How to test drive a car

Getting behind the wheel of a car is still the best way of confirming that it's the right choice for you - and here's how you can get the most out of even a brief test drive...

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Matthew Burrow
16 November 2015

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. So while the number of customers who buy a car without trying it continues to rise, we'd always advise you get behind the wheel before committing.

You can follow a few simple steps to ensure that you get the right car for your needs.

Do your research

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.

Having worked out your needs, spend a good evening reading the detailed What Car? review on the car in question. Our reviewers will have tested most engines and gearboxes on sale, and offer shrewd buying advice to make sure you get the best model. It's worth playing with the manufacturer configurator, too - and take a note of which options appeal; you may be able to save money if you choose a 'pack' instead of a bunch of individual items.

Which 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 interests you.

If the exact model isn't available, make a priority of finding the right 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.

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 companion 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. It's best if the route includes a mixture of slower, rougher roads and at least a minute or two on a dual carriageway or motorway.

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.

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