Once you have compiled a shortlist of cars that meet all your needs and wants, it’s time to go test driving.
Whether you’re buying a new or used car, one of the most important steps in the process is, of course, the test drive. But sometimes a quick spin around the block just doesn’t cut it. With the salesperson or seller at your side and a speed limit of 50km/h, can you really make a solid decision on whether this is the car for you?
A short test drive near the dealership is a good start, but an extended test drive is better, allowing you to live with the car for a few hours or longer. At a minimum, make sure the test drive includes everything from parking and low-speed maneuvering to urban, arterial and, if possible, motorway driving.
Before you drive off, it’s important to know what you might be liable to pay in the event you’re involved in a collision during a test drive, such as an insurance excess. Before you sign a test drive agreement, make sure you read it to ensure you’re comfortable with all the conditions.
In a new car, the test drive will help you determine whether you like the driving feel and comfort of the car and whether it’s a practical fit for your needs.
A used car test drive is a bit different in that you’re also looking for mechanical faults or other issues that may have arisen as a result of wear and tear or poor maintenance.
Before the test drive
Strangely enough, the driving part of the test drive is only a small part of the experience. So as tempting as it might be to jump right into the driver’s seat and get out on the road take your time and do these things first.
Give the car the once over
Familiarise yourself with everything about the car.
• Open the boot and check how easy it is to get at the spare wheel (or if it has one)
• Open all the doors and climb into the back
• Fold down the rear seats (if possible)
• Check all storage compartments (make sure there’s enough)
• Try out the infotainment/audio system
While you’re doing all of this, you’ll notice how well each part functions. This will give you a general idea of the build quality of the car. It will also help you find any of those little things that might annoy you once the car is yours. If it annoys you on the test drive, then you can bet it will drive you nuts after a few months.
Sit in it for a little while
Now don’t get too excited, you’re not driving yet. You’ll want to make sure that you feel comfortable in the car and the best way to do this is to just sit there without the distraction of driving. Make sure the seat adjusts to fit your height and that you have pretty good visibility.
If you have kids, it might be a good idea to bring them along and have them sit in the back and tell you if it’s comfortable enough. They’ll want to be able to open and close the doors and get their seatbelts on easily.
Consider the test drive route
Ideally, you’ll want to take the car beyond the local neighbourhood and out onto the open road. Talk to the dealer/seller about where you’d like to go or if they know of a good route locally.
You simply can’t get a good feel for a car in a quick two-minute spin so taking it for a long drive is absolutely essential. It’s also not a bad idea to ask if you can take the car out once more at night. Night driving is a completely different experience, and you may notice some things about the car that you couldn’t have during the day.
Do you have a garage? Then ask the dealer/seller if you can drop by your house to make sure the car fits.
During the drive
Once you’re behind the wheel, you’ll need to pay close attention to these things:
1. Steering – Check the steering for excessive free play, pulling to one side or vibration, which could point to suspension or alignment problems.
2. Brakes – Ensure the car stops smoothly, strongly and in a straight line when the brake pedal is pressed. The pedal should not sink to the floor or feel spongy, and the steering wheel should not wobble or vibrate.
3. Exhaust – Check for noticeable exhaust smoke with the engine running at idle and under load during acceleration. Black, blue or white smoke each indicate different engine problems.
4. Engine – The car should run smoothly during accelerating, decelerating and when driving steadily. The water temperature gauge should remain in the safe range (or the temperature light should stay off). Rattling or knocking sounds might suggest incorrect tuning or engine wear.
5. Transmission – Check gear changes are smooth and decisive. On front-wheel drive vehicles, a knocking noise when turning indicates worn constant-velocity joints (CV joints).
6. Knocks and rattles – Listen for knocks and rattles as you drive, particularly over bumps and while turning, which could point to loose suspension or body components.
After the drive
At the end of the test drive, it’s okay if you’re not sure whether you want to buy the particular vehicle or model – you’re not under any obligation to buy it.
Once you’re back and parked, the dealer/seller will do all that they can to get you sitting down and talking about finalising that deal. They understand that if you just had a pleasant test drive, then it’s going to be pretty easy to push you into a decision. Don’t do it. Take time to reflect on your experience and to talk with whoever came with you on the test drive.
Even if you’ve fallen in love, it pays to take time to consider the options and try a few cars before you decide. Keeping emotion out of the process will help you negotiate more effectively, too.
This is a massive decision that you’re about to make so don’t allow someone to push you into making your choice on the spot. Go home, think about your experience, the extras available, and most importantly, the financial aspect. If it takes you a week to decide, then at least you’ll know you didn’t rush your decision.
Get it inspected by a professional
If you’re unsure, hire a professional like German Precision to help you.
When buying something big like a new car, have it professionally inspected. A pre-purchase car inspection would cost you $250 to $350, and it’s worth every penny.