• Have a good look around the car first
  • Drive on a variety of surfaces and for as long as possible
  • Don’t rush your decision

1. Is it a case of just jumping in the car and heading down the road?

“Before you get behind the wheel of a used car, take a good look all around,” recommends Driving.co.uk, the Sunday Times’ car buying website. “Does all the paintwork match? Are the wheels and tyres in good condition, with no corrosion or cracks?” 

Mismatched paintwork could indicate an accident, while if there’s major damage or corrosion it could mean the car failed its last MoT, so you may not want to take the test drive at all.

Driving.co.uk also says that any rattles from the engine or warning lights should not be ignored, nor should smoke from the exhaust. For more information on what to look out for see our “6 checks you need to make when buying a used car” guide.

2. Do you need insurance?

Yes, always, if you want to drive on the road. If you have your own car insurance, check with your insurance company to see if you can drive someone else’s car. If you don’t have insurance, a trader or private seller’s insurance might cover you – you will need to ask them.

Some insurers provide temporary car insurance of between one and 28 days, which you could take out to test drive a car for a longer period.

3. For how long should you take the car out?

It depends, but get as much time behind the wheel as you can, on a variety of roads. WhatCar.com assumes you’ll only get about 20 minutes behind the wheel, usually on routes dictated by the seller (dealers often have set routes).

However, for certain cars you can have extended test drives: Nissan currently offers a four-day test drive for its Leaf electric car, as they want customers to be sure that a plug-in car – with its relatively short range between charges – is suitable for their needs. You may be able to negotiate weekend test drives with dealers for certain cars.

4. What surfaces should you test the car on?

As many different surfaces as possible!

CarBuyer.co.uk recommends driving on “fast dual carriageways, slow country routes and stop-start, speed-bumped town roads” as this will give you an idea of how the car behaves in most of the situations in which you’re likely to be driving it.

Broken, potholed roads can be particularly revealing.

5. What should you be looking for while on the test drive?

It’s all very well going for a test drive, but if you don’t know what you’re looking for it’s difficult to know whether the car is OK or not.

Luckily, most of it will be obvious: unusual clunks from the suspension, or creaks and knocking sounds during tight turns can indicate problems, and if you’re struggling to find gears it could be a fault with the car, not you.

Gear changes should be smooth and the clutch should bite about half way along the pedal’s travel, according to Driving.co.uk. Automatic gearboxes should also be smooth, with no jerkiness.

Check braking power as well: it differs between cars, but brakes should “at least pull the car to a stop quickly and without pulling to one side”. You should also check that the car doesn’t pull left or right when travelling in a straight line at a constant speed.

6. How can you test a car’s key features and specifications?

Each type of car will require a different focus.

“In terms of equipment, don’t expect executive levels of luxury in a supermini,” WhatCar.com says. “Instead, compare like with like, and standard equipment between competing models, to establish the value for money you’re getting.

Consider the intuitiveness of the controls and check the position of switches: can you reach them easily from a comfortable driving position? Are the instruments easy to read?”

“If you’re buying a family car and have small children, take your child seat along and check that it fits,” adds parenting journalist Lizzie Catt (@Lizzie_Catt). “Check how easy it is to get the seat and your child in and out, and look for lots of handy storage compartments.”

7. What questions should you ask the salesperson?

Motoring journalist Leon Poultney (@Blokesincars) says that although traders are trying to do a deal they can be turned into trusted advisers by simply asking what options and trim levels to avoid – certain features, such as colour options, may be a turn-off to prospective buyers when you come to sell yourself.

“Always ask ‘How low can you go on price’,” says Poultney. “It should give you an idea of wiggle room, but remember you may be able to get an even sweeter deal than they initially say.

“Ask what extras can be thrown into the deal for free, too; a full tank of fuel, a service plan or an extended warranty, for example.” 

Poultney also says don’t be afraid to walk away if you’re not happy: “Never appear desperate for a deal – that’s their job, not yours!”

 

Taking a test drive is important, but what to look out for – rattles, noises, comfort, reliability – is pretty simple to see. Just take your time and make sure that your purchase ticks all the boxes.

Still having trouble deciding on a new car? The LV= First Car Flow Chart could help you make the right decision.