Test Drive a Car

A test drive is necessary if you want an accurate idea of how your potential new car is going to handle. Knowing the limits of your vehicle can keep you safe in dangerous situations when maneuverability counts most. Beyond that, a test drive can help you determine whether a car you are considering is suitable for your purposes and driving style, all you need to do is to keep your wits about you, note important features, and ask the right questions.


Determining Your Driving Needs

  1. Consider your normal driving conditions. If your normal daily transit mostly entails being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, it's important that you test your new car under these conditions. Think about your daily driving habits. What kind of driving do you normally do, and how can you simulate that in a test drive?[1]
  2. Take into account supplemental activities. For example, if you are a horseback riding enthusiast, you might want to pay special attention to the mirror placement, horsepower, and turning capabilities of your prospective car during your test drive.[2]
    • If you have special activities that you'll want to know your car can handle, make a list of these and imagine how you might simulate these conditions.
  3. Take into account if the car meets your recreational needs. You may want to take a test drive in areas with steep grade if you plan on taking your car into nature for camping, hiking, or similar activities. Oftentimes road conditions outside of commonly traveled routes is less maintained, and you'll want to know if your car is up to the challenge.[1]
  4. Remember your passengers. Frequent passengers in and out of your vehicle might mean that an interior with low seats and a well positioned rear-view mirror is ideal for your situation. Also ask yourself, "Is this car easy to enter and exit?"[2]
    • This question can factor in heavily if you transport children, the elderly, or if you have friends with disabilities.
  5. Know your top picks. The best way for you to most clearly discern the differences between the different models in which you are interested is by driving these cars back to back.[2] This will highlight the finer features between your favorite models that you might have otherwise missed.

Arranging Your Test Drive

  1. Specify your features exactly. The options and power train of the car that you drive will influence handling significantly. Even something as simple as the trim of your car can create wind resistance that might be undesirable.[2]
    • Write down the primary features of the car that you are considering buying. Trim, transmission, and window control are three features you should stress, as these will greatly influence your driving.
  2. Make your test drive appointment. It's important at this stage that you stress the exact features of the car you wish to drive. Clearly explain that you are only interested in driving a car with those specific features, and book an appointment for your test drive. If you have any special conditions you would like to test, like steep grade driving for mountain driving, mention this as well and see what the person making the appointment has to say.[3]
  3. Gather your gear. No matter who you are, you likely have some daily supplies, work materials, or maybe even a gym bag that you'll need to stow regularly in your car. It will be inconvenient if you buy a really great car only to find that it won't fit your hockey sticks or golf clubs. Bring any large or irregularly shaped items for a test-stow in addition to your test drive.[4]
  4. Think of questions ahead of time. You'll want to know the service intervals for the vehicle and whether or not the manufacturer recommends premium fuel for the vehicle. You should also inquire about any key features of the car, how well they work, and any ways that you might best utilize these features.[5]
  5. Be ready to take notes. Your cell phone might be enough for this purpose, but a pad of paper and a pen might be a less distracting way of jotting down what you like/dislike about the car. This will help you create a pro-con list later if you have two or more contenders for your future vehicle.

Taking Your Test Drive

  1. Photocopy the essentials. A tactic sometimes used by dealerships to your disadvantage is the holding of an important document or piece of identification under a pretense. Then, while you wait for "copies" of your license to be made, or for a secretary to finish "processing" your information, the salesperson will often push the sale on you.[5]
    • By photocopying your license front and back beforehand, you can show the salesperson the ID without giving it to him. Provide him your photocopies instead of your real ID.
  2. Bring a friend. As long as the dealer allows this, a friend can be a great ally during your test drive. A friend might notice things that you didn't about the car you are driving, or may have specialized knowledge that can help you make the right decision. [6]
    • Think about asking your friend to help you keep the salesperson occupied. Many times, salespeople will continue trying to sell the car while driving, making it difficult for you to focus on the test drive.
  3. Test your speed and handling. Especially if you commute, drive the car in both stop-and-go traffic and at freeway speeds. Drivers who frequent the mountains should try to find some steep grades, listening closely to the engine while going up the slope.[7][8]
    • Even though it might be against your instincts, try to drive over some bumps to see how the car absorbs the shock.
    • Take tight corners at aggressive (but safe) speeds.
  4. Brake like you mean it. In a real life emergency situation, you want to know how your breaks will hold up and how the car will respond. While at a safe location, such as an empty parking lot, accelerate and apply the brakes firmly.[9]
    • Take note of how your brake pedal feels. Is it stiff? Are you comfortable with its range and placement?
    • Do you notice that the brakes catch suddenly and are you comfortable having brakes that do so?[1]
  5. Get in and out of the car several times. And not just on the driver's side, either. By entering the passenger doors as well, you'll have more complete idea of the comfort of the car and other potential issues, like whether or not it's kid friendly. It's important to ask yourself if you will be able to live with this car for a number of years.
  6. Assert yourself with confidence. Taking a car for a test drive is for your benefit, not the salesperson's. If you find yourself distracted by the salesperson while you are taking a car out for a test drive, it's completely alright to say:[10]
    • "I'm sorry, I know you're just trying to do your job, but I'm trying to listen to how the car is running during the test drive. If I have any questions, I'll be sure to ask."
    • "Thank you for giving me so much information, but while we have the car on the road, I'd really like to focus on it. We can talk more when we get back to the dealership later."
  7. Evaluate the radio while stationary. If you drive with the radio on, you might miss something significant or be distracted from noticing a feature that's a deal-breaker.[11] A new car is a big investment, and believe it or not, the songs you hear might influence your opinion of the test drive.[12] This is particularly important if you are test driving a used car, as you will want to spend at least a couple of minutes listening to the engine at different speeds.
  8. Check for visible rust and leaks. Rust on the frame could be your early indication that the car is structurally unsound or on its way to the junk heap. You should also give the car a complete look over in as bright of daylight as possible.[13]
    • Check under the hood, and look for any leaks or rust.
    • Are you looking at the car in what you believe is its normal spot? Are there any stains on the cement that might have been caused by the car?
    • Search for rust in the trunk under the carpet or pad.
    • Look for rust at the edges of the doors and door hinges.
  9. Keep climate in mind. If you live in a climate where you will need temperature control, like regions that experience extreme hot or cold temperatures, you will need to test the car with the heat and air conditioning.[4]
    • Some cars' performance is influenced more than others by climate control. Looking this information up online can save you from a nasty surprise in the summer or winter months.
  10. Trust your intuition. If you are uneasy about the car or the seller, follow your gut instinct. A vehicle purchase decision is too important, and too expensive, to undertake without total confidence.
  11. Purchase the best car for your needs. But give yourself time to mull this decision over before you do. A common strategy used by dealers and salespeople is to make you feel like you have to buy in that instant. Don't allow the dealer to pressure you into any decisions; you are the customer, and you are in charge.
    • Even if you spend hours looking at vehicles at a dealership, you are under no obligation to buy a car from that dealership.


  • It can be a good idea to bring someone with you who has experience with cars, or even someone who you consider has trustworthy judgment.


  • If you suspect anything wrong, dislike something in the car, or even don't trust the seller of the car, look for another one. Don't accept a car you don't like, because that's likely to cost you money and headaches.

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Sources and Citations