How to test drive/check
a used car

It goes without saying that a car should be test driven and inspected before you purchase. This is extremely important for a used car, especially if you’re buying it privately. Below are this you need to look out for.

Tips when test driving a used car

Exterior and Interior

  • Look for rust and any chips, scratches and dents to the bodywork.
  • Check that all the panels fir perfectly. If they don’t, the car may have been in an accident.
  • Don’t forget the windscreen - chips and cracks here could cost hundreds of pounds to repair.
  • Check the tyres and the spare wheel. The minimum legal tread depth should be 1.6mm across the width of the tyre. This can easily be done with a 20p coin.
  • Check the seats and trim for signs of damage.
  • Excess wear on pedal rubbers, carpet and seats could be an indicator of a car that’s older than it seems.
  • Check that all electrics (lights, windows) are working and try the air-conditioning if fitted.
  • Watch for excessive exhaust smoke and unusual noises. Check the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Make sure that it hasn’t been tampered with and matches the number on the V5C registration certificate (log book).


You can find the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) at the bottom of the windscreen, under the bonnet and beneath the carpet on the driver’s side.

  • Before starting the car, check underneath the engine oil cap for a thick white substance which could indicate a problem with the head gasket or engine damage
  • Pull out the engine oil dipstick, wipe it clean with a cloth, then re-insert it. Now pull it out again and check it’s at the maximum level and the oil itself is golden and clear. If not, the car is probably due a service - a possible bargaining point.
  • Insist on starting the car from cold. If the bonnet’s warm, that means it’s already been started. Is the seller trying to hide an issue?
  • Watch for excessive exhaust smoke when you start the car and when you’re driving. The engine should be quiet and pull smoothly.
  • A little steam or white exhaust smoke when you start the car should be fine, especially on cold days, but excessive blue, black or white smoke may be danger signs.
  • When accelerating, check in the rear view mirror for excessive smoke from the exhaust.
  • Check the body near the exhaust - a dark oily layer, coupled with excessive exhaust smoke could be a sign that the piston rings are worn out.
  • Check the engine coolant and brake fluid levels, plus the battery (the terminals should be rust-free and clear of debris).
  • After the test drive, check for leaks in the engine bay and underneath the car.


  • Listen out for any squeals or judders when turning the steering wheel, though a little whining sound is normal on the power steering.
  • Make sure the car doesn’t pull to one side on a level stretch of road.


  • Check that the brakes stop the car in a straight line.
  • Listen out for any vibrations or rubbing noises when braking.
  • Try using the handbrake on a hill start - there should be no slippage.

Clutch and gears

  • Make sure you try all the gears (including reverse) and there’s no ‘crunching’.
  • Check the clutch biting point - if it’s near the top this may indicate that a new clutch is needed soon.
  • With an automatic car, make sure the gear changes are smooth, immediate and almost silent. And check that if you put your foot down on the accelerator - for example when overtaking - the gear box is forced to change gear.


  • Make sure the ride is smooth and the car soaks up bumps in the road - it shouldn’t judder or feel bouncy.
  • Listen out for any unusual noises as you drive along.

Checking that the car’s essential paperwork is in order

The V5C registration certificate only shows the registered keeper of the vehicle - not the legal owner, which might be a finance or leasing company. Make sure that you also ask for the make and model, tax details and MOT test number. Then use the DVLA online vehicle enquiry service.

  • Before test driving a car, check with your insurance company that you’re covered to drive another car. If you’re not, arrange temporary cover.
  • Take proof of your insurance with you when going to view the car.
  • Consider taking a friend with you, and if possible view the car in daylight.
  • Check the seller’s name and address on the Internet if possible.
  • Arrange to view the car at the seller’s home or business address. Check the address is the same as the one on the V5C registration certificate. If the seller isn’t the registered keeper, walk away. They probably aren’t legally entitled to sell the vehicle. Make sure you ask to take the car for a test drive the the seller. If you suspect that the seller isn’t insured, ask to see proof of their insurance.
  • If you decide to go ahead and buy the car, arrange to meet in person for the payment and handover.
  • If the price of the car seems to good to be true, it probably is!

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