How to test drive a car

Taking a test drive is a vital part of choosing the right car for you and your family – it’s the only way you’re going to find out if a car is good to drive and practical enough for your needs. Whether on the road or off, knowing how to test drive a car and 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. 

Ask your dealer to provide the exact engine, transmission (manual or automatic) and trim level that you’re interested in – our reviews will help you choose the one most likely to suit your needs. If the exact model isn’t available, make a priority of the 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 online images.

You should be allowed to take your time to assess boot space or interior quality, because checks like these can be done without taking the car off the forecourt – make sure you bring your child seats so you can spend time fitting these correctly. (However, think carefully before you bring your child with you to a test drive; you’ll get a ‘real-life’ experience of the car, but you may also be too distracting to think properly).

When it comes to driving the car, you’ll probably be given just 20 minutes 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 adult 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.


Space and practicality

Even before you get the car on the road, make sure your buggy and the rest of your usual paraphernalia will fit easily into the boot. Unless you’re willing to change your pushchair and cut down on kit, there’s absolutely no point buying a family car that can’t take your kids and their stuff. Cabin storage is important, too: you’ll quickly get frustrated if there aren’t enough places to stow bits and pieces.
Make sure your child seat fits properly in the rear, using your Isofix base or the seat belts to secure it as you normally would.
Look at the size and shape of the door openings, and how wide the doors open, and consider how far down you’ll have to bend to load a heavy child and do up their seat straps.
Think about how practical the car is going to be in a couple of years; it doesn’t take long for a newborn to become toddler in a forward-facing seat, and the arrival of a second baby to return all that extra equipment to your boot.

Behind the wheel

This is where you’ll spend all of your time in the car, so it’s vital that it works for you. Make sure the driver’s seat has the right balance of support and comfort for your driving position, and that it lines up with the pedals and steering wheel – this is one of the biggest causes of back pain for motorists.
Consider the intuitiveness of the controls, and check the position of the switches: can you reach them easily from a comfortable driving position, and can you find them quickly even when you have the distraction of hysterical baby in the back seat? Are the instruments easy to read?
Being able to see out of the car is just as important. Find a T-junction to check how the front pillars effect on your side view, and if you think you might use the middle rear seat for adults at any point, ask the salesman or your accompanying adult to sit here so you can check the rear visibility in this scenario. Try parking in an awkward space to see how well you can judge the size of the car.

Equipment

Pretty much every model of car comes in a choice of trim levels, depending on how much equipment you want – and how much you want to spend. Your dealer is unlikely to have an example of every trim level on his test fleet, so you may end up trying a car with more or less kit than you want. Nevertheless, use the opportunity to assess any equipment that might end up in the car you buy, either as standard kit or a cost option. For example, do you like the way the sunroof opens, does the electric seat adjustment have memory settings, and will your children be endlessly messing with the manual window winders? Ask the salesman to explain the difference between the car you’re driving and the other trims available.

Ride and handling

When it comes to ride and handling, you should be looking for a good balance between comfort and control. A car with a ‘soft’ set-up may cushion you over pock-marked Tarmac but a firmer car will recover more quickly from speed bumps. Agile handling and responsive steering may not sound like priorities but you may prefer the tighter control they provide, especially on faster bends and country B-roads. Consider the weight of the steering, too: light steering is great for parking in tight spaces but it can feel less reassuring at speed.
Make sure your test drive takes in a wide range of roads to assess the car’s all-round ability. Broken city streets are especially revealing, as are speed bumps and tight corners – cars that lean too much will have your children complaining of car sickness. If you do a lot of motorway driving, you’ll want to check that the car feels rock steady at the speed limit.

Refinement

This relates both to a car’s interior noise and the smoothness of its mechanics. Gearsticks should move easily and accurately, while automatics should change up and down through the gears without and jerks.
Once you’ve made sure that you’re happy with the car’s audio system, turn it off for the rest of the test drive so you can pick up any stray noises from engine, wind, road or suspension that might bother you. Try holding a conversation with someone in the back without raising your voice more than is comfortable, particular on faster and rougher roads, bearing in mind that children’s voices are easily drowned out.

Engine performance

This is about the engine’s fitness for purpose rather than sheer speed. It’s unlikely you’ll need supercar acceleration on the school run, but you’ll want a degree of nippiness around town and decent motorway cruising ability for longer trips. If you’re buying a manual car, check the engine has enough oomph enough at all revs so you don’t have to keep changing gears. Check, too, that the brakes are sharp and easy to apply.

Interior quality

You’ll want your car to stay looking fresh for as long as possible – not only because you have to look at it, but because this will help get the most for your car when you come to sell it on. Materials such as leather and wood might look flashy but well-assembled synthetic materials also look good and will stand up better to the rigours of family life. Smooth, matt plastics tend to scratch more easily than textured or very shiny ones, so check what sort of materials are used in the areas likely to get the most wear – the boot lip, for example, the door sills, the back of the front seats and cabin stowage areas. 

What to do next

Once you've completed a thorough test drive, you’ll be in a good position to make a choice you’re happy with: go ahead with a purchase, try an alternative model, or simply take time to think about your options. Whatever you decide, remember that a test drive does not signify any kind of commitment to your dealer.