Paying attention to the little things during a test drive can save you a headache later. Still, nearly 50% of Americans say they spent 30 minutes or less test driving a car before they buy. Whether you’re buying new or used, test driving a car is an important part of making an informed decision. Get it right by following these 5 steps.
Before You Go:
- Research vehicles that meet your criteria and budget.
- Locate dealerships in your area and make an appointment.
- Bring your driver’s license and proof of insurance.
- Get pre-approved for an auto loan beforehand.
- If you’re shopping used, print out our used car checklist to bring with you.
How to Test Drive a Car
1. The test drive begins as soon as you’re on the lot
- Examine the vehicle’s body for dents, cracks and rust. Check the windshield for nicks and cracks.
- Check the tires for remaining tread life and signs of uneven wear. The latter can indicate poor alignment.
- Try out the turn signals and brake lights.
2. Start the car and let it idle for a few minutes
- Make sure the engine runs strong and listen for any troubling noises, such as rattling, clicking or whining.
- Turn on the radio, heater and air conditioner to be sure they work properly.
- Check the dashboard for warning lights and verify that the gauges work. Once the car warms up, the temperature gauge should be at the midpoint. Closer to “hot” can be a sign of overheating.
- Make sure the seats are comfortable and the ceilings are high enough.
3. Drive the car on a street with stop-and-go traffic
- Notice how the brakes feel when you come to a complete stop. Do they feel jumpy, sticky or loose?
- Listen for any grinding or squeaking noises, which can indicate worn brake pads and rotors.
- How does the car handle potholes and rough roads? Drive slowly and listen for rattles or knocks, which can indicate steering issues.
- What about 90-degree turns? The car should navigate them smoothly and effortlessly. Resistance or pulling can be a sign of power steering or suspension problems.
4. Drive on a highway where you can reach speeds of 55 m.p.h. or more
- Does the car accelerate quickly and move smoothly from gear to gear? Engine hesitation is a bad sign.
- Locate the car’s blind spots, and then carefully switch lanes several times to see how the steering reacts at high speeds.
- Make sure the steering doesn’t pull to either side, which can indicate suspension or alignment problems.
- Listen carefully when you’re driving on the highway. Hear any squeaks, whines or rattles behind the sound of the engine?
- If possible, drive up and down a hill to verify that the car upshifts and downshifts appropriately.
5. Find a parking lot or street to practice parallel parking
- Make sure the steering doesn’t feel stiff and you can finely maneuver the car while parallel parking.
- Ensure that the car shifts smoothly from drive to reverse – if the car jolts or makes a grinding noise when shifting gears, it can be a sign of a bad transmission.
- Pay attention to how responsive the car is – do the gas and brake pedals feel different in reverse gear?
- Get comfortable with fitting the car into a standard parking space, particularly if the vehicle is a larger truck or SUV.
If the test drive goes well, request a vehicle history report and have the car inspected by a mechanic. Remember never to settle when it comes to test driving a car – test drive multiple vehicles during the shopping process to be sure you end up with the best option for you.