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How to get the most from your test drives

Going on a test driveBefore buying any car, a meticulous test drive is fundamental. It gives you the finest opportunity to see whether the car is right for you; to make sure you find driving it enjoyable, and you can get into a comfortable position for those long journeys. The bigger dealerships quite often let their customers go on an extended test drive, with some offering overnight test drives, or even longer, in a sort of hire-car-type deal. You should inquire with the dealership you go with.

A test drive is far more vital if your buying a used car. This will be your moment to make sure for yourself that things in the vehicle are running as they should be, and is especially important if you're not getting a mechanic to give the car the once over.

Insurance cover

If you're buying the car from a dealership, most will have some form of special insurance cover operating for test drives. However, if you're buying the car from a private seller, then it's likely you won't be covered by any insurance when on your test drive. Depending on your own level of car insurance, you may well be covered for driving other cars, as long as you have the owner's permission. This is called 'Driving Other Cars' cover.

Another possibility could be that the private seller has briefly extended or upgraded their own cover to the level of 'any driver' in order to cover potential buyers who wish to take a test drive. You should always ask to make sure you are covered. Whatever the sort of cover you're receiving, it will generally only be third party. As always, if you are uncertain, check with your own insurer. They may indeed offer you a short term deal so you may test drive a number of cars over a short time period.

Tips for the test drive

Don't be rushed to take your test drive, take your time, and try not to let an impatient seller hurry you along. If they're really breathing down your neck you should just walk away.

If the car you're after is not a model you've driven or owned before, it may be a good idea to test drive a few different examples of the model. Doing this means you can identify if any problems you are not happy with are present in all cars of this model, or if the problem exists just in the vehicle you're interested in.

Try to check off the following items when taking your test drive.

Thirty minutes to an hour is the minimum time you should take on your drive.

Make sure your route includes different types of roads. The car you're testing may be great on local roads, but what use is that if you're on the motorway every day?

Do you find it easy to get in and out of the car? You'll be doing it day in day out, so make sure you're not hitting your head each time.

Can you easily get into a comfortable driving position? Can you see everything you need to see when sat in the driver's seat?

Are the car's controls easy to access when you're sat down, and can you read the instruments properly?

Perform a reverse park on the test drive, to check for blind spots and general vision cones.

If you use child seats, take them along and make sure they fit in the car safely.

If you regularly have a full boot, for example with a pushchair or the golf clubs, take them along and make sure they fit in the boot.

If the vehicle has any removable or folding seats, ask if you can try them out to make sure they work properly.

If the vehicle will be a family car, bring them along! This way you can make sure they all fit in, and hear any complaints they may have. It's better than hearing them every time you're out driving with them!

Checking the car on the test drive

Check the engine and suspension

Have a look under the bonnetIt's best to start your test drive with a cold engine. Doing so will help highlight any starting problems it may have. If the engine is warm to begin with it may be an attempt to hide such a problem.

Keep an eye on exhaust fumes when starting the car. Clouds of smoke when starting or when driving around are not a good sign. Engine noise should not be excessive when starting the engine.

Keep an ear open for rattling or any other suspicious sounds from the engine and suspension.

Check the brakes and handling

Check that the steering feels responsive, and you feel safe driving the car. Try setting the steering wheel straight, and check to see the steering pulls to the side by itself. If so, there may be a problem with the wheel balance or the tyres. You should also note any noise or vibration when turning the steering wheel.

Perform some different levels of braking, to make sure the car stops with a decent response. Does the car stop in a straight line, or pull to the side?

Check the gearbox and clutch

How does the gearbox feel? Can you traverse the gears with ease, or are there grinding sounds? Make a note of where the clutch bites when you're pulling away. The higher up the clutch bites, the more likely it is to be worn, and may be due a replacement.

Test driving an Electric car

Electric car charging pointThe range of electric cars is ever growing, with the Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe and BMW i3 being prime examples. There are a number of different things to check whilst test driving an electric car, as they bring a number of differences to your driving life. Two major points that you will not see when driving a conventionally-fuelled car are it's range and the time it takes to charge.

If you're unfortunate enough to buy a petrol or diesel vehicle with poor fuel consumption, this just means more trips to the petrol station. However, buying an electric vehicle with a poor range could mean you find yourself using your legs more than your wheels.

Even if you've done your homework and are sure that an electric car is what you need to replace your diesel or petrol one, you should still take an electric vehicle for an extended test drive; if possible for a couple of days. You won't know how much they can affect your life with just a couple of hours test driving under your belt.

If you have a journey you take every day, you should make sure you can get there and back with a single charge; or, if you can charge it at the halfway point and have enough charge left for the return journey. How much charge is there left after this return journey to make additional trips, say to the shops or to pick up the kids? If you forget to plug in the car for an overnight charge, how long does it take to charge until you can use it?

There are petrol stations everywhere, but not every one of them provides a charging point as well. You'll have to make sure there are charging stations nearby, as well as near where you frequently visit. You may also need to clear it with your employer if you can charge the vehicle's batteries whilst at work. There are all sorts of situations that can reduce an electric car's range too; cold weather, travelling at high speeds, and carrying heavy loads will all reduce your range.

Overall, when test driving an electric car, make sure you drive as you usually do, with the load you will usually be carrying. Put on any electronics you usually use whilst in the car. Then drive your usual journey. Remember, as batteries get old, their range will lessen too.


The test drive is the perfect time to get used to a car, and see if it is right for you. Drive as you would usually drive, and take the roads you would usually take. If you drive in a different style to how you do usually, how are you ever going to know if the car is right for you?

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