Test drive special - How to take a test drive

Article 8 of 8 See all
  • Can a test drive really tell you anything?
  • Ten top tips to get the most out of yours
  • What to check before you place an order

Taking a test drive? New or used, expensive or affordable, there are some vital things you need to check before you pay a deposit on your prospective purchase. What Car?'s test drive checklist gives you 10 things you must consider before handing over your deposit.

1 Get the right engine and gearbox
Ask for a test car that’s as close to the engine, transmission and trim level you’re interested in as possible. If the exact model isn’t available, make the engine and transmission a priority; these will have the most direct impact on driver satisfaction. If necessary, you can view your chosen trim via the manufacturer’s website or brochure. 

2 Find a familiar route
Try to take a test drive on a route you know, so you can concentrate on the car and not on finding your way around. Your route should take in the roads you’ll regularly use, whether motorway or dual carriageway, A- or B-roads or city streets. If your home isn’t too far away, it’s worth trying out your driveway (and garage) for size, too.

3 Driving partner
When it comes to driving the car, you’ll probably be given just 20 minutes or so on the road in the company of your salesman. Take another adult to keep the salesman chatting so you don’t get distracted or feel like you’re being watched. Your friend or family member will also be able to comment from a passenger’s point of view. It’s worth asking if you can take the car for a drive without the salesman, too.

4 Real world performance
This is more about fitness for purpose than headline-grabbing speeds. You won’t get supercar acceleration from a supermini, but you should demand a degree of nippiness about town. If you’re a family car buyer, check engine flexibility so you won’t have to keep changing gear.

5 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. Pothole-ridden city streets are especially revealing. 

6 Refinement
This relates to interior noise levels, and to the overall smoothness of the car’s dynamics. Modern gearboxes should work well; don’t accept jerkiness or ‘shunt’ through the transmission. Once you’ve checked the audio system works, 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.

7 Interior quality
Materials such as leather and wood are great to have, but top-quality, well-assembled synthetic materials will also give you long-term satisfaction. However much you’re spending, check that you’re satisfied cabin materials look and feel strong enough to stand up to the daily use you and your family are likely to subject them to, and that they’re easy to keep clean.

8 Behind the wheel
Assess the seats for support, comfort, adjustment, and how they line up with the pedals and steering wheel to prevent back pain. Consider the intuitiveness of the controls and how easy ?they are to reach. Are the instruments easy to read? Visibility is important; do the front pillars impinge on your side view at T-junctions? Try parking, too – you might not need those optional sensors after all.

9 Space and practicality
Access is key, so look at the size and shape of door openings, and at the practicalities of getting into 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, take a child seat along to the test drive. Look for cabin storage areas. If there are not enough cubbyholes for your everyday bits and pieces, this will quickly become tiresome. 

10 How much kit?
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?

By Matthew Burrow

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