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How to Conduct a Comprehensive Test Drive

By Mike Richards Updated: 07/26/2022 Posted: 11/03/2017

You’ve found a used car that you like. It looks stylish and it sounds just fine, so it’s time to jump in and take a test drive. This is when you will have the opportunity to determine how a vehicle drives and save yourself from later buyer’s remorse.

Many people make the mistake of only taking a short test drive, probably a few minutes or even less. This is an error, as you can’t determine everything you need in such a short drive. Instead, you want to take your time to test the car in various situations and look for any problems. We’ll go over what to look at while you test drive, so you can sure you’ve put the vehicle through its paces.

Comfortability Factor

Before you even start the car, take some time to feel out the interior. Sit in the seat and allow yourself time to determine if it’s too hard, too soft, or just right. You may want to consider if it supports your thighs in a way that is comfortable. Take time to see if it makes your legs cramp or if your back feels unsupported. This might seem silly, but it’s important. You’ll spend plenty of time in the car, and you want to ensure that you’ll enjoy that time without pain or discomfort.

Interior Ergonomics

Next, consider how the interior is laid out. Determine if the steering wheel is in a good position. Adjust it as needed and decide if it is too close to any instruments you’ll need access to. You should also look at the heater and radio controls to see if they’ll be easily adjustable while focusing on the road. You can further try out the other seats to look for head and legroom. See if the headrests come to a good position. Look to see how far the rear windows go down. Explore these things before beginning the actual drive.

Dashboard Lights

Before you get carried away and start the vehicle, turn the key to the last position before the engine comes on. This should cause the dash warning lights to come on. You should see if the check engine light and, if applicable, ABS lights light up. If they do not, there is a possibility that they are burned out, but there’s also the worse possibility that something has been tampered with. Don’t buy a car that has this problem without having it inspected or corrected.

Engine Noise

When you first start the engine, take a moment to listen for any ticking or tapping sounds. If you hear a prolonged tapping, this can mean that there is a bad hydraulic lifter or that the valves need adjusting. If your used vehicle has power steering, turn the wheel from side to side and listen for any squealing that might point to belt issues.

After that, try pumping the brake a few times then pressing solidly with your foot. If you find that it sinks to the ground slowly, this can tell you that there is either a leak in the brake line or that the brake booster or master cylinder needs to be repaired. At this point, you can put the car into gear. If the vehicle has an automatic transmission it should immediately engage and, while you drive, offer quick, crisp shifting. If you hear any groaning or grinding, this is a bad sign and means something is in disrepair. Also be sure to check the shifting from drive to reverse. Any grinding or clunky noises may mean anything from worn transmission mounts to bad universal joints.

Steering Matters

While you drive the car, determine if you feel any shaking or vibration. There should be none, but if there is, it can mean any number of things. It might mean a tire is unbalanced or that the steering rack is loose. If you notice a shake only when pressing the brake, this might mean there is a sticking caliper or warped brake rotor.

By following these instructions while test driving a vehicle, you can determine the number of repairs that might be needed by a vehicle. This is crucial information and not something you can figure out with a short drive where you don’t truly test the vehicle.