Here’s what you’ll find in this complete guide:

  • Insurance for Test Drives
  • Preparing for your Test Drive
  • What to look for before starting your test drive
  • Other things to consider before test driving a car
  • How to test drive a used car
  • What to look out for during your test drive
  • Test-driving electric vehicles
  • Things to do after the Test Drive

Test driving is a very important step in the process of buying a car, new or used. It’s the only true way to actually see for yourself if this is the car you want to take home. Is it comfortable? Does it handle the way you like it? Is it in good shape? Experience what’s it like to drive that car for yourself and decide what’s best for you.

Whether you’re testing a new car or a used one, there are things you should be aware of. In this complete guide, we’ll put the focus on test driving a used car but a lot of the advice will apply to a new vehicle.

Insurance for Test Drives

The first thing you should know before you get behind the wheel and test that car you like is that you’ll need insurance. Driving on British roads without it is illegal, even if you’re just doing a test drive. So you’ll need one, especially if you’re testing a privately-owned car.

Although this shouldn’t be an issue if you’re test-driving a new car or a used one from a dealership – they tend to have insurance that will cover you for a test drive – though you should ask before you get started.

It won’t hurt either checking whether your car insurance on your current car covers you on other cars. Not all policies do and it’s always better to be safe than sorry. In case you’re not covered or you don’t have car insurance, then you can take out temporary insurance to cover you for the few hours that you’ll need to test drive your potential new vehicle.

On top of insurance, one thing to remember when going to test-drive a car is to take your driving license along. It may sound obvious, but don’t forget it at home. Dealers and private owners will want to see it before letting you get behind the wheel.

Quick tips for test drive insurance:

  • Don’t test drive unless you’re insured to do so
  • Ask the dealership if they will cover you or you need to get your own insurance cover
  • Read well and understand the terms of your insurance for test driving vehicles. It tends to be usually third party only

Photo by Mike from Pexels

Preparing for your test drive

Before you go ahead and test drive the car you want, here are a few tips on staying safe and all the essential paperwork you should check to make sure everything is in order.

Safety tips when viewing a privately-owned car

  • Check the car’s V5C registration certificate and make sure the address of the seller is the same
  • Consider taking a friend with you, especially if your friend knows more about cars than you
  • View the car in daylight
  • Check the seller’s name and address on the internet (if possible)
  • Ask for the make and model, tax details and MOT test number. Then check the DVLA online vehicle enquiry service to make sure everything matches and that the seller either owns the car or is entitled to sell it
  • If you’re buying the car, meet in person for the payment and handover, ideally at the address where the vehicle is registered
  • Be wary of too-good-to-be-true deals

Essential paperwork to check

When buying a used car you need to make sure all the paperwork is in order and everything matches what’s in the official records. The seller should show you all the documents below. If they don’t, walk away.

  • V5C registration certificate/logbook: this document has all the basics about the car’s history like who is it registered to and how many owners it’s had.
  • Car history check: you can get information about the car from the DVLA for free which includes colour, engine size, CO2 emissions, year of manufacture, when does the MOT expire, current tax rate, date it was first registered and when current tax expires. We’d also recommend you arrange a car history or data check by a company such as HPI (all listings on are HPI checked). It’s a way of learning if the car has been stolen, the mileage is incorrect, the vehicle has been involved in an accident or has any outstanding loans against it.
  • MOT Certificate: cars older than three must have an annual MOT to ensure they meet road safety and environmental standards. Without it, the car can’t be insured nor driven legally on the road. Check that the mileage matches the one displayed on the odometer. And that the certificates show the same chassis number and vehicle registration as the car.

What to look for before starting your test drive

Ok, you’re in front of the car. But before you get in and drive away for your test drive there are a few things you should check.

  1. Check the bodywork, windscreen and chassis carefully – Look for rust and any chips, scratches and dents anywhere in the car. Uneven gaps between the body panels can be a sign of poor repair after a crash. Lift the bonnet and check all the metalwork inside. And look under the car for signs of damage.
  2. Check the oil level – Make sure it’s correct and the right shade of light, yellowy colour. If it’s dark and dirty it could be a sign of poor maintenance. Check the underside of the oil filler cap too if you can. White deposits there could point towards serious engine problems.
  3. Look for oil or leaks in the engine and surrounding parts. Oil leaves brown stains and white leaves a white chalky residue. It’s also advisable to look at the ground under the car.
  4. Test all the electrics – Make sure all the gadgets, switches and lights in the car work as they should. This includes interior and exterior lights, air conditioning, heating, heated rear window, electric seats and windows and even the sunroof, if the car has one.
  5. Check the clock and look at the mileage – Is it genuine? ‘Clocking’ can still happen with newish cars and it won’t hurt to see if what the odometer says matches the documents you have and the general condition of the car.
  6. Look for excess wear on pedal rubbers, carpet and seats as they could be an indicator the car’s older than you’ve been told.
  7. Check the tyres and spare wheel and remember that the minimum legal thread depth should be 1.6mm across the width of the tyre. You just need a 20p coin to check. If the thread hides the outer ring of the coin the tyres are ok.
  8. Check the VIN Number hasn’t been tampered with and matches the number on the logbook.

