Buying & selling a car

Test driving a car: What to look for

Congratulations - you’ve found a car you want to buy! (Or maybe you’re just browsing – it could pay to play it cool at a second-hand dealership to get a good bargain.)

Hopefully you’ve already checked all the required paperwork, the condition and history of the car BUT before you hand over your money there’s one more vital step - take time to test drive your car-to-be.

  1. Make sure you’re insured

    Yes, even for a test drive you must make sure you’re fully insured.

    If you’re testing a car at a dealership, they’re required by law to cover any car they own, but do ask to make sure.

    If you’re buying from a private seller, you’ll probably need to use your own insurance. If you’re not sure whether you’re covered, call your insurance provider and they’ll be able to tell you.

    If you're a new driver and don't have your insurance yet, it might be worth getting your parents to test drive the car on your behalf.

  2. Check the temperature

    When you arrive, put your hand on the hood of the car. You want to start the car from cold to check for any issues it may have. If it's warm, wait around until it has cooled down or re-book your test for another day.

  3. See and hear for yourself

    Ask the owner or dealer to sit behind the wheel and flick the headlights, brake lights and turn signals so you can check them from outside. While you’re out there, ask them to open the pop the hood, so you can listen for any rattling sounds in the engine.

  4. Take your time

    Don’t rush; make sure you spend at least half an hour driving the car, and if possible take it on a variety of roads to give you the best idea of how it performs.

  5. Test the brakes

    Do an emergency stop on an empty section of road to test the brakes - a bit of a squeak is easily fixed, a grinding sound is cause for concern. And don’t forget the handbrake - stop on a hill and put the handbrake on. Needless to say, if you start rolling backwards, there’s a problem!

  6. The steering

    On a clear stretch of road, and at low speed, make sure the car doesn’t pull to one side while you’re driving by loosening your grip on the wheel. Also, feel for vibration of the steering wheel.

  7. Listen while driving

    Any rattling, banging or any unusual engine sounds are a concern and should be checked over by a mechanic.

  8. Smell the car

    No we don’t literally mean sniff the car seats (ew), but any strong smell of oil or petrol could indicate a problem.

    If you see air freshener in the car, ask the owners to remove it before your test drive, so you get a real sense of the odours you’ll be dealing with.

  9. Look for smoke

    If you notice any blue, black or grey smoke coming out of the exhaust it could indicate some serious problems.

  10. Check the electrics

    Switch on everything electrical from the AC to heated seats – and don’t forget the windscreen wipers, even if the sun’s shining.

  11. Be confident

    If you have any doubts at all then have the confidence to walk away knowing it’s not the right car for you. Don’t be pressured by the seller and don’t be afraid to take some time to think or book a second test drive.

Buying a car is a big decision and you want to get it right!


Farida started writing for ingenie in 2015. She got her Ontario licence in 2014 and her first car was a manual 2003 VW Jetta GLS 1.8T. Follow her on Twitter.