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Tips for a successful test drive

Tips for a successful test drive

Published: 23 September 2014
By: Chris Haycock



Test drives. They're exciting but nerve-wracking. You don't know how honest the seller is being, and you won't know whether he's selling you a duff car. However, help is here - a list of 18 things you'll need to check to bag yourself a bargain, not a banger.

Taking a new car for a test drive can be an exciting but nerve-wracking experience, especially if the car you're test driving is second hand. Chances are you won't know the seller, so will naturally be sceptical about the vehicle before you hand over your hard-earned cash.

We've got a list of 18 top tips when taking a car on a test drive, to help you avoid a banger and get a bargain.

1. You're in control
Remember that you're the buyer and it's you that's got the cash in your hand. Take your time, remain calm and collected, even if the seller is trying to get you to hurry up and make your decision. Insist on having at least half an hour so you can fully inspect the car. It's a huge chunk of money to hand over on a duff car.

2. Take at least one passenger
Chances are you won't know what the ride is like in the rear seats unless you bring someone along to sit in the back. As them to inspect the quality and comfort of the back seats and footwells, especially if you've got children. There's nothing worse than moaning, uncomfortable kids in the back when you're on your annual summer holiday.

3. Take your child safety seats
Especially important if you use the more reliable and safety-conscious Isofix child safety seats. Do they fit securely? If they wobble around that can indicate a problem with the Isofix fitting.

4. Check the seat and steering wheel positioning
Move your seat around to find the ideal position for comfort, particularly if you suffer from a bad back. Slide the seat backwards, forwards, and repeat for the back of the seat. Move the head restraint into your own position. If you're not 100% comfortable, the car really isn't for you. Likewise, if the movement is restricted, or sticks, see if it's just a bit of muck that's the cause - you may be able to fix it with some WD40. Ideally, the steering wheel will be able to be positioned into the best position for your driving style - only you will be able to determine how comfortable the wheel feels whilst driving.

5. Examine the luggage space
Imagine yourself doing a shopping trip, or taking to the road on holiday. Is there enough room to store all those suitcases or shopping bags? Of course, if you've got spare seats you'll be able to use those to store luggage (securely), but you'll need enough room for your needs.

6. Check all-round visibility
Some cars suffer from a lack of all-round visibility, and it's not always obvious when you're first taking the car on a test drive. Try reverse parking the vehicle into a parking space to see how easy it is to see around you as you're reversing. That'll give you a good indication of where the car may have blind spots.

7. Think about suitability
Think to yourself about how suitable this car or vehicle is for your every day needs. Whilst test-driving the vehicle imagine yourself driving it every day. Will it do what you really want it to do? If you have any doubts, perhaps its time to reconsider.

8. Test drive other vehicles
It sounds obvious, but don't just test drive one car, even if you fall head over heels in love with it. Take a deep breath and go and test drive other cars, even if it's just to get a sense of perspective. Chances are the car you fell in love with will still be for sale. If in doubt, arrange to test drive several cars in one day to reduce the chances that your favourite has been sold.

9. Look at the quality
Every motorist treats their car differently. Some don't care if they spill a Costa coffee down the back seats. Others will smoke like a trooper in theirs. Nothing wrong with that, but that smell of second-hand smoke and coffee stains will have an adverse effect on the saleability of the car. Check everywhere. Not once - you'll probably miss something first time round - but twice. Be eagle-eyed in your approach, and you'll be confident you didn't spot anything bad.

10. Observe handling vs comfort
Manufacturers spend millions perfecting the balance between comfort and handling, often with varying degrees of success. If the ride feels soft that'll be fine for short journeys, but it'll prove more difficult on long journeys where the car will feel sluggish after some time on the road.

11. Check the sound
Not just the sound of the CD player - which in itself is fairly important to the discerning motorist - but also the sound of the engine. Turn off the CD player or radio and listen carefully to the sound of the engine. This is when you'll hear any odd engine noises that don't sound quite right. You'll also notice whether the engine noise intrudes too much into the vehicle itself. You'll want to talk to your fellow passengers. At least most of the time.

12. Check the instruments
In a well-built vehicle the dash and driver instruments should be clear and easy to read. Instruments that require you to think too much will be hazardous, and take your eyes off the most important thing - the road.

13. Use a route you're familiar with
If you take your test drive on an unfamiliar road then you'll spend more time figuring out the route than you will be on how the vehicle is performing. Choose a route you're 100 percent familiar with, and you'll learn the most from the car.

14. Get some insurance
If you're buying a new car the chances are that the dealer's insurance will have you covered for all eventualities. If you're buying privately, then always make sure you're insured in case the worst happens. Call your car insurance provider if you're unsure. Remember - you need insurance by law. Better safe than sorry.

15. Start the car from cold
Put your hand on the vehicle's bonnet before you set out on your test drive. If it's warm then the car has been used recently. Some unscrupulous sellers run the engine for some time, which can hide any potential problems. If the bonnet is warm, use the time to look around the vehicle, ask questions, etc. Or re-book the test drive for another time.

16. Check for exhaust smoke
Smoke coming from the exhaust at the rear can sometimes indicate problems with the vehicle, especially if it's dark black smoke. Be aware that on cold days the exhaust smoke will be apparent more often than not, and is not a fault.

17. Use your brakes
Don't obviously slam your brakes on and give the seller (and your passengers) whiplash, but be firm on the brakes to check their efficiacy. The vehicle should stop promptly with smooth deceleration, in a straight line. Walk away if you think the brakes are suspicious. They're quite important, in case you didn't already know! Same goes for the accelerator - don't be afraid to use it to accelerate (within the speed limit) quickly as this'll also help you to identify any problems. A smooth and straight line is what you're looking for.

18. Get the heating on
OK you might be driving on the hottest day of the year, but don't let that stop you checking the heating - you'll regret not checking it in the mid-winter when you realise it's broken or under-effective. Don't stop at the heating either - check all the electrics, from the windows to the windscreen wipers, to the air con and heated seats (if you're lucky enough). You don't want to be buying something that doesn't work 100%.

Above all, be pleasant but confident, and enjoy the test drive. Trying out a new (or second-hand) car is exciting. Just take a note of the above tips on how to take a car on a test drive and you'll be smiling all the way from the bank in no time.

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