Car Advice

What should I look out for on a test drive?

Make sure you're not being taken for a ride

By Matt Heath Published

buying guide | test drive

Ford Fiesta

Test drive ... find your ideal motor

So you think you have found your perfect used car in our listings? Now is the time to take it for a drive and check it’s not all too good to be true.

The good news is that buying your ideal motor is as much about common sense as mechanical knowledge. The number one rule? Trust your instincts: does the car ‒ or its seller ‒ seem dodgy? If you are not totally happy, get out of there.

Here are our top tips for what to look out for on your test drive, to make sure you are not being taken for a ride.


On the outside

Before you even get behind the wheel, take a good look from all angles. Does all the paintwork match? Get up close. Look for any signs of a respray or any different textures in the paint. If it’s had any prangs, you want to know about it.

Under the door handles or around the wing mirrors are a good place to start. Have an eagle eye for bubbling paint and other signs of corrosion, or any hasty touch-ups with plastic filler ‒ these can be an MOT failure waiting to happen.

Are the wheels and tyres in good nick? Look out for cracks in the alloys. Dinged alloys can be repaired but could be a sign that the suspension is damaged or the steering is off-kilter.

cars sales used

Be thorough ... inspect the car inside and out

On the inside

Once you’re happy that everything is in order on the exterior, have a look inside. Take a seat and get a good feel for it.

While they may not make the car look too appealing, you can afford to ignore any small stains, trodden-in dirt or dust ‒ a professional valet can work minor miracles.

Instead, look at the wear and tear to the seats, seatbelts and carpet. Think whether it is consistent with the claimed mileage ‒ if not, the mileometer may have been tampered with.


Before you start the engine take a second to check the oil. Remove the dipstick, wipe it and stick it back. Remove it again and check the level is right (about half way between the min and max mark). A high level could be a sign of a hasty top-up; or a low one could mean the car hasn’t been looked after.

Make sure that the keys are originals and check there is a spare. When you turn the ignition the engine should fire up straight away without a cough or splutter. Listen to make sure it sounds right.

Try all the electrics such as wipers and windows,check digital displays make sense and make sure no warning lights are flashing.

By the time you have done all of this the engine will have been ticking over for a while, so check that it’s not overheating. If the car has passed all of these checks, you are ready to stick it in gear and get going on your test drive ‒ as long as you’re insured, of course.


Top tips ... be sure before you hand over your cash

The test drive

Don’t switch off, analyse how the car behaves at all times.

Manual gear changes should be smooth and the clutch should have plenty of bite. Automatic shifts should also be smooth and instant, with no jerkiness.

Braking power differs between cars so don’t be surprised if the brakes aren’t what you are used to but they should still bring you to stop quickly, without veering left or right.

Listen out for any unusual clunks from the suspension or knocking sounds when steering and lighten your grip on wheel slightly and check that you don’t drift off course.

The paperwork

Once you get back to the forecourt, have a good read of the car’s service history book or electronic database record. Make sure you have researched any recalls the model has been subject to, and check the work has been carried out.

Find out when it last had brake pads, brake discs, tyres and, if necessary, cambelt replaced.

Take a look at its latest MOT certificate and make sure the recorded mileage isn’t higher than what is displayed on the milometer! For extra peace of mind check a car’s MoT history online at the DVLA’s website.

Now you should be in the position to judge whether this is still the perfect car for you. If it has passed the test, congratulations, and enjoy your new ride!


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