By Anthony Santiago - Editor-in-Chief

July 21, 2022
how to test drive car

How to Test Drive Car and Know in 10 Minutes if It's Worth Buying

Read on...

Most people don’t realize how important a good car test drive is. They think it’s just about driving around town, checking out the exterior and interior, and making sure everything works. But there are actually many things to consider during a test drive.

Before you test drive the vehicle, take some time to research what makes each vehicle special. Read reviews, watch videos, and read up on the history of the vehicle. Then compare cars side by side to find the perfect match.

Once you know what you want, start shopping around. You'll probably notice that prices vary depending on where you go. 

In this article I will share my best tips and advice on knowing if a car is worth considering in 10 minutes or less. After looking at hundreds of cars, I know what are tell-tale signs of problems and areas that you can fix relatively easily. 

Buying a New or Used Car

A New Car - Depending what you are buying, newer "used" cars are typically easier to test drive since they are either still under factory warranty or are pre-certified. 

For CPO cars, you will want to pay attention to the paintwork, interior smells and body panels. Any mechanical issues were most likely sorted out by now. However, check everything listed here so there will be no surprises. 

A Used Car - For used cars, you will want to follow this guide below and also download my free buying guide checklist to make sure you cover all the important areas. Used cars are not perfect but you can sometimes find a perfectly good car at a great value.  

Here are some tips to help you learn how to test drive a car like a mechanic and determine if it is worth buying. 

Know What to Look For During a Car Test Drive

Before you start your test drive, you must decide what you're looking for. Are you testing a specific model? Do you want to see a particular feature? Is the price range acceptable? You can use tools like KBB.com to determine a realistic market price to consider. 

Make sure you know what you're looking for ahead of time. If you don't, you'll end up wasting a lot of time trying to find something that isn't even there.

Be Prepared When Test Driving

A typical test drive should take about 10-15 mins. You can definitely get a good feel on the condition of the car. Note, the entire time to check out a car might be as long as 1 hour depending on what you are checking.

This is a big purchase so you will want to take your time. Make sure you have the following items ready before starting your test drive:

  • Budget in mind - You have a budget and narrowed down your choice
  • OBD scanner if looking at a used car - You can quickly scan for codes as well as IM readiness.
  • Carfax or Vehicle History Report - Check out the history and any previous accidents

If you don't have a Carfax ready, you will definitely want to order one beforehand if you are serious. I always order a Carfax BEFORE I schedule a test drive. This is a background check on how well the car was taken care of and the number of owners. 

Step #1 for Test Driving: What To Check Before You Get in the Car

Ask for the maintenance records or receipt of any work done to your car. This tells you exactly what the owner or the dealership did to it. An honest seller will disclose any recent work and pump up the amount of money that was spent fixing up the car. If there are no records, then refer to the vehicle history report for more service records, if any.

Like I mentioned before, check out the vehicle history report. These tools will tell if the vehicle has had major problems. You can also get a quick check by using MyCarFax.com for free. 

This is especially required when buying used, look up the VIN number online. Look for a record of accidents, recalls, or other major issues.

Look over the documents carefully. Don't just glance at them. Take some time to read everything. Any recent services or accidents can be discussed with the seller. If it's a dealership, they might not know the full story or the extent of the repairs. 

If it's a private owner, you can ask how long they owned it or if they ever experience any major problems?

Don't let anyone trick you into buying. If it was a simple repair, why didn't they get it done? You need to be wary of any that is shared from the seller. 

Start the Car and Let It Idle for a Few Minutes

A cold start is best to make sure the engine runs smoothly. Start the vehicle and allow it to run for about two minutes. If there are no problems during the start up, you can continue driving normally.

The car should start up easily. If it has problems cranking, it most likely is a battery issue or fuel pump.

Check the dashboard for warning lights, including those for the battery, fuel pump, coolant temperature, and oil pressure. If you see any warning lights, stop the car immediately.

Any of these issues can cause catastrophic damage during your test drive. 

