Learn How to Test Drive a Car Like a Mechanic in 10 Minutes or Less
Get complete confidence on car test drives. Here’s everything to look, listen and smell for (really). PLUS: A free downloadable checklist to take with you
In car buying, the test drive is the moment of truth.
A test drive is typically the last thing that happens before a customer goes to buy a car. In fact, more than half of all shoppers buy the very first car they test drive, according to Cox Automotive.
That isn’t always a great idea.
Dealers know that, if you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to test drive a car, you’ve likely done so after hours of research. You’ve checked out lots of different models and prices. You aren’t going into a test drive blind.
Except, in a way, you are going into it blind.
The Huge Change That Happens When You Test Drive a Car
You might not realize that the entire car shopping game changes when you arrive at a dealership.
When you were scanning through options online, you were evaluating the car market at large. Maybe you looked at reliability ratings, reviews, and resale values. All that stuff matters. But when you test drive a car, the real question becomes:
What is the exact condition of the exact vehicle you are looking at?
Have you ever seen a set of clothes that looked great on the rack but didn’t work at all when you tried them on?
Or have you ever purchased two sets of the same jeans, and found that each one fit just a little bit different?
The same thing can happen with cars. With new vehicles it isn’t as much of an issue. Manufacturers put each car that rolls of the line through a rigorous inspection. Similarly, any vehicle that receives a “certified pre-owned” label from an automaker like Ford or GM has to undergo a 150+ point inspection to do so.
For all other used vehicles, conditions can vary. Which means it’s on you to determine good from bad.
What Most Dealerships Won’t Tell You
At Apple Autos, we believe you have the right to know exactly what you’re getting into when you buy a used car. That’s why we label every used car on our lot — not only the certified pre-owned models.
Our mechanics assign a quality rating to each vehicle. We then slap that rating right on the windshield so that any shopper can see it clearly.
We do this because our entire business model is different. We don’t work on the type of profit-based commission model you’ll find at most dealerships. Our salespeople get paid the same regardless of what car you buy. Which means they have no incentive to steer you in any direction other than toward the perfect car for you.
In fact, we’ve set up our system so that we’re essentially penalized if we get it wrong. We back every used car we sell with a 30-day exchange policy, no questions asked. That means if you were to change your mind for any reason, you could swap out the vehicle and apply what you spent toward any other car on our lot.
We wish every car dealership offered you this type of confidence and transparency. Unfortunately, most don’t. But because you deserve the best, we had our staff of mechanics and car experts compile a list of the most important things they check when inspect a car. What do they look and listen for? What are the biggest warning signs they try to spot?
We’ve put all of that information into this guide. And to make things even easier, we’ve created a downloadable checklist that will help you remember it all the next time you go to test drive a vehicle.
It’s the closest we could get to having one of our mechanics ride along with you. But don’t worry. They’ve reassured us that this list gives you everything you need to make the correct “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” call during your next test drive.
The Test Drive: What To Check Before You Get in the Car
A good test drive isn’t only a drive. In fact — boring as this may sound — the process starts at the salesperson’s desk.
- Ask to see the reconditioning paperwork. That’s the list of stuff that the dealership did to the vehicle after they purchased it. Why does it matter? First, because it gives you a list of things to look for and pay attention to when you drive. Does the new suspension feel squishy? Are the brakes too grabby? It’s even more worrying if a dealership doesn’t have any service records at all. At a minimum there should have been a basic oil change with lube and filter replacement. “Some dealers just don’t inspect their cars,” says Ryan Huffman, general manager of Apple Ford Shakopee. “They literally take a trade-in, run it through the car wash, and put it on the lot.” That’s not a trade-in you want to buy.
- Ask to see the vehicle history report. Tools like AutoCheck or CarFax are a must-see before purchase. “That will tell you if the car’s been in any accidents,” Huffman says. “Minor fender-benders may be no big deal, but if it’s something big that required a tow truck, you might want to reconsider.”
How to Visually Inspect a Car Before a Test Drive
Once you’re satisfied with the paperwork, it’s time to check out the car in person.
You’ll want to give the vehicle a thorough visual inspection even if you’ve already spent time looking at it out on the lot. Take it slow and do the following:
- Check the tires. People often fail to look at the tread on a used car’s tires. That’s a huge mistake. If you have to replace the tires in a few thousand miles, it’s like adding $700 or more to the price of the vehicle. You don’t need to be an expert to check tire wear. Use the penny test, where you place a one cent piece in the grooves of the tire tread. If you can see most or all of Abe Lincoln’s head, the tires don’t have a ton of life left.
- Examine the windows. Make sure there are no cracks.
- Check the body panels too. Look for signs of rust, scratches and dings, or places where touch-up paint was applied. The less, the better.
- Open and close every door. A couple of reasons why. The first is safety. if the doors don’t open and close smoothly, it could indicate frame damage occured at some point or another. (This should have shown up in the CarFax, but the reports aren’t always 100% accurate.) Second, you’ll want to notice how easy it would be to get in and out of the vehicle from all angles. Don’t just look at what it’s like to get in and out of the driver’s seat. You’ll want to see how it feels to be a passenger, which your friends (or children) will be.
- Pull out your measuring tape. Many of today’s cars, trucks and SUVs are bigger than ever. Those dimensions may not be compatible with your garage.
What Else to Check Before You Start Your Test Drive
Once you’ve examined the vehicle from the outside, you’re almost ready to hit the road. You can step into the vehicle. The first thing you want to notice? The smell. If the previous owner was a heavy smoker, you may be able to tell. Will that drive you crazy? Even more important: Does it smell damp? If so, that could indicate that the vehicle was in a flood — and you don’t want that. Assuming the car passes the sniff test, but before you put your foot on the gas pedal, check out the following.