Other things to consider before test-driving a car

On top of all the safety checks and mechanical checks, there are other things you should consider. We hope you’ll find them useful:

  • Take your time and try to drive on all kinds of road, particularly the type of roads you spend the most time on.
  • Check how easy it is to get in and out of the car. And how easy it is to get your children in their seats if applicable. Are they comfy in the back?
  • Talking about children, check the fixtures used in the car for child seats. If you want to be extra thorough, bring any child seats you use and see if they fit
  • Will the boot be enough for your needs? No need to take your golf clubs or a bunch of suitcases but you should check that there will be space for your regular shopping, luggage, sports gear, prams, etc.
  • How easy is it to load and unload things in the boot? Is it low or high enough?

How to test drive a used car

You’ve got to the fun part of test driving a used car: getting behind the wheel and hitting the road to see how it feels. It can be an exhilarating and exciting experience. But it’s also important to follow certain steps so that you’re not missing anything. Remember, you’re test driving your potential future car and it needs to tick all your boxes.

  1. Get comfortable in the car and operate all controls – Adjust your seat and your headrest to the right height and distance from the steering wheel. Adjust all the mirrors so you can see everything on the road. Adjust the steering wheel too so you’re in your comfortable driving position. Is there enough headspace for you and the rest of the passengers? Are the kids in the back comfy enough?
  2. Play with everything – Familiarise yourself with all the controls, buttons and switches. Turn on the radio, heater, air conditioning and sat-nav if it’s got one to make sure they all work. Check the dashboard for warning lights. Ensure all gauges work.
  3. Drive the car around the car park first and last – All journeys begin and end with parking, so it’s a good idea to start your and finish the test drive in a car park. Like that you can figure out how well it performs at low speeds and with lots of maneuvering.
  4. Test the car on a variety of roads and speeds to check the gearbox, brakes and clutch function smoothly and effectively – Pick an itinerary that reflects the ones you usually do. It’s worth getting a good mix of streets with stop-and-go traffic, motorways and windy country roads. That way you’ll get a fuller picture of what it’s like to drive this car. Does it handle potholes and rough roads well? Does it accelerate quickly and smoothly? How does it handle 90-degree turns? Does it struggle when going uphill?
  5. Try more than one and test different engines – If you are buying your used car from a dealership you may be able to test drive more than one car and different engines too. It won’t hurt to keep your options open.
  6. Don’t let anyone pressure you into buying the car – Buying a car is a big commitment and no one should put pressure on you to make a quick decision. Take your time, see how you feel and only buy when you’re ready.

Photo by Elina Sazonova from Pexels

What to look for during your test drive

We’ve put together a checklist with all the things you should look for during your test drive. Keep them in mind and you’ll be able to spot if something is not right.

  • Engine and suspension – The engine should be cold before you start the car. Feel the bonnet. If it’s warm, the seller may have already started it for you to hide a starting problem. Check also for signs of excessive smoke after starting and while driving. A healthy engine should be quiet and smooth. Listen for rattles or odd noises that could signal mechanical problems.
  • Steering and brakes – Steering should be responsive and have no vibration or ‘free play’. Brakes should respond and stop the car in a straight line. Are there any noises?
  • Clutch and gears – Are all the gears smooth? Are they crunching when you engage them? When does the clutch start ‘biting’? If the clutch doesn’t engage until the pedal is nearly at the top, then that may be a sign the car will need a new clutch soon.
  • Visibility – Can you see properly in all directions? Is visibility out of your rear window good? Notice blind spots.
  • Cabin noise – Is it noisy inside of the cabin without the sound system on? Can you hear the tires? Can you carry on a conversation?
  • How easy is it to manoeuvre? How does it perform in curves and tight turns? Does it accelerate well? How easy is it to park? Does it fit well in parking places? Can you do a three-point turn in limited space situations? Does the front end scrape on parking curbs?
  • Climate control systems – Switch them on to check if the fan is powerful enough, the vents are sufficient and the controls easy to use.
  • Electronic amenities – If the car has a navigation system or a rear view camera, try them. Are they good for you? Do they work properly?

Test-driving electric vehicles

Electric vehicles tend to have less to check than their petrol or diesel counterparts. That’s because their motors have fewer parts.

However, you’ll still need to check the interior and exterior, the steering and the brakes, the gears and the clutch. As well as all the paperwork. That applies to every car in the market.

And on top of that, you should also ask and check their range and charging time. You need to make sure both range and charging time suit your lifestyle. It would be smart to check what the original advertised range and charging time was and then compare that to the actual figures you’re getting to see how well the car has been looked after.

One extra consideration you may want to think about if you’re test driving an electric car is the battery life. They are an expensive part to replace and it helps if the car has a battery warranty. Some may have a lease on it.

Photo by Dana Cetojevic from Pexels

Things to do after the test drive

Once you’ve finished test-driving the car there are a few other things you should do before committing to buying it, even if you really liked it.

If you’re buying the used car from a dealership it is a good idea to test drive a few other cars to see how they compare. Keep your options open. Of course, when you’re buying from a private owner you may not be able to do that. But it’s a big commitment and unless you fall in love with the car it won’t hurt testing another one.

Always take notes on your impressions and compare them. Take your time and think well before making a decision. You may even want to take the car on a second test drive if you’re not 100% sure about your decision. Go away and decide in your own time. Then come back and do the deal (or not) when you’re ready.

We hope this complete guide will help you in the process and that you’ll soon be driving home with your next car. Follow all the steps and it will be a breeze. And remember that if you want to learn more about buying a used car, we’ve got plenty of information in our Advice section. Check it out and find all you need to know.