Squeak Rattles and Clunks

When driving a car on the road, listen for any unusual sounds while running. You might hear a clicking noise coming from under the hood. This could indicate a problem with one of the components inside the engine compartment. Also listen for strange noises coming from underneath the car. These include rattles, squeaks, and clunks.

Engine Smoke

If there is any smoke from the engine, it most likely has or had an oil leak. If it smells sweet, then it might be a coolant leak. Any excessive smoke from the tailpipe exhaust would indicate a head gasket issue where the coolant is leaking into the oil. I would avoid any car that does this. 

Drive the Car on a Street 

Brakes

We will cover how to drive a car when testing the brakes. Braking is one of the most important parts of your vehicle. It helps you avoid accidents and controls your speed. But brakes aren't just there to slow down your vehicle; they're also designed to protect it.

To do that, brake pads must make contact with the rotor, the rotating disc inside the wheel that generates friction. 

Press the brake pedal. It should feel firm and not too mushy. If you're pressing it to the floor but the car doesn't stop, you most likely have a brake line leak or fluid loss. I personally experienced this and suggest you ask the seller about this issue. 

Listen for any squeaks or rattle sounds that might indicate wear and tear. This is especially true of rotors, which are exposed to extreme heat and stress. You'll want to replace worn brake pads and rotors as soon as possible. Sometimes there might be a low brake indicator but it will only trigger if the sensor is triggered. 

Steering and Suspension

Steering and suspension components work hand-in-hand to keep the wheels aligned and prevent uneven braking. When steering, the front tires turn left or right depending on how much pressure is applied to each tire.

The steering wheel should be centered when driving straight. However, if it's off, then you will plan to have an alignment done. It can range between $100-$200 depending on the shop. 

Suspension systems use springs and dampers to absorb shocks and vibrations caused by bumps in the road. These components allow your vehicle to handle rough roads without causing excessive wear and tear.

How Suspensions Work and What You Need to Know about Ride Comfort

The suspension system is one of the most important parts of a vehicle. A good suspension system absorbs the bumps and vibrations of the road while keeping passengers comfortable. 

Some suspensions might be firmer than others depending on the make and model of your car you are looking at. Sometimes, low profile tires and run flat tires can make for a harder ride but sportier feel.

Be sure you understand the characteristics of the car and how it impacts the chassis flex. 

A suspension system consists of three main components: springs, dampers, and bushings. Springs provide energy absorption and rebound, dampers control how much force the spring applies to each wheel, and bushings help reduce friction and keep wheels aligned.

Spring rates determine how stiff the suspension is. Spring rates range from very soft to very hard. Soft springs allow more movement during compression and rebound, whereas stiffer springs offer less movement. This allows the vehicle to handle rough roads without bottoming out.

Soft springs are best for city driving because they give you better handling and comfort. If you live in a hilly area, however, it might be worth upgrading to stiffer springs.

Some vehicles come with softer springs than others. For example, some luxury cars use softer springs than economy models. You can upgrade your suspension system yourself by adding additional springs. However, many manufacturers recommend replacing the entire suspension system every 10-15 years.

Dampers are used to control the amount of force applied to the tires. Damping controls the movement of the suspension system, allowing the vehicle to move smoothly over uneven surfaces. In addition to controlling movement, dampers also control body roll, pitch, and yaw. Body roll occurs when the front end of the vehicle leans toward the outside of a turn. Pitch is when the nose of the vehicle leans up or down. Yaw is when the rear end of the vehicle turns left or right.

If you notice excessive swaying in your vehicle, it could mean that your suspension isn’t working properly. Check the suspension system and make sure everything is tight and secure. Also, check the tire pressure. Low tire pressure can cause swaying. Again, the steering wheel will provide you some feedback on the test drive. 

Acceleration

We will cover how to drive a car when testing the acceleration.

A car accelerates by pressing down harder on the accelerator pedal. When the gas pedal is pressed down hard, there is less pressure on the brake pedal. When you accelerate on your test drive, the car should shift smoothly without any hard shifting or clunking. 

If you have hard shifts, you might have a potential issue with the transmission. You might have an easy fix as low transmission fluid but it is not common. 

TIP: I would avoid any used or new car with transmission issues or hard shifting. It's too much of a gamble on the repairs, unless you can perform it yourself.

