Text size


Tips for Test Drives

Tips for Test Drives

By Swansway Motor Group 19-07-2018


John Swift, Motoring journalist and ex-racing driver has been test driving cars as part of his job for the last 30 years; here he gives his advice on what you should be looking out for when you take a car out for a test drive.

What should you look out for on a test drive?

When you take a car out for a test drive, what should you belooking our for? Motoring jounalist and pro-drive, John Swift, gives his tips:

  • Does it fit my life - for example will it fit in my garage
  • Will it be comfy after an hour - imagine going on a three hour trip, how woild you feel at the end of it
  • What's it like to drive - what does it feel like if you go over a bad bump or pothole
  • How safe is it - check out the car's EuroNCAP rating, it cvould save your life
  • Don't let your heart rule your head - make the final choice with head, don't be swayed by your emotions

Test Drive Tips

For the past 30 years I’ve been paid to test cars and apart from Bugatti and Pagani, I’ve tried at least one model from just about every manufacturer. When I assess a car I ask three basic questions – what is it supposed to do, how well does it do it and how well does it do it compared to its opposition. If I’m trying a McLaren I use different criteria than when I’m in a Mazda.

But, driving and analysing cars as a professional is very different to trying a car with a view to buying it and in these circumstances I offer two of the wisest words ever written – caveat emptor; buyer beware.

Let’s leave aside for a minute a specialist car such as a sports car or something like a pick-up and imagine we’re in the market for a family car. Then we can ask the few basic questions I do when assessing the car.

Does it fit my life?

The first aspect I always look at is real-world practicality and I let me give you a simple, but telling example.

Recently I drove a new and already award-winning luxury SUV which was being praised in every road test review. The thing is, most of those reviewers had been on press launches where the manufacturer carefully selects the routes to show the car in the best possible light.

I tried it at a supermarket. The British Parking Association says a standard bay should be 2.4 metres wide and 4.8 long with six metres between the lanes. I had a passenger with me and after parking in a bay between two other cars asked him to open the door. He couldn’t. The car was 1930 mm wide leaving just 470 mm – about 18 inches – in which to open the doors, or nine inches either side if you both want to get out.

Supermarket car park

I didn’t even bother taking it to the nearby multi-storey car park.

Nearer home, would the car you’re looking at fit into your drive? If you have a two or even three car family it’s a consideration.

See what I mean? Despite the awards it failed at the very first hurdle and I would have cursed it every time I tried to park.

Will I be comfortable after an hour at the wheel?

The second fundamental is comfort, for you and everyone else in it.

If more than one person will drive, make sure all can get comfy behind the wheel; reach the steering wheel and gear lever and are happy reaching the pedals, without bending the right knee too much; as a rule of thumb, if your thigh has to be raised even slightly off the seat to operate the accelerator safely then it won’t feel comfortable for very long.

comfort behind the wheelCan the seatbelt height be adjusted on the door pillar by your shoulder so it’s comfortable across the chest? 

Most modern cars are pretty good in the comfort stakes and have plenty of adjustment so there shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s something I check before moving an inch.

If you carry passengers in the back look at the amount of leg, head and shoulder room there. It’s important because being sardined into the back seats can make a journey miserable. Following on from this, ventilation for those in the back is important, so a car with a vent or two would be better.

Rear seats of a car

A final point, and this is mainly for parents of very young children, can you bend in through the back doors to make sure they’re securely strapped in?

What’s it like to drive?

A more difficult one because while a pro-driver will think about understeer, oversteer, suspension compliance, torque, gear ratios and much more, those terms are irrelevant to most of us, so let’s focus on a few basics.

Does it cope with bumps or holes? UK roads are shocking, that’s hardly news, but have you considered that a car may have been developed with one standard suspension setting for all of Western Europe? It may be OK on a main road in, say, Spain or France, but what about ours which have got significantly worse in the past decade or so.

So, try it over a bad bump and if it sounds or feels as if it bangs on and off it you might find it a bit too hard. The springs and shock absorbers, the size of the wheel and tyres make a huge difference to how a car copes and too many modern cars have huge wheels with just a smear of rubber around them. They might look fancy, but do no favours all to the ride quality.

Be especially wary if you are trying an SUV which generally do not do well in this area!

Three more things to look at.

Feel if the car seems to lean to one side a lot when you corner or feels `sloppy’ as you change direction, especially in an S-bend, because that can quickly make passengers feel queasy.

bumpy road

Drive it up a hill in third or even fourth gear. If it goes up well then fine, but if it struggles and you have to drop it down a gear then it indicates a lack of torque in the engine and it will need more revs for climbing, or pulling a heavier load, such as passengers/luggage. This makes it busier to drive and makes the official mpg figures unlikely to fit with reality.

Modern diesel and turbo petrol engines are pretty good, even if they’re only 1.0 litre, but just be mindful that a mid-range petrol unit, say a 1.4 litre, may not be. I’m not saying it will be bad, but again it’s something you need to check out.

Finally on this front, try it in slow, stop/start traffic around town.  Some cars can have a maddening tendency to need to change between first and second gear as you inch along if, as we say, first gear is very low and the ratios are just not quite right, you can seem to spend all your time working the clutch.

How safe is it?

How many of us ask about or even think about it? Well, we should and the time to do it is when you’re trying the car, with a view to possibly buying it, not when you’re skidding out of a bend on a wet road.

Every car of recent years will have airbags and ABS, anti-lock brakes, and ESP (electronic stability programme), but I would looking for a car with AEB (autonomous emergency braking).

There is a very handy resource called the EuroNCAP crash test and safety programme, which assesses cars with a star rating from one to five. Don’t assume that just because it’s a new car it has a high rating.

Hond CRV during EuroNCAP crash testingThe Honda CR-V received a 5 star safety rating in the EuroNCAP testing programme.

In 2017 EuroNCAP gave the Ford Mustang a two star rating, the lowest for a new model. A well-known volume Italian manufacturer fared only a little better with one of its family hatchbacks.

I would not put my family in anything less than a four star car.

Think about these areas too

There are other considerations such as purchase and running costs, fuel, insurance, servicing and depreciation, but the criteria on these will vary massively from one person to the next, so, that it’s all but impossible to give accurate guidance, except to say that there are plenty of helpful guides available.

Parkers, specialists in the second hand market, publish data on likely depreciation and you can find reviews by owners at publications such as J.D.Power, Auto Express and Which?

Unless it’s a specialist car, or something you’ve fallen in love with, use your head as much as your heart before you sign on the dotted line.

Caveat emptor, as I would have advised anyone looking at that multi-award winning SUV.



This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Learn more