- Load in any special cargo. If there’s anything in particular you plan on keeping in the car, bring it with you to the dealership so you can test it out. “Maybe you have a big family and you need three car seats,” Huffman says. “A lot of cars won’t fit those. You have to put them in to see if there’s room.” Similarly, maybe you plan on hauling tools, a bicycle, or golf clubs. Now’s your chance to see how easily everything packs in and out.
- Test the lights and mechanical features. Before you’re on the road, roll the windows down and back up. If it’s a pickup, drop and lower the gate. If it’s a convertible, drop and raise the top. Open and close the sunroof, buckle and unbuckle the seatbelts, adjust the side- and rear-view mirrors. Then flip on the headlights, taillights, and turn signals. Check the dome light. Make sure everything’s moving and turning on smoothly. If something is broken, ask if it can be fixed.
- Check the A/C and heating too. Even if you’re shopping during the hottest part of summer or the coldest part of winter, you’ll want to flip on the heat and air conditioning. See how long it takes for the desired to come out of the registers. A long delay could indicate an issue.
- Ask for a technology tour. If you’re new to the car buying market after several years, even used cars may have new features you don’t recognize. Technology like rain-sensing wipers, automatic cruise control, and blind-spot monitoring can be confusing the first time you use them. Have the sales consultant show you how everything works. If there’s a mysterious dashboard button, ask about it. If you plan on connecting your phone to Bluetooth, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, make sure they walk you through the process.
- Start up the car and do this. Before you set out on the drive, have the salesperson turn on the car. Then pop the hood and listen for any rattling, ticking, or anything else that just sounds “off.” You don’t have to know what every single noise means. You just have to notice it. It’s the car salesman’s job to explain it to you. Then, if they say it’s no big deal, you use your BS-detector to determine if they’re telling it to you straight.
How to Test Drive a Car
Here’s something that not everyone considers: You may want to start your test drive in the passenger seat. Why? “That way you can keep playing with the buttons and features while getting a feel for how the car drives,” Huffman says. “You can get to know the vehicle without having to focus on the actual driving.” This ride time is another chance for you to test out the A/C, heater, navigation system and audio system.
Then after five or ten minutes, have the consultant pull over. Here’s what to do when you take the wheel of your test drive:
- Assess the driver’s seat. Notice how the seat itself feels. Are you comfortable? You could be spending a lot of time there, so this matters a whole lot.
- Check your view inside and out. Notice the car’s gauges. Are they easy to see and read? Also pay attention to any blind spots. Are they significant? If so, are there cameras that cover the area?
- Drive at varying speeds in varying situations. Don’t limit your drive to stop-and-go city traffic. Take it out on the highway to see how it rides at 60 or 70 mph and then navigate to gravel or otherwise bumpy roads to feel out the suspension. If you’re from the area, stick to roads you know, says Huffman, so you have some basis of comparisons. If not, plot your drive ahead of time, so the sales consultant doesn’t keep you on smooth pavement.
- Check the brakes. Be sure to give the salesperson riding with you a heads up before you do this. And don’t do it in any situation that could be risky. But you’ll want to see how well the car slows down. The car should decelerate smoothly. If the car vibrates, or you hear a squealing sound, it could indicate that the brakes need to be replaced — or have been replaced with sub-standard parts.
What to Do After Your Test Drive
As we talked about at the start of this article, the test drive is the moment of truth for car shoppers. Dealers and their salespeople know this. Which means that, if your drive went smoothly, they’ll be expecting to get down to business.
Don’t — especially if it’s the first car you’ve tested. A side-by-side comparison with two or three vehicles can help you notice nuances in handling that you’d likely miss by doing just one drive. “The sales consultant might want you to drive one and then buy it, but it’s just not that easy,” says Huffman. “You want to have at least a couple things to compare.”
If you’re pretty sure you do want the car, play it cool. While a few dealerships (like ours) offer no-hassle pricing that puts our best price right upfront, dealerships that negotiate are different. Often, they’ll mark up their cars higher but then cut their prices later in the month in order to hit a quota or bonus tier. To get those discounts, your strongest point of leverage is your feet.
Here are a few other things you should keep in mind after your test drive:
- Ask about the gas. Some cars require higher octane fuel than others. If you don’t want to pay a premium at the pump, you need to know this.
- Also find out: What are the terms of the warranty? A quick way to cut to the heart of the matter is to simply ask, “What doesn’t it cover,” says Apple Ford Lincoln finance manager Toby Hewitt. “If the warranty covers everything but wear and tear and basic maintenance, perfect. You’ve got a great warranty.” If the dealership offers you an extended service contract, here’s how to assess whether or not that’s a good idea.
- Ask to take the vehicle to your own mechanic. Yes, this article gives you a lot of what you need in order to test drive like a pro, it’s always to get a second opinion. And if the salesperson says “no,” for some reason, that’s a clear red flag. Time to move on.
- See if you can spend the night with the vehicle. Buying a car is a big investment, which is why we offer extended test drives. “Customers can take the vehicle home for a day or weekend at no charge,” says Huffman. “They can put miles on it, run errands, take the kids places—whatever they need to feel confident in their decision.” See if the dealership will give you the chance to truly get to know the vehicle.
A Free Gift for You
If you’re worried that you won’t remember all of this when you go test drive your next vehicle, fear not. We’ve created a downloadable checklist of the things you’ll want to examine: