For many car buyers, the test drive is a formality prior to closing the deal; a time when you decide if you can handle the car and ensure nothing falls off on a quick spin round the block.
But a test drive can tell even a mechanical ignoramus a great deal about a vehicle if a simple checklist is followed.
For a start, you need to see how the car performs on a variety of routes. So research the area in the vicinity of the seller and find some urban conditions, some hills, some winding roads and somewhere that you can build up a bit of straight-line speed – within the limit, of course. Ensure that you dictate the route, rather than the seller. Try to choose a time when the roads aren’t clogged up with commuter and school-run traffic.
Have a look around the car first, and while doing so you can discretely check that the bonnet is cold. A car that’s been warmed up may be less prone to show its defects.
You should do the driving yourself from the off. When you start the car from cold, look at the warning lights. The oil pressure light and ABS light, if there is one, should go off after a second or so. There should be a smooth start with a nice even idle speed and no undue rattles or clattering from the engine. Take a look at the rear for smoke too. Blue smoke from a petrol engine is a sign of potentially big engine wear problems. From a diesel, a lot of white or black smoke should alert you to the possibility of a very expensive turbo replacement.
On a front-wheel-drive car, turn the steering wheel from full lock to opposite full lock, looking out for any looseness or knocking to suggest excess wear.
The car should slide easily into gear and you should next concentrate on the clutch. If there’s slipping, it’s probably going to need replacement very soon indeed. If there’s a lot of travel before the gears engage, then it may have a while longer to live, but the end is probably in sight. During the journey, as you go up and down the gears the changes should continue to be smooth. Acceleration should be responsive and even. Don’t forget that if you’re test driving a diesel and are not used to the difference from a petrol engine, you should expect a bit more engine noise and slightly heavier gear changes.
As you proceed, be aware of the general level of comfort as you drive, the amount of legroom and the visibility. Parallel parking is a good test for rear visibility. The ride quality is important too. Is the suspension quiet and acceptable over minor bumps in the road?
As you travel along straight sections of road, is the steering true, or is there a tendency for the car to wander to one side or the other?
Barkes are obviously important. They should stop the car quickly and smoothly in a straight line without grating noises or causing vibration that you can feel through the pedal or steering wheel.
Throughout the different conditions of your test drive, the engine should be free of knocking and any other strange noises. Running it at reasonable speed on a dual carriageway or motorway will enable you to see if it maintains nice even revs at speed and hills should show what the engine can do when it has to work hard in the lower gears. If it seems to be struggling or sluggish it could be showing signs of wear. You need to decide whether this is reasonable, in the light of the car’s age and mileage, or whether you need to suspect inaccurate mileage, poor maintenance or even an inadequate replacement engine at some point.
As the test drive goes on, don’t forget to look for any warning lights that could indicate problems and check that the temperature gauge stays in the normal zone. Regular glances in the rear view mirror should also register any undue smoke from the exhaust.
When you return from the test drive, you can also flip up the bonnet again to have a look for any leaks that have had a chance to appear.
If any problems come to light during the test drive you should discuss them with the seller. It may be, bearing in mind the age and price of the car and assuming you are confident you know exactly what’s wrong, that it still represents good value. It’s possible to try to do a deal on the basis that the fault is fixed first, or that you’ll accept a reduction in the price if you do it yourself.
Probably the best advice is that when you feel there are problems, you need to find out their true extent, and even if you had thought of taking a chance and buying without an independent mechanic’s report, it’s worth thinking again.