Churchill magazine

How to test drive a car

Updated on: 23 September 2020

Test drive car

With a new car you only have to make sure that it is comfortable and suits your needs, however used cars require you to concentrate a bit harder on what the car is actually doing. 

Here are some pointers…

Before you drive

Make sure that the car has a current MOT and that you are insured to drive it. Remember to turn the radio off so you can hear what is happening. Make sure you go for a proper drive, no less than half an hour – an hour if possible. You won’t learn anything from a quick drive around the block. Try to experience as many road conditions as possible, including town and motorway.

Switch on the ignition

All the warning lights should come on (oil, ignition, brakes, etc.), if not, maybe the seller has disconnected them? Once you start the engine, all the lights should go out, immediately.

Also, if the engines take an age to start, the battery, or the expensive starter motor could be failing. Any rough running could mean the engine needs tuning.

Power steering

When stationary, turn the wheel from lock to lock. If there are lots of squeals, strange judders then maybe the system is worn.

Manual gearbox

Is getting into gear a problem? Lots of noise, free play in the lever and grinding all indicate a worn and well-used gearbox. Also, with the gears in neutral, press down the clutch pedal and listen. Any whirring noises also suggest serious wear.

Automatic gearbox

The changes should be smooth, without delay and relatively silent. Applying the brake you should be able to engage drive and reverse, then accelerate without the gearbox slipping. Otherwise an expensive replacement or overhaul may be needed.


Try them as you pull away. If they sound as though they are dragging, maybe the car has been standing for a long while and the brakes may be seized.

Also, lightly touch the brakes and if you hear an intermittent rubbing, it suggests brake disc damage. Cars fitted with ABS brakes have a warning light, which should go off soon after the car is started.


If there is any juddering as you drive along, or, if on a quiet, flat road when you release the wheel it pulls to one side, then maybe there could be a simple cure, like a cheap wheel balance by a local garage. Alternatively, it could mean the car has been involved in an accident.


Drive over lots of rough tarmac and listen out for clonks, bangs and watch out for too many bounces. The suspension is tired and needs an overhaul. If you can, ride in the back of the car for a bit and listen carefully for noises there too.


Keep checking for flickering warning lights. The temperature gauge should settle in the middle of the dial. If it never moves from cold, then it has been disconnected. If it hovers in the hot region and you can hear a fan cutting in, it’s about to overheat.


Look in the rear view mirror, is there lots of blue smoke? Then the engine is very worn – although white vapour is normal on a cold morning. Any squeals could mean a simple slipping fan belt, which is easy to cure, or that some expensive pumps and bearings could be on their way out.

After the drive

Look at the engine bay and underneath. Are there lots of leaks? Is there steam? Burning smells? Don’t make an instant decision about the car yet, go away and think about it.

Note: Unfortunately, Churchill can not cover vehicles for test drives. If you inspect the car, or someone does so on your behalf, the dealer is not liable for any faults, which should have been uncovered by the inspection.

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