5 Straightforward Test Drive Tips

Man test driving car

Paying attention to detail during a test drive can save you a headache later, even if you’re only test driving new cars. Still, nearly 50% of Americans say they spent 30 minutes or less test driving a car before they buy. Whether you’re buying new or used, test driving a car is an important part of making an informed purchase decision. Make the right one by using these five test drive tips that outline what to look for on a test drive.

Before You Go:

  • Research vehicles that meet your criteria and budget.
  • Locate dealerships in your area and make an appointment.
  • Bring your driver’s license and proof of insurance.
  • Research financing options.
  • If you’re shopping used, print out our used car checklist to bring with you.

How to Test Drive a Car

1. The test drive begins as soon as you’re on the lot

  • Examine the vehicle’s body for dents, cracks and rust. Check the windshield for nicks and cracks.
  • Check the tires for remaining tread life and signs of uneven wear. The latter can indicate poor alignment.
  • Try out the turn signals and brake lights.

2. Start the car and let it idle for a few minutes

  • Make sure the engine runs strong and listen for any troubling noises, such as rattling, clicking or whining.
  • Turn on the radio, heater and air conditioner to be sure they work properly.
  • Check the dashboard for warning lights and verify that the gauges work. Once the car warms up, the temperature gauge should be at the midpoint. Closer to “hot” can be a sign of overheating.
  • Make sure the seats are comfortable and the ceilings are high enough.

3. Drive the car on a street with stop-and-go traffic

  • Notice how the brakes feel when you come to a complete stop. Do they feel jumpy, sticky or loose?
  • Listen for any grinding or squeaking noises, which can indicate worn brake pads and rotors.
  • How does the car handle potholes and rough roads? Drive slowly and listen for rattles or knocks, which can indicate steering issues.
  • What about 90-degree turns? The car should navigate them smoothly and effortlessly. Resistance or pulling can be a sign of power steering or suspension problems.

4. Drive on a highway where you can reach speeds of 55 m.p.h. or more

  • Does the car accelerate quickly and move smoothly from gear to gear? Engine hesitation is a bad sign.
  • Locate the car’s blind spots. This is one tip that is just as important when test driving new cars as it is when test driving used cars.
  • Carefully switch lanes several times to see how the steering reacts at high speeds.
  • Make sure the steering doesn’t pull to either side, which can indicate suspension or alignment problems.
  • Listen carefully when you’re driving on the highway. Hear any squeaks, whines or rattles behind the sound of the engine?
  • If possible, drive up and down a hill to verify that the car upshifts and downshifts appropriately.

5. Find a parking lot or street to practice parallel parking

  • Make sure the steering doesn’t feel stiff and you can finely maneuver the car while parallel parking.
  • Ensure that the car shifts smoothly from drive to reverse – if the car jolts or makes a grinding noise when shifting gears, it can be a sign of a bad transmission.
  • Pay attention to how responsive the car is – do the gas and brake pedals feel different in reverse gear?
  • Get comfortable with fitting the car into a standard parking space, particularly if the vehicle is a larger truck or SUV.

If the test drive goes well, request a vehicle history report and have the car inspected by a mechanic. Remember never to settle when it comes to test driving a car. Make time to test drive multiple vehicles during the shopping process—you want to be sure you end up with the best option for you.