To test how smoothly the gears change, try driving up a steep incline. You will notice that the car slows down during the ascent. This is called "hill climbing." Hill climbing occurs because the weight of the vehicle increases as it climbs. As a result, more torque is needed to move the wheels.

You can test the difference in performance between different vehicles by taking them for a short ride. Drive each one around town and compare the handling characteristics.

Find a Rough Road to Test Drive Car

A loud sound coming from beneath your car could indicate suspension or loose exhaust components. If you hear it while driving over different surfaces, listen to the noise while driving on those surfaces. You might notice that the noise gets louder as you go faster. This is because speed increases the force of each impact against the vehicle. When you find a rough road, take note of where the noise occurs. 

TIP: Keep this in mind as you can use this as a negotiation tactic with the seller.

You can also look for signs of wear, such as loose bolts or worn bushings. These parts are important to keep lubricated. Using a flashlight, check the bottom of the car for leaks or excessive rust. 

Tires

Check the tires for bulges, cracks, cuts or uneven tread. If you see anything out of place, stop immediately. Your safety depends on it. 

The tires should have some tread. If the tire looks worn excessively on an edge or overall, budget for at least $500-$1000 on a new set of tires in the future. 

Ideally, the tires should all match and be the same size. My rule of thumb is that there should be no more than (2) brands of tires. Tires should be replaced in pairs. If you see (4) different tires on all four corners, I would assume that the seller did not have enough money to purchase full sets. Be weary of this as it might be an indicator of how the car was maintained. 

How to Check the Body and Paintwork on Used Car

Checking the body and paintwork on a used car isn't always easy. There could be scratches, dings, or even some missing pieces. But there are ways to tell if it's safe to buy. Here's how to check the body and paintwork for any differences in color or glossiness.

Inspect the Exterior

Look for any differences in color and/or glossiness. Scratches, dings, or holes in the body panel are signs of wear and tear. You'll want to examine the front bumper, side mirrors, headlights, taillights, grille, bumpers, fenders, doors, trunk lid, hood, windshield, rear quarter panels, tailgate, wheels, tires, windows, and exhaust system. Also look out for any cracks around the door handles, wheel wells, rocker panels, and undercarriage.

Examine the Interior

Give the interior a smell test. With the doors closed, hopefully on a hot day, open the driver's door and give a whiff. If it was a smoker's car, you would immediately know. If the interior has a heavy perfume smell, the seller might be attempting to cover up cigarette smoke in the headliner. Check out how to get rid of the smoke smell from the car.

Examine the dashboard, steering column, seats, floorboards, carpeting, headliner, glove compartment, center console, cup holders, ashtray, radio controls, air vents, overhead lights, instrument cluster, speedometer, wipers, clock, and seatbelts. Take note of any stains or odors in the upholstery.

Check the Underside

Look under the car. Are there any visible leaks on the ground such as oil or coolant? You will be able to look at the spot once you take the car for a spin. You will be able to determine if there is any excessive rust or damage as well. 

If possible, lift the vehicle off the ground to inspect the underside of the car. Look for any corrosion, leaks, or rusted areas. 

Don't Rush Through the Process

When it comes to buying a car, there are many things to consider. You want to make sure the car fits your lifestyle, that it’s safe, reliable, comfortable, and affordable. But don’t forget about how the car looks. 

Are you happy with the way the car handles? Does it feel like a luxury ride, or does it feel cheap? Do you love interior design? Is the trunk spacious enough?

You might even want to try driving another model. After all, you wouldn't buy a house without seeing it in person. Why would you buy a car without testing it out?

Finally, once you've narrowed down your options, it's time to choose. Remember, you're paying for the car, not the color or features. So pick the car that meets your needs and fits your budget. To learn more, check out our article on the best places to look for a used car.

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Anthony Santiago - Editor-in-Chief

About the author

I am a passionate car enthusiast who likes to help people save money and avoid headaches when it comes to cars. I believe that everyone can find the right car at the right price. I share my tips and experience so you can learn quickly and maximize your next SUV, truck or car purchase.

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