Test driving a used car is always an exciting experience. Yet amidst this excitement, we often get caught up in finding out things such as whether it has a cutting-edge sound system or heated seats. In fact, it’s only when we’re on the way home do we release that we hardly know anything about the important functional mechanics

car salesman showing customer dashboard

To help ensure that your next test drive is a more informative occasion, we have created a checklist for the overall things that you should be looking out for when test driving a car.

Before the drive

What to ask:

  • When was it last serviced? Checking the service history will give you an indication of the car’s general health history. It is helpful to know when the car’s brakes were last checked, its oil last changed and steering fluid last topped up etc. Based on this, you will know whether another service is due.
  • Does it have a valid MOT? You should ask to see the MOT certificate and what the recommendations were, if any. This will give you an idea of its general performance and common repairs and issues. You can check the road tax & MOT history for any vehicle online here.
  • Has it ever been written off? Buying a car which has been previously written off as a CAT S or CAT N is acceptable as long as its status has been declared and you are comfortable with its history. However, some insurers may not cover such a car and there could be difficulties in the future should you decide to resell it.
  • How many previous owners were there? If the car has a high number of owners in relation to the car’s age, it is worth questioning the reason for this as there could be some hidden history about the car’s functionality that has not been disclosed

What to check

  • The mileage – You may already be aware of the mileage but take a look for yourself by checking the odometer on the dashboard. Is it appropriate for the age of the car? (12,000 miles/year is the average norm).
  • Under the bonnet - Open the bonnet and inspect the engine. Is it generally clean? Are there any damaged or missing components? Check the fluid levels, such as washer fluid & water coolant.
  • The undercarriage – You should check for rust or any excessive build-up of dirt.
  • The lights – Test that all the electronic lights are working; headlights, fog lights, brake lights and indicators. You can also check these whilst driving.
  • Exterior damage – Look for any visible damage to the outer paintwork and check for any dents, or scratches. You will most likely already be aware of any current damage, therefore there should be no surprises on the day.
  • The tyres – They should be correctly inflated and have a minimum tread depth of 1.6mm.
  • Interior and upholstery - A used car is more likely to have some wear and tear. Check that there are no stains, tears or rips (especially leather interiors). Additionally, take note of the smell; particularly if the previous owner was a smoker.
  • The general size – Depending on your needs and requirements, the car should be able to accommodate for those. Is there enough leg room for the rear seats? What is the capacity of the boot? Will the seats comfortably hold a child seat?

During the test drive

What to check:

  • The transmission – Whether it is an automatic or manual transmission, check that the gears shift with ease and don’t get caught or stuck between movements.
  • The dashboard – Look at the odometer and the tachometer (rev-counter). Check that the correct dashboard signs are lit as you turn on the ignition.
  • The engine – Listen to the engine for any unusual sounds such as rattling or clunking. The engine should fire up quickly and should remain reasonably quiet throughout the course of driving.
  • The exhaust – The smoke emitted should not be dark and there should be no leaking.
  • The brakes – Check that the brakes are responsive to your command during general driving. Performing an emergency stop is a great way to test this. They should not feel spongy or make any grinding noises at any point.
  • The clutch and accelerator – Are the pedals responsive and what is the biting point like on the clutch? Ideally it should be 1500 rpm.
  • The steering and suspension – Is the steering wheel easy to turn when turning into a road. Does it feel heavy or stiff? Does the steering wheel pull to one side?
  • The electronics – You should test that all internal electronics are in working order. This includes the central locking system, air conditioning, the heating, electric windows, windscreen wipers, radio and speakers, built-in NAV system and rear-view camera.

You can access detailed reports about any vehicle’s history online, to give you peace of mind before you book a test drive.

If you are buying a second-hand car, you can download the ‘test driving a second-hand car checklist’, which you can print out and take with you on your next test drive!

Don't forget to purchase your Gap Insurance policy to protect your investment in the event your car is written off or stolen.