How to Test Drive a Car

By Matt Keegan
Last Updated 06/16/2015

A thorough test drive is an essential component of the car-buying process, regardless of whether you're a first-time car buyer or someone who's trading up to a newer vehicle.

In either case, you probably want something dependable, and you might crave technologies such as Bluetooth connectivity, an infotainment system and safety equipment such as a rearview camera.

One option that car shoppers should consider is a late-model used car. Preferably, one that is still under warranty or a model that comes with additional guarantees. Here, you will most likely look at what are known as certified pre-owned cars, which are models that have been carefully checked by the dealer and meet the manufacturer's standards for a used car.

After you've established your budget and narrowed your search down to a few specific models, here are some of the key areas you should focus on during your test drive.

Before You Drive

While you may be eager to head out on the road, there are a few things you'll want to check before you drive off the lot. Ideally, you will want to arrange your test drive during daylight hours so that you can get a good look at the vehicle.

1. Perform a walk around. Very few used vehicles are in mint condition. You may find a ding here and a scratch there since most dealers won't remove all imperfections. However, they will fix dents, scratches and broken trim, especially if a repair is required to qualify as a certified used vehicle. Typically, they'll assure that dozens of items on a checklist meet the factory's requirements. They should also present you with a CARFAX Vehicle History Report to show that the vehicle isn't flood damaged or been in a major accident.

2. Begin to evaluate the vehicle. Do you like how the vehicle looks? Is the paint shiny? Is the trim in place? Are the headlights, tail lamps, turn signals, fog lights and other lights working? Are the wheels clean and do the tires have sufficient tread? Imperfections show up best in daylight, so don't rely on the dealer's nighttime hours for an accurate indication of the body's condition.

3. Check the brakes. Look through the wheel spokes and observe the brakes. The brake pads should be thick. If the pads are worn they will need to be replaced, otherwise the brake rotors may become damaged if the problem is not immediately addressed.

4. Test the shock absorbers. You can detect problems with the suspension system before you even hit the road. Check the shock absorbers by pressing down hard on each corner of the front and rear bumpers. There should be little to no bounce present. If bounce is detected, a strut or a shock most likely will need replacement.

5. Open and shut everything. Open and close every door, the hood and the trunk or liftgate. If the vehicle has a power liftgate that is operated by the key fob, it should open and close automatically. Sliding doors on a van should open, close and lock securely. Examine latches and make sure that doors and lids close securely and tightly. Check each lock to ensure that they're operating as required.

6. Look underneath the car. Bend down and take a look underneath the car. Take note of any fluid that may be dripping. In warmer weather you can expect air conditioning condescension to drip, but nothing else. If the fluid is water, you're okay. If it is something else, point the problem out to the sales person.

7. Evaluate the inside of the car. Get in and sit behind the wheel. Observe that the instrument panel lights up, and that all switches and knobs are working. Turn on the audio system and make sure that it functions properly. The more electronics and technologies present, the more things you must check. Power accessories including windows, door locks and side mirrors should be in working order.

8. Test each seat. The driver's seat will get the most use and it should not just be comfortable, but it must also work. If it is power adjustable, ensure that the buttons are operating. If it comes with lumbar support, then test that too. Heating and cooling elements should be in working order. Move over to the passenger seat and repeat the process. Then, go to the back rows and check the same. Are seats ripped or stained? Is there enough head- and legroom? Are cup holders present? If needed, are car or booster seats able to fit?

9. Look around inside. Lift the carpet to ensure that it isn't covering a rusty floor, which is a telltale sign of flood damage. The dealer may be trying to hide something when a strong air freshener is present.

On the Test Drive

Now that you have completed your preliminary checks, it is time to drive. Here is how to test drive a car.

1. Get behind the wheel of the car. Close the door, adjust your seat, put on your seat belt and adjust the mirrors. Then, place the key in the ignition, or press the push-button start with your right foot on the brake. Listen to the engine as it turns on. No odd sounds should be present.

2. Shift and go. Place the transmission in drive and gradually move forward. Keep interior noise to a minimum so that you can focus on the mechanical aspects of the vehicle. You can check the audio system, navigation, heater and air conditioner later. Does the emergency brake release smoothly? Does the transmission shift with ease?

3. Bring it up to speed. Never settle for a quick drive around the block. Tell the salesperson that you want to take the car on the highway, bringing its speed up to at least 60 mph. Plan to drive for at least 10 miles to give yourself enough time to evaluate the vehicle and under a variety of conditions. It is at highway speeds where problems are most likely to show up while pressing the accelerator, applying the brakes or if the steering tends to drift to either side. Also check to make sure that the transmission shifts smoothly and does not make any odd noises. Press hard on the brakes when no other vehicles are present. Newer cars have anti-lock brakes, which means you should hear a clunking sound when the system kicks under hard braking.

4. Check all the gadgets. Before you return to the dealership, begin to check the various gadgets present. These can include: cruise control, the audio system, the power moonroof, heating, air conditioning, the interior lights, the rearview camera, navigation and smartphone connectivity. The connection points — including 12-volt outlets, USB ports and the auxiliary input jack — should be functioning.

Your Car Considerations

Now that you know how to test drive a car, you should uncover potential problems that must be addressed before you sign a sales agreement. And remember that the process bears repeating with each subsequent vehicle you test drive. That way, you'll have taken the steps necessary to ensure that the car you buy is in good working order.