Buying guides

The Test Drive

The final hurdle. If the car passes this test, it could be the one for you

You should never buy any car without taking it for a test drive first, for which you'll need to be insured. If you're comprehensively insured on your own car you'll probably have third party cover on anything you test drive, as long as it's already insured by the vendor – but you'll need to check first.

While this route ensures you're legal, it also means that if you're involved in a scrape that's your fault, you'll have to pay out of your own pocket to fix things. That's why a better bet is to invest in some day insurance, which covers you comprehensively for your test drive. You'll need a different policy for each car you test though, so if you want to try out several, the costs will quickly add up.

Once you've ensured you have insurance cover, launch into the test drive.

Before you start the engine, make sure you can get comfortable and that you're happy with the all-round visbility. You'll have to live with this car every day, so make sure you can do so.

Start the car from cold, and make sure it ticks over happily. Let it warm up and ensure the cooling fan cuts in before taking it for a decent run.

See if there are any flat spots from the engine or if it misfires. If so, there's a problem with either the ignition or fuel systems, and finding an effective fix could either be long-winded or expensive. Or both.

On the drive, go through all the gears as well as the major controls, brakes, steering and suspension. Do the brakes pull to one side or judder when you apply them?

Does the car jump out of gear or does the clutch slip? The latter is given away by the engine revs rising when you press the throttle, without the car gaining any speed.

Ensure all the electrics work – try everything. It's the same with the instruments – do they all read as they should?

Is the exhaust chucking out soot? If so, the engine may have had it, although some diesels can be pretty sooty even when healthy.

Press all of the buttons to use all of the equipment, including the air conditioning if fitted. Items such as electric windows and mirrors or central locking can be a pain to fix, so make sure they all work.