15 Tips for Test Driving a Car

Ensure you're fully prepared for your next test drive
Saleswoman showing customer car performance on tablet. Tips for Test Driving a Car.

Test driving is the most important step in the process of buying a new car. This is the only true way to determine whether the vehicle you are considering is right for you. Just because the car looks great on paper does not necessarily mean that it will handle in a way that is comfortable to you. But you should always make sure you're covered with an affordable car insurance policy.

Do not judge what others have to say about the comfort, design, or ride of a particular vehicle. Experience it for yourself and form your own opinions. The following tips on how to test drive a car will enable you to make the most of your shopping experience.

Preparing for Your Test Drive

Whenever you visit showrooms to look at new cars, do so with the expectation that you may be taking one or two test drives while you are there. You do not want to let proven sales techniques influence you to purchase a car that is not necessarily right for you. If you are aware of these techniques ahead of time, you can prepare yourself properly so that the salesperson doesn't deceive you:

  • Bring photocopies of your driver's license and proof of insurance: The salesperson will frequently ask to hold on to your driver's license and insurance information while you take the car out for a test drive. While the information is important for them to have before they hand you the keys to their vehicle, they do not need to be in possession of the actual license. Often, they will “misplace” it or take a while to retrieve it when you return. This forces you to stay in the showroom for an extended period of time, during which the salesperson will continue to do a hard sell. By giving them a photocopy, you have the freedom to leave immediately after your test drive.
  • Do not agree to a trade-in – yet: Invariably, when you express an interest in a new car, the salesperson will ask if you'll be trading in your old vehicle. Even if you intend to do so, simply say that you have not yet made up your mind, or, even better, say that the vehicle you will be trading is not the one you arrived in. The reason is that if they know that you will be trading in your car, they will offer to do an evaluation on it while you go on the test drive. This arms them with more information for a hard sell, and it also delays your departure, as they will be holding your car keys. Take the time to decide which vehicle you want to buy, and then bring in your old car for an evaluation.
  • You can ask to test drive without the salesperson along: While some dealerships will require the presence of the salesperson in the car with you, many will permit you to test drive new cars on your own. A few will even allow you to keep the car overnight so that you can see how it fits in your garage as well as get a better feel for it. If the salesperson must come along for the ride, insist on driving on a number of different roadways, not just a smooth, predetermined route.

Tips on What to Look for Before You Start Your Test Drive

Before taking your test drive, allow the salesperson to demonstrate the car’s features and capabilities. This will typically last about 10 to 15 minutes. Feel free to ask a lot of questions and take notes if necessary.

When you are ready to start test driving, prepare by taking the following steps and making note of the car's ease and performance:

  1. Enter the vehicle: Is this car easy to get into? Do you bump your head while entering? Do you have to maneuver your body to climb in? Is this something you can see yourself doing every time you have to get into your new car?
  2. Adjust the seat: Make note of the variety of seat adjustments. Take the time to adjust the seat until it is in your ideal position. Do not worry about how long this takes. If you cannot find a suitable seat adjustment, this is probably not the vehicle for you. Answer the following questions: Does the seat allow you adequate visibility over the steering wheel? Do you have enough headroom? Do you have adequate lower back and lumbar support? Are you comfortable?
  3. Adjust the mirrors: How easy are the side mirrors to adjust? Do you have large blind spots? If so, does the car feature a blind-spot detection system, and how does it work?
  4. Make note of the location of the controls: Know where the turn signal, windshield wiper, and headlight controls are before you start driving. Naturally, every car will have a different dashboard layout. How do you feel about the layout of this particular car? Is it something you love and something you can live with, or will it be a thorn in your side if you buy the vehicle?

Tips on What to Look for When Test Driving a Car

While you are on your test drive, pay attention to several things. If you have a friend or family member with you, you can ask them to jot down your observations while you drive. That way, if you are test driving several different cars, you can distinguish between them when doing a final assessment. 

Some useful tips for test driving a car include paying close attention to:

