Tips for test driving a used car

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How to test drive and check a used car?

Used car test drive

One of the most essential things you can do when purchasing a vehicle is to take it for a test drive. A car should always be test driven and thoroughly inspected before purchase. It is especially important to test drive a used car, especially if you’re buying privately.

When considering a car, it is important to check the both the exterior and interior as well as testing the engine, steering, clutch, brakes and suspension. If, after checking over the vehicle you discover any problems, you have two options. You can either use them to bargain with the seller and drive the price down as you will need to spend money fixing them, or you can simply walk away from the sale.

Test Drive Checklist:

  • Before starting the car, check underneath the engine oil cap for a thick white substance which could indicate a problem with the head gasket or engine damage.
  • Check the engine oil level. Remove the dipstick, wipe it clean and re-insert it. Pull it back out again and check it’s at the maximum level. If it's not, the car is probably due a service and this can be a possible bargaining point. If the vehicle is a diesel, the oil can become dark soon after an oil change.
  • Insist on starting the car from cold. Always check the bonnet and see if its warm. If the bonnet is hot the engine has already been heated up to running temperature which could mean the seller is trying to hide an issue?
  • Check engine coolant and brake fluid levels, plus the battery (the terminals should be rust-free and clear of debris).
  • Check for excessive smoke when on startup and driving. The engine should be quiet and run smoothly. A small amount of steam or white exhaust smoke on startup is fine, especially on cold days, but excessive blue, black or white smoke may be a danger sign.
  • When driving and accelerating the car, check in the rearview mirror for excessive smoke from the exhaust trailing behind.
  • Check the body near the exhaust. If you spot a dark oily layer with excessive exhaust smoke, this could be a sign that the piston rings are worn out.
  • Always listen out for any unusual noises when driving and address all issues with the seller.
  • When steering, listen out for any unusual squeaks or shuddering when making turns on the wheel. Just remember though, a little whining sound is normal with power steering.
  • Make sure the car doesn’t pull to one side on a straight stretch of road.
  • Check the brakes and make sure the car stops in a straight line.
  • Listen out for any vibrations or rubbing noises when braking.
  • Try using the handbrake on a hill start as there should be no slippage and you shouldn't have to pull it back too far.
  • Make sure you test all the gears (including reverse) to identify if there are any ‘crunching’ sounds on a particular gear.
  • Check the clutch biting point as if it’s near the top this might indicate that the clutch is on its way out.
  • In an automatic car, make sure the gear changes are smooth, immediate and almost silent. If you put your foot down on the accelerator, for example when overtaking, check that the gearbox is not forcing a gear change as it should always be smooth transitioning.
  • Check the suspension and make sure it's a smooth ride and especially over bumps in the road and ramps. A car with a good suspension should neither judder or feel bouncy.
  • After the test drive, check for leaks in the engine bay and underneath the car.

When it comes to giving the car a thorough check over, you may want to consider paying for an independent vehicle inspector to check the car as well. can offer both pre-purchase car inspections and also post-damage car inspections. These inspections can give you extra peace of mind and any problems they find might be useful for bargaining on price.

Pre-Purchase Inspection Report includes:

  • Full Check Report
  • 101 multipoint check by Qualified Engineer
  • Interior Vehicle Inspection
  • Seatbelts and SRS Inspection
  • Bodywork Exterior Inspection
  • Rear Luggage Compartment Inspection
  • Under-Bonnet Vehicle Inspection
  • Wheels and Tyres Inspection
  • Vehicle Brakes Inspection
  • Steering and Suspension Inspection
  • Vehicle Lighting and Electrics Inspection
  • Underbody Vehicle Inspection
  • Road Test


Justin Kavanagh
Justin Kavanagh is a recognised leader in automotive intelligence and vehicle data supply to the entire motor industry. He has almost 20 years experience in building systems from the ground up. As the Managing Director of Vehicle Management System, he understands the need and importance of trustworthy and reliable vehicle history and advice to both the trade and the public.
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