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How To Test Drive A Car

Buying new or second-hand? Here’s how to avoid bagging a snotter

  • Test-driving a car, whether new or second-hand, can be a daunting proposition.

    Twenty minutes or so behind the wheel, in which time you’re expected to diagnose how it handles, and identify any potential issues, and make awkward small-talk with the salesman or seller, and remember not to spear an unfamiliar vehicle into a thicket. It’s a lot to think about.

    But fear not. Top Gear’s Handy Guide To Test-Driving A Car Without Spearing It Into A Thicket is here to help you avoid the pitfalls of the pre-purchase peruse.

    WARNING: not all the advice contained herein may be entirely useful.

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  • Bring along a friend

    Partly because it’s good to get a second opinion on these things. Partly because, even from the passenger seat, a trusted friend might pick up potential issues you might not have spotted, and ask questions you might forget to ask.

    But mostly because – if you buy your used cars from the same sort of upstanding members of the community from whom Top Gear usually buys its used cars – it’s never a bad idea to arrive with a bit of… back-up. Ideally the sort of back-up with a can of pepper-spray concealed about their person.

  • Examine the exterior

    Before you even get into the car, have a good poke around the outside. Are there any signs of rust? How badly kerbed are the tyres? Does it boast the requisite number of wheels?

    Examine the shut-lines. Uneven panel gaps can indicate that (a) it’s been involved in a crash or (b) it’s a product of British Leyland.

    Most crucially, remember to kick the tyres. No one knows why it’s important to kick tyres, but this is something we Brits have done for generations, and it’s your duty to continue this time-honoured, baffling tradition. Kick them. Kick them all.

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  • Investigate the interior

    Once you’ve checked the outside, it’s time for a full internal examination, as it were. Look out for scratches, scrapes and scuffs, but also have a sit in the back. Is there enough space for whoever you’re planning on putting back there, remembering that small children have an annoying tendency to grow into larger children?

    Check the boot, too. Firstly to make sure there’s a spare wheel, if indeed there’s supposed to be a spare wheel, but also because… people leave weird stuff in their boot. You don’t want to get to the end of your test-drive and then discover you’ve spent the last 45 minutes in the company of a badly-taxidermied Pomeranian.

    Pro tip: If you’re struggling to locate the boot, you may be testing a Porsche 911. Try the other end.

  • Make sure you’re insured

    If you’re buying through a dealership, they should insure you to test their car (good) provided you’re accompanied by a salesperson (bad).

    If you’re buying privately, you’ll need to make sure your insurance covers you to drive other people’s car with their permission.

    If in doubt, double- and triple-check the paperwork. There’s only one thing worse than smashing up someone else’s car, and that’s smashing up someone else’s car and then discovering you’re not insured.

  • Check for faults on start-up

    When you fire up the car for the first time, take a look at what’s coming out the exhaust. A bit of steam or white smoke is generally fine. Excessive blue or black smoke from the tailpipe means you’ve got a problem. No tailpipe means you’ve got an electric car.

    Once everything’s warm, keep an eye out for fault lights on the dash. No fault lights either means (a) no faults, or (b) even the fault lights are broken.

  • Drive a varied route

    Don’t be content with a quick potter round the block. Twisty roads, dual carriageways, speed bumps: the more variety your test route encompasses, the more informed you’ll be, and hey, it’s someone else’s fuel bill, right?

    And besides, a car is one of the most expensive purchases you’re ever likely to make, so be sure it works for you in all the ways you’re likely to use it. If you’re buying in Britain but plan to take regular Alpine driving holidays, you’re within your right to test it in those conditions. If the seller really wants that sale, they should be prepared to stump up for the Chunnel ticket.

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  • Practice manoeuvres

    It’s not just about finding out how the car handles your favourite section of twisty blacktop. Vital, too, to see if it works for those boring day-to-day tasks. There’s nothing more annoying than getting a car home, only to discover your seating position leads to awful blind-spots when reverse parking.

    So test it out. If you immediately stove the rear bumper into a low-level concrete bollard, that’s probably an indication the blind spots aren’t really working for you, and you should hand the vehicle back to its owners and beat a hasty retreat.

  • Use all your senses

    Don’t just rely on your eyesight. Use all the senses at your disposal to locate potential issues.

    Touch: can you feel vibration through the wheel? Sound: can you hear any strange rattles? Smell: are you getting a whiff of fuel or burning oil? Taste: does the upholstery have that authentic leathery flavour?

    Trust us, any seller worth their salt will know better than to argue with a potential buyer licking the headrests.

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  • Don’t jump to a decision

    Even if the car drives like a dream, even if it’s being offered at a cracking price, don’t be tempted to blurt out ‘I’ll take it’ before you’ve so much as finished your test drive.

    Once you’re safely parked up, take a minute. Check the paperwork. If there’s no paperwork, that’s not a good sign.

    And remember you’re not obliged to just accept whatever the seller is asking. Even with new cars, haggling is expected. The starting price is just the starting price. Shrewd negotiation could drive that figure down. Personally insulting the seller could drive that figure up.

    However the negotiations progress, be prepared to walk away. Or possibly run away at pace.

    Happy car hunting!

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