The Importance of Test Driving
Test driving is an important part of the car buying process, regardless if you’re buying a new or used vehicle. During this stage, you get an actual experience of the car's performance on the road, as well as the comfort and convenience it provides while you're on the wheels.
A test drive is an act of driving a car that you are considering to buy. If you’re purchasing a new model, it helps you assess the car's engine performance and quality of the fitments. If you’re buying a used vehicle, it lets you know if the car is still in good working condition. Hence, it significantly influences your car buying decision.
Test driving gives you a good look and feel of the car’s:
Once you’re in the driving seat, you can check the car's visibility and blind spots. You would know if anything in front of you obstructs your view, if your rear windows are clear from any obstructions in your visual field, and if you can comfortably change lanes by checking through your rear mirrors and side car mirrors.
You can also assess your level of comfort inside the vehicle. You might find it surprisingly spacious or too big for your liking. Do you have a comfortable headroom and legroom? Is the seat comfortable? Can you reach things conveniently? Is the climate control system working? You'll find the answers to all these questions as soon as you're settled inside the cabin.
You can also have a close-up look of the car's interior styling. Is it visually appealing or bland? Remember that you’d be spending a lot of time looking at the dashboard, windshield, and windows of your purchased car, so it helps a lot if you’re liking what you see.
You ideally want to test the car when it's cold. A warmed up engine can hide a multitude of sins, particularly on diesel. If when you first see the car it's already been started (the engine will be warm when you lift the bonnet, and the temp gauge will have gone up a little) be cautious.
If the car has been sitting on a forecourt for a while, then it's likely the brakes will need an application or two to clear any surface rust and perform properly. If the brakes feel spongy, weak, or that they're just not stopping the car with any degree of confidence don't fall for the “it's been sitting for a few weeks” line. If they don't feel fine after 5 minutes of driving, they're not going to get any better.
On a straight road make sure there's no one behind you, and warn your passenger/s you're going to brake hard. Then while holding the steering wheel lightly, press firmly on the brake pedal. You want the car to come to a controlled halt – and in the case of cars fitted with ABS, you should feel the ABS 'pulsing' under your foot.
The car may veer slightly to the left if the road is cambered, but it should brake in a straight line with no fuss or drama. If it pulls to one side then something's amiss, either with the brakes, the suspension or even with the tyre pressures.
Don't bother bouncing up and down on the front of the car as they do on the telly – drive the car and listen out for knocks or bangs, or, more likely, creaking and groaning.
Again, cars that have been sitting for a while shouldn't have noisy suspension so if it's making a racket when you go over bumps then it may need replacement bushes or other suspension components. At slower speeds when you're maneuvering listen out for clonking, or creaking noises.
Is the steering wheel straight when you're driving straight (it's fixable, but it demonstrates that the car's had worked on the steering components)? Is it vibration and wobble-free under braking and acceleration?
Often wheel wobble is only apparent at higher speeds and can indicate issues with wheels, tyres, suspension, or steering. Often the fix is as simple as having the wheels re-balanced, but it's still something to consider.
With the car stationary, and with the engine running, turn the steering wheel as far as it will go from lock to lock – the power steering pump will probably make a little more noise as you get to full lock, but it shouldn't make a racket, and there should be no noises from the suspension.
When you're cornering at a decent speed (within the law obviously) listen for a humming sound from the wheel bearings – it's more likely to come from one side or the other, so you may only be able to hear it when you go round left-hand bends, or only when you're cornering to the right.
If there's a noticeable change in pitch then it could be a wheel bearing on the way out. You can also gently sway the car from side to side on a wide, clear stretch of road which will also result in humming noise if a bearing is shot.
Test Driving Tips
1. Come to the test driving location prepared.
Do your homework. What type of car works for your lifestyle? You might not want a Lamborghini for your 50-mile-round-trip commute.
Make a list of the cars and features, and check the various consumer websites for the most recent car reviews. Maybe the quality of your beloved brand has slipped.
2. Schedule the test drive.
Schedule an appointment with the car dealer. Schedule several appointments on the same day. This will force you to drive several cars, and it gives you a legitimate excuse to leave the dealership.
Pick a day solely for test driving. Don't buy a car on the same day you test drive. The smell of a new car can have an intoxicating effect.
3. Make a checklist.
Making a checklist of what to look at and think about when test driving. Prioritise the car parts mentioned above.
4. Bring a companion who knows about cars.
Once you walk into a dealership, the goal of the salesman is to get you to buy a car. A friend can keep you sane, and focused.
5. Bring a few “cargo”.
Bring stuff like a car seat or a bike so you know how easy it is to put your cargo and a passenger in your car.
6. Bring important documents.
To test drive, most dealerships will photocopy your license. Bring your own copy, ask for documents back, and destroy the copies. Identity theft around vehicles is on the rise.
7. Check the car’s general condition before the test drive.
Walk around the car. Check for scratches, rust, missing pieces, etc. even with a new car. Vehicles can be damaged during shipping and test drives, so be wary.
Check the tech. Can you easily pair your phone with Bluetooth? Do you know what all the beeping noises mean? What about the fuel economy of the car. Does it take premium gas or need special maintenance?
8. Drive comfortably.
While you've always got to drive within the confines of the law, plus be respectful that it's someone else's car you're driving – don't drive like a little old lady. Where conditions allow you to put your foot down and change gear swiftly. Is it smooth and without hesitation, does the car change gear without any hesitation or crunching, does the clutch slip?
Glimpse in the rear view mirror as you accelerate – any signs of smoke? You don't need to drive like you're in a Formula 1 race, but you do need to make sure that nothing untoward rears its head as the speed increases.
If most of your commute is on the highway, then drive on the highway. Try to drive over a bumpy road or railroad track to check how it rides.
Comfort is key. Think about your car and body in the future. That red sports car may look cute now make sure that you will be able to get in and out of it safely and comfortably even after several years.
Test Drive Length Matters Less
You don't need to spend ages test-driving a car. Doing it for around ten minutes should be enough as long as you get a good look of what’s inside the car, as well as experience different driving conditions and speed.