc. all work
- Climate Control — test out the air conditioning, heating, and blowers in general to make sure they work and don’t blow dirty, dusty air
- Trunk — make sure they can open and close, and have no rust below the felt material
- Seat Belts — check that they’re all present, can be pulled and retracted smoothly, and stay safely secured
- Airbags — check if the panel cover has split, has uneven seals or different colored paint over the seal as it is a sign the car’s been in an accident — you can also turn the key in the ignition to the first position when all the dashboard lights come on and if the airbag light stays on or if it flashes there is likely an issue with the airbag system
For the interior, you are generally just making sure that everything you would use actually works properly. Again, if anything doesn’t work, bring it up to the salesperson.
3. Check the engine
This is something you should do before and after you go on the test drive. When you do, check things like the following:
- Engine Bay — check the engine parts and the engine bay for any rust or stains that could be signs of leaks
- Fluid Levels — check that the fluid levels for things like oil and coolant do not dramatically drop after a short test drive
- Battery — look for any rust or debris on or around the terminals
- Underneath — look for signs of rust or fluids dripping from a leak or if there is any oily fluid on the ground
- Exhaust — when the car is running get out and see if the exhaust emits excess blue or black smoke
Another thing you can check is if the used vehicle you want to test drive is already warmed up when you get there. You can check by touching the hood of the car to see if it warm. In general, it’s a better test of how the vehicle can operate by trying it out cold so you can be sure it is able to start and function properly when it is cold.
4. Test the steering
Whenever you use the steering, pay attention to how both the steering wheel itself and the whole vehicle feels and sounds when you turn:
- Vibration — feel the steering wheel at various speeds to see if it shakes, rattles, grinds, screeches, etc
- Resistance & Play — turn the steering wheel at various speeds and pay attention to the level of resistance or tightness, or if it is too loose and you have to turn the steering wheel a lot to get the car to turn at all
- Pulling — pay attention to the vehicle when driving in a straight line to see if it pulls to one side, try it when accelerating and maintaining speed
If you wind up answering ‘yes’ to any of those questions, there could be a mechanical issue with the steering mechanics. Make sure the salesperson is aware of it, and they may offer to fix it before you buy it.
5. Test the brakes
If you can, find somewhere that is isolated from other people and vehicles, such as a large and mostly empty parking lot or an isolated side road, and test out the brakes. Do it a few times at normal speeds you would be driving at and pay attention to the following:
- Effectiveness — check if the brakes fade, shudder, or vibrate, and that it stops at a safe distance
- Brake Pedal — test the brake pedal to see if it feels loose where you have to push down on it a lot for the brakes to start working at all
- Hand Break — stop on a slope and see if the parking brake/hand brake/emergency brake works
The last thing you want to do is buy a used car only to find out that the brakes don’t work well enough when you need them to. So make sure you alert the salesperson about your concerns.
6. Test the suspension
If you can manage it, try taking the test drive to roads that are not the smoothest and see how the suspension holds up. Pay attention when you drive over a speed bump or along any other bumps or uneven road surfaces — does the suspension adequately absorb any of the impact? Or do you bounce around in your seat, and feel all the vibrations and shaking of the road.
- Bounces — when you go over bumps does the suspension absorb it effectively?
- Vibrations — for smaller bumps or uneven surfaces do you feel your seat or the vehicle shaking or vibrating all the time?
- Bigger Bumps — when going over speed bumps, or bumps like them, does the vehicle absorb it adequately?
The last thing you want is to be driving a vehicle with extreme suspension issues, where you get bounced and jostled constantly. If the issue is problematic make sure you tell the salesperson, and they will likely have it fixed.
7. Monitor the noise levels
Make sure you pay attention to how loud the inside of the car is when you drive it throughout your test drive. When you are driving a vehicle that does not cancel out any noises from outside it can be exhausting, especially on longer trips. This is relatively minor compared to other potential issues above, but you might find that it’s a deal breaker if it doesn’t block out enough sound.
8. Check for other issues
Lastly, there is an assortment of smaller things you can test out during your test drive:
- Trunk Releases — do either the front hood or trunk release properly or do they get stuck? Do they stay securely closed or does it open on its own sometimes?
- Gas Panel & Cap — do they get stuck or and do they stay securely closed?
- Transmission — for manual or automatic, are there any issues with the gears shifting up or down?
You can also check and test out any other options or features that the vehicle has, such as a sunroof, GPS, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, heated seats, etc to make sure they work properly.
Types of Test Drives
On a final note, when you find a vehicle that you really like and want to test drive, make sure to ask the dealership what kinds of test drives they allow. There are different types that can give you different experiences with the vehicle. There is the traditional test drive, the 24-hour test drive, the test drive from home, and virtual test drives. Not all dealerships will have anything but the traditional type, but it is worth asking them what they will allow to make sure you get the best experience possible.
Traditional Test Drives
For most test drives, you go to the dealer and a salesperson guides you through a pre-defined route in the area around the dealership for 30 minutes or so — the exact time depends on the dealer. These routes usually try to avoid potentially hazardous situations for safety reasons, such as left hand turns in busy intersections. This is so people who are unfamiliar with the handling of the vehicle have a safe and enjoyable experience on the test drive. As a customer, however, you can ask if the test drive can be extended a bit longer or include a certain type of driving that you want to experience with the vehicle. They might say no depending on the circumstance, but in general they will usually want customers more of an opportunity to get used to the car and like it more.
Virtual & Video Test Drive
If you have yet to take a vehicle for a test drive and are still narrowing your list down, try looking up virtual test drives or test drive videos. On your computer, tablet or smart phone they are a good way for you to get at least some of the experience of a vehicle from the comfort of your own home. Virtual test drives especially allow you to really seem like you’re driving it, so you can look around and see the car from the driver’s seat as if you were there. The down side is you mostly only experience the look of the car, and not any of the feel of it. It’s also not something that is available for every vehicle — only some newer models will have any, though it is becoming more common. As a research tool to help choose between some vehicles before scheduling any test drives, it can be very useful.
Test Drive from Home
If you live close enough to the dealership, some dealers allow you to arrange to have the vehicle dropped off to your home with the keys for you to use. There is no hard and fast rule for how far away is too far away and it depends on the dealership so you should always ask. From there, you can use it for a set period of time during your day-to-day life to help you get a better idea of how well it suits your lifestyle. The other advantage is you usually get to use the vehicle for longer than the traditional 30 or so minutes, from an hour to several.
24-Hour Test Drive
A more extensive form of the above is the 24-hour test drive, also called an overnight test drive, or extended test drive. These are more rare, but not unheard of and are more common for new car dealers. They are also more commonly granted after someone has already had a more traditional test drive but want a more thorough experience with it. This is a good sign to the dealer that you are seriously considering buying that vehicle. Being closer to the dealership also helps make it more likely the dealer will allow it.