Tips for taking a test drive

By NRMA Motoring on 07 April 2017
Tips for taking a test drive

• Take a long drive – you might miss things on a short run around the block with a salesperson in your ear
• Follow our test drive checklist to thoroughly consider every aspect of a prospective car purchase
• When test-driving a second hand car look for possible mechanical problems

Once you have compiled a shortlist of cars that meet all your needs and wants, it’s time to go test driving. 

The salesperson will often want to come with you on a test drive however it’s better to go without them – ideally with a friend or family member who might pick up on good and bad points of the car you may miss.

A short test drive near the dealership is a good start, but an extended test drive is better, allowing you to live with the car for a few hours or longer. At a minimum, make sure the test drive includes everything from parking and low-speed maneuvering to urban, arterial and, if possible, motorway driving.

Before you drive off, it’s important to know what you might be liable to pay in the event you’re involved in a collision during a test drive, such as an car insurance excess. Before you sign a test drive agreement, make sure you read it to ensure you’re comfortable with all the conditions.

In a new car, the test drive will help you determine whether you like the driving feel and comfort of the car, and whether it’s a practical fit for your needs.
A used car test drive is a bit different in that you’re also looking for mechanical faults or other issues that may have arisen as a result of wear and tear or poor maintenance

Test drive tips when buying a used car

1. Steering – Check the steering for excessive free play, pulling to one side or vibration, which could point to suspension or alignment problems.

2. Brakes – Ensure the car stops smoothly, strongly and in a straight line when the brake pedal is pressed. The pedal should not sink to the floor or feel spongy, and the steering wheel should not wobble or vibrate.

3. Exhaust - Check for noticeable exhaust smoke with the engine running at idle and under load during acceleration. Black, blue or white smoke each indicate different engine problems.

4. Engine – The car should run smoothly during accelerating, decelerating and when driving steadily. The water temperature gauge should remain in the safe range (or the temperature light should stay off). Rattling or knocking sounds might suggest incorrect tuning or engine wear.

5. Transmission – Check gear changes are smooth and decisive. On front-wheel drive vehicles, a knocking noise when turning indicates worn constant-velocity joints (CV joints).

6. Knocks and rattles – Listen for knocks and rattles as you drive, particularly over bumps and while turning, which could point to loose suspension or body components.

At the end of the test drive it’s okay if you’re not sure whether you want to buy the particular vehicle or model – you’re not under any obligation to buy it.

Even if you’ve fallen in love, it pays to take time to consider the options and try a few cars before you decide. Keeping emotion out of the process will help you negotiate more effectively, too.

Test drive checklist

1. Before you drive off, check if there is any damage such as dents, stone chips, scrapes around the lower bumper bars, or gutter scratches on the wheels. If there are, make sure they’re noted by the salesperson or you could find yourself liable for damage you didn’t do.

2. Does the test drive model have the same body style, engine, transmission and specifications as the car you intend to buy? Try to test the version you’re considering but if it’s slightly different, make sure you’re aware of what the differences are and how they might affect the driving experience.

3. Adjust the driver’s seat, steering wheel and mirrors before you start. Are you completely comfortable, with clear vision to the front and rear?

4. Sit in all the seating positions. Is there enough room for the intended occupants and are the seats comfortable?

5. Try out all the technology. Is the satellite navigation intuitive and logical to follow? Is it easy to pair your phone via Bluetooth? Is the audio system crisp and clear?

6. Turn on the air-conditioning to ensure it works effectively.

7. Locate and test the main switches, such as the wipers/washers, head lights and hazard lights.

8. Does the car have any driver-select modes? Comfort and sport modes for the steering, suspension and engine are common –make sure the comfort mode provides relaxed progress and a comfortable ride. Sport modes will usually be less smooth and comfortable but help make the car more fun to drive.

9. Check the car's acceleration from a standstill and while cruising; does it have enough power, and does it change up and down gears smoothly?

10. Do the brakes feel powerful, without being over-responsive?

11. Complete reverse and parallel parking manoeuvres, using this to test both how easy the car is to handle, and how well the rear parking sensors or camera work.

12. Find a quiet street and check the turning circle, too.

13. Make a conscious effort – with the air-con and audio turned off – to listen for tyre, wind and engine noise on a variety of road surfaces and in different driving conditions, such as when cruising, accelerating and climbing a hill.

14. If you have young children, take along child restraints and prams (but not the actual kids). Do they fit easily in the car and are the anchor points and seat belt buckles accessible?

15. Will the luggage compartment accommodate other large items you will need to carry, such as golf clubs, skis, surf boards or luggage?

Buying a used car?

A mobile vehicle inspection is a comprehensive inspection detailing the current state of the vehicle so you can make an informed decision with your purchase.