How To Take A Test Drive

Test-driving a new or used vehicle does not obligate you to buy anything or even to make an offer, but you can get the most value out of your time spent test driving by sticking to a routine and thoroughly checking out the vehicle. It is a critical part of buying a car.

You should plan on checking on all of the vehicle's major systems, including brakes, engine, transmission, lights, and other electrical systems, etc. You will also want to check other functioning parts, such as doors and windows, trunk and engine, and locks. If a used car seller is reluctant to show you the engine, trunk, or door of the vehicle, it may not be a wise candidate for purchase.

If you are test-driving a new vehicle with a dealer, it is all right to ask the salesperson for more information or about questions you may have, but you should be the one in charge of the test drive. You can politely let the salesperson know that you would like to check the car out thoroughly.

When you are asked―and you almost always will be―whether you can "buy today," you should respond by indicating you are at the test drive part of your search for a new car, and buying today would be unlikely. However, you want the salesperson to think you are interested, and if you have time to do some negotiation, you may want to find out what kind of arrangement that dealer could put together for you.

Before You Drive

The first part of a test drive is not the driving. Rather, this is a chance to check out sitting, with seat belt fastened, in each of the vehicle's seats, adjusting the seats, and checking the interior comforts of the car, truck, SUV, or other vehicle. Other things to check include the vehicle's console controls, stereo and DVD, or other entertainment gear onboard. You may also want to check the following:

  • Trunk space
  • Door handles
  • Lights, including brake lights and signals
  • Storage compartments and accessories
  • Seats and adjustments, including mirrors
  • Overall comfort and convenience

You should also let any additional family members or others who may be driving the vehicle to get some time behind the wheel. Also, bring family members and children, along with their car seats, and let everyone who will be using the vehicle weigh in on it.

Pets will probably have to just live with your decision, and do not belong on the test drive. The bottom line is to envision owning the vehicle, and whether the price or payments would be worth having that vehicle to drive.

Under the Hood

A test drive should also include a fairly thorough investigation of the vehicle's engine. Check fluids, looking not only at the level on dipsticks or container gauges, but the cleanliness of fluids.

Motor oil should be at nearly full and does not have to be pure amber in color, but should not be completely black. Transmission fluid should be red to pink, and again, not dark in overall color. Other fluids to check include power steering and brakes, clutch, and coolant, which should be light green and not just water, even though a mix of half coolant, half water is usually acceptable.

It is a good idea to look under the hood and under the car, including an inspection of the exhaust system from muffler to tailpipe, before it is heated up from the test drive. Also check the axles and joints. Beware of any vehicle seller who is reluctant to show you the engine, trunk, or other part of a vehicle.

For used cars, it is also becoming increasingly important to look for evidence of flooding, as some vehicles are taken far from the disaster-affected area and sold to unwitting buyers. Look for water lines on the inside of the vehicle body, in the trunk, or even the interior. Any mildew or moisture in the interior of a vehicle should be avoided.

If you feel you are unable or unqualified to assess the vehicle's mechanical merit, it may be worth your while to have an independent mechanic you trust check the engine for you. This is a service most reputable mechanics provide for a relatively inexpensive fee.

Try Before You Buy

When you actually take the test drive, whether you're planning to buy a new vehicle or a used one, it is good to get a somewhat systematic rundown on the vehicle. For new vehicles, there are ample resources online, in print, and at dealerships for more information.

For used vehicles, you will have to talk to the owner or seller, and get the majority of information about the vehicle, including history, past accidents and repairs, and reason for selling, from that person. You should ask these questions directly and up-front, and do so before or after test-driving the vehicle, so you can concentrate on evaluating the vehicle and its performance during your test drive.

The actual driving part of a test drive should be a brief but thorough test of the car's engine, suspension, steering and cornering, and on-board amenities, including heat and air-conditioning. A test drive should include both stop-and-go street driving, and some highway time.

When you are on the streets, pay particular attention to the car's steering ability as you take a couple of right and left turns. This will also give you a sense of the brakes, transmission, and idle engine behavior.

If you are getting on a highway, go ahead and check the vehicle's acceleration. You should also make note of the vehicle's driving feel, and whether it affords a smooth and steady ride. Also make note of the noise from the engine or exhaust system.

After some highway driving, you should turn back toward the seller's location, and preferably get some more street driving in to ensure the vehicle will not run hot or rough after freeway driving. You may also want to find a vacant parking lot or other open area of roadway to hit the brakes hard to check the car's stopping power.

Be sure to take a long enough drive to warm the engine to regular operating temperature. The street and highway driving should include running in all gears, including reverse at some point.

Run the heat to ensure it emits hot air, and check the air conditioning for cool air. Run the air-conditioning for longer, and check its impact on the engine and temperature. You can do these things toward the end of the test drive, when you should turn the car off, wait a few seconds, and start it back up. You may even want to shut it off and on again, waiting longer in between to check the vehicle's charging and starting capability. Regardless, you should have the car idle for at least five minutes after a drive to ensure it does not run hot or rough after or during driving.

Take advantage of your test drive and try to come up with any questions or additional information about a vehicle or its performance. Your post-drive inspection should include a thorough look for body, frame, or other damage or defects, and a look under the engine to see if any fluids are leaking or dripping.

You should feel comfortable that you have thoroughly checked out a vehicle before buying it, and a test drive is the best way to do it. Don't forget to have fun!

Further reading:

FTC Facts for Consumers: Buying a Used Car

DMV.ORG BBB Business Review