  1. How the ride feels: Make note of the ease of steering. If the steering feels too heavy, it may become bothersome if you do a lot of city driving. Similarly, some people find that steering that is too light makes it difficult to properly control the car. Also, check for the smoothness of the ride. Try driving over railroad tracks or bumpier roads to get the best idea of how the car handles.
  2. The brakes: Naturally, brakes are a very important part of the car. How do the brakes feel in the car you are driving? Do you feel that you can stop quickly or is there a long braking distance? Do the brakes grab too hard and make smooth stops difficult? Do you personally feel comfortable with the vehicle’s ability to stop?
  3. The transmission: If the car has a manual transmission, ask yourself questions such as how heavy is the clutch? Are the gears easy to shift into? Is it difficult to discern between first and third gear while shifting? Is it easy to shift? If you are testing driving a vehicle with an automatic transmission, make note of how smoothly it upshifts and downshifts, particularly on hills.
  4. Visibility: Be sure that you can see properly in all directions, particularly out of your rear window. Make note of blind spots. Many new cars have wide trim around the windows, which can make it difficult to see a large portion to your left and your right. If you were at a stop light and someone started crossing the street in front of your vehicle, would you be able to see the person approaching?
  5. Maneuverability: Is the car easy to maneuver through curves and tight turns? Does it accelerate well to allow for easy merges onto the highway? How easy is the car to park? Does it fit well in parking places? Is parallel parking easy? Does the front end sit low enough to scrape on parking curbs? Is a three-point turn possible in limited space situations?
  6. Cabin noise: With the vehicle’s sound system off, make note of cabin noise. Can you hear the tires on the roadway? Is the car noisy? When on the freeway, do you have to raise your voice significantly to carry on a conversation?
  7. Climate control systems: Check out the climate control system. Is the fan powerful enough? Are the vents sufficient in number and placement? Are the controls easy to use?
  8. Electronic amenities: If the car is equipped with special amenities such as a navigation system or rear-view camera, try them out. Do you find them satisfactory or lacking in function?

Tips for What to Do After Your Test Drive

Even if you loved everything about the car you just drove, do not let the dealership coerce you into buying right away. It is a good idea to test drive at least three vehicles and keep your options open. If your salesperson offers you a great deal, write their offer on the back of their business card and let them know that you will be in touch if you decide to go with that particular vehicle.

If the car is one that you believe you have an interest in owning, ask questions about things that may influence your future costs such as these:

  1. What is included in the vehicle warranty?
  2. What is the vehicle maintenance schedule?
  3. What does the dealership charge for basic services?

Once you are armed with information about a variety of cars you have test driven, take the time to think about each vehicle before deciding which one you want to purchase. Feel free to ask to take a vehicle on a second test drive if you are still uncertain about your decision.


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Frequently Asked Questions about Test Driving a New Car

How long can you test drive a car?

Most test drives last for around 15 minutes to half an hour. However, you may want to take the car out for longer than that. Some dealerships will even permit extended test drives, allowing you to take the car home with you and return it the next day.

If you want to test the car out for longer than 30 minutes so that you can drive it on a wide variety of roads, talk to your salesperson to see if an extended test drive is permitted.

How old do I have to be to test drive a car?

One of the most common questions asked by teens purchasing their first car and parents buying cars for their kids is, “How old do you have to be to test drive a car?”

Most dealerships require test drivers to be at least 18 years old, although some require a minimum age of 21. In many cases, dealerships that allow 18- to 20-year-olds to test drive their cars will also mandate that the young driver have a parent or guardian with them. This is mainly due to stipulations in the liability insurance carried by the dealership.

If you are under 21 and are shopping for a car, you may want to call prospective dealerships ahead of time to ask, "How old to test drive a car?"

Can I test drive a car with a permit?

In most states, a driving permit allows you to operate a motor vehicle while accompanied by a licensed driver who is at least 21 years old. But, can you test drive a car with a permit? That depends.

Many dealerships will allow you to test drive their cars with a learner’s permit as long as you meet their minimum age requirements and are accompanied by an adult licensed driver. However, policies can vary among different dealerships, so you may want to call ahead of time to find out.

Do I need insurance to test drive a car?

No. You do not need to have car insurance when test driving a car. The dealership will have a blanket policy that covers all of their vehicles. However, if you have a car insurance policy, you may want to provide your coverage information to the dealership before taking a spin.

Although the dealership’s insurance policy will cover damage to the car, you can still be held liable if the vehicle is damaged due to your negligent actions, such as speeding, driving recklessly, or being distracted by a cell phone while behind the wheel. Your car insurance policy may cover your liabilities if the dealership sues you.

So, do you need insurance to test drive a car? No, but it can prove beneficial if you are involved in an accident.

What do I need to test drive a car?

You’re heading out to a few dealerships to test drive new cars. So, what do you need to test drive a car? It can vary by dealership, but in most cases, you only need a valid driver’s license.

You may also want to bring:

  • Your learner’s permit, if permitted by the dealership to test drive with just a permit
  • Your insurance card, if you have car insurance
  • An adult driver over the age of 21 if you are under 21 and want to take a test drive

Insurance Considerations When You Are Ready to Buy a Car

When you've decided to take the leap from test driving to purchasing, make sure to find the car insurance coverage you need to legally use the roads in your state. Usually, liability insurance is required, though you may just need to pay a fee to your local government, depending on the regulations where you live. 

Your lender may require certain collision or comprehensive insurance minimum limits, and you may be interested in getting added coverage for medical payments, uninsured drivers, or add-ons. A local independent insurance agent can help you compare quotes before you take the plunge, so you can even test what's right for you in the insurance market.

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