Buying A Car - How to test drive a car

13 August 2012

Taking a test drive is a vital part of choosing the right car for you – it's the only way you're going to find out if a car is good to drive and practical enough for your needs.

By following our reviewing procedure, you can be confident of finding the right car for your needs.

The first question to ask is 'what kind of car do I need?'. If it's a family car, then you need to focus on space, practicality, safety and comfort, and anything that might impact on your wallet.

If it's a sports car you're after, then emphasis will shift to desirability, performance, handling and the 'fun factor'.

For an executive car, you should focus on equipment levels, refinement, leasing rates and taxation issues.

Paying close attention to these salient areas will pay you back at resale time, because they're the same points the next owner will be thinking about when looking for a car. The more boxes you tick now, the more chance you'll have of attracting a buyer later.

What car to test?
Some car dealers like to put customers into more powerful and higher spec versions in an attempt to 'upsell' them into a more expensive car, but ask your dealer to provide the engine, transmission (manual or automatic) and trim level that you're interested in.

If the exact model isn't available, make a priority of the engine and transmission; these will have the most direct impact on your driver enjoyment, and if necessary you can view your chosen trim via the manufacturer's website or our own images.

How to buy a car

Nine-point test areas
It doesn't matter what type of car you're testing, if you follow how we test cars then these nine factors will help decide if a car is right for you:

•Ride and handling
•Buying and owning
•Quality and reliability
•Safety and security
•Behind the wheel
•Space and practicality

Performance: For What Car?, performance is more about fitness for purpose than headline-grabbing speeds. That's why What Car?'s acceleration and braking tests are carried out on real roads as well as dedicated test tracks.

If you're a supermini buyer, you won't get supercar acceleration, but you should demand a degree of nippiness about town and decent motorway cruising ability. If you're a family-car buyer, check engine flexibility, so you won't have to keep changing gear. If you're a sports car buyer, check that plentiful gearstick action is something you'll enjoy.

Ride and handling: When it comes to ride and handling, you should be looking for a good balance between comfort and control. A 'soft' set-up might feel great on a short drive, but constantly having to correct your course on longer runs will be tiring. Do your test driving on a wide range of roads to assess a car's all-round ability. Broken city streets are especially revealing.

Refinement: This relates to a car's interior noise levels, and to the overall smoothness of the car's dynamics. Modern gearboxes – manual or automatic – should work well; jerkiness or ‘shunt' through the transmission is not something you should accept.

What Car? testers do use specialist technology to measure cabin noise, but they also subjectively assess refinement. Once you've made sure that a car's audio system works on the test drive, turn it off so you can pick up any stray noises from the engine, wind, road or suspension. Then make your own judgement on their importance.

Buying and owning: For many motorists, the cost of ownership is now the biggest factor in the buying decision. Our Target Price mystery shoppers tell you what showroom price you should expect to pay for a car, and our residual value experts will impart its depreciation prospects through constantly updated resale values for the first, second, third and fourth years of ownership.

You'll find insurance and three-year maintenance cost figures on, along with the latest contract hire rates and company car tax liabilities if you're a company car driver.

Quality and reliability: Buyers will want their car to stay looking fresh for as long as possible, so here's where quality and reliability come in. Expensive cars aren't necessarily more reliable than cheaper ones: electronic complexity can bring compromises. Similarly, materials such as leather and wood are great to have, but top-quality, well-assembled synthetic materials will also provide long-term owner satisfaction.

Safety and security: What Car?'s overall safety and security rating for a car is based on points won for the standard inclusion of important features and technology. We consider some features to be more important than others, so we weight them accordingly. It's worth working through our checklist when you're assessing a car in this department. Here's our checklist and weightings:

Stability control (20)
Curtain airbags (20)
Front side airbags (15)
Rear side airbags (10)
Active anti-whiplash head restraints (10)
Driver airbag (5)
Passenger airbag (5)
Driver knee airbag (5)
Laminated side glass (5)
Traction control (5)

Deadlocks (25)
Immobiliser (25)
Visible Vehicle Identification Number (10)
Marked mechanical parts (10)
Etched windows (5)
Locking wheelnuts (5)
Secure spare wheel (5)
Secure storage (5)
Stereo (max 10)
- fully integrated (10)
- unique fit (5)
- Removable panel (5)

A car's integrity in a crash is enormously important. If the car has been Euro NCAP tested, you'll find its crash-test rating on

Behind the wheel: This is where you'll spend all of your time in the car, so make sure it's easy to live with. Assess the seats for support and comfort, their range of adjustment, and how they line up with the pedals and steering wheel – this is one of the biggest causes of back pain for motorists.

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? Being able to see out of the car is just as important. Find a T-junction to check how the front pillars impinge on your side view.

Space and practicality: For space and practicality, you don't need to rely on manufacturers' figures. What Car? takes a comprehensive range of measurements for every car tested.

How to buy a car

Access isn't something you can easily put a number to, but it's a key consideration. Look at the size and shape of door openings, and at the practicalities of getting passengers in and out of the car. Confirm how easy it is to fit in the sort of cargo you normally carry – if you've got young kids, for example, make sure you take a childseat along to the test drive.

Look for cabin storage areas. Inadequate provision for your everyday bits and pieces will quickly reduce the quality of the ownership experience.

Equipment: In terms of equipment, don't expect executive levels of luxury in a supermini. Instead, compare like with like, and standard equipment between competing models, to establish the value for money you're getting.

Consider also the specific value to you of various items of equipment. Heated seats are nice, but would you choose them over air-conditioning?

To flesh out your opinion of a prospective purchase, the real-life ownership reports in's Reader Reviews section make fascinating reading. Our annual customer satisfaction survey (produced in partnership with JD Power) details the ownership experiences of more than 17,000 real-world car owners, and rates both brands and individual models. We also publish an annual reliability survey in partnership with Warranty Direct, the UK's largest independent warranty provider.

The test drive
When it comes to driving the car, you'll probably be given just 20 minutes or so on the road, all in the company of your salesman.

To help you stay focused, bring another adult to keep the salesman chatting so you don't feel like you're being watched; your adult will also be able to comment on the car from a passenger's point of view. Try to take a test drive on a route that you know, so you can concentrate on the car and not finding your way around.

Whether on the road or off, knowing exactly what to look for is key to making the most of a test drive, and feeling confident when it comes to finally making a purchase.

Click the link below for a checklist that you can print off and take with you as a reminder when you test drive a car.