How to Test Drive a New Car

My top 10 tips for test driving any new car at a dealership

Most people test driving their next new car get it horribly wrong - they make fundamental mistakes that mean - sometimes - they just don't buy the right car. Here’s how to get that test drive right.

I’ve driven thousands of different new cars over more than 20 years.  It’s one of the best bits of the job: getting in new cars and figuring out what they’re good at - and not so good at. Like everything else, a test-drive is a game with rules. It’s an essential step in choosing the right new car. There’s a lot at stake, too. So this is everything you need to know.

Before you start

Make sure the car is insured. If it’s not, and if you crash, and if it’s your fault, you could be in for monumental financial pain. Make sure you know exactly what the insurance excess is, too. Dealers often ramp the excess right up to keep the premiums low. So a mistake you make out there on the road might still cost you five grand - even though the car is - technically - insured.


Drive the right model variant

The car you test drive needs to be the car you want to buy - or near enough. There’s no point driving - for example - a Mazda3 SP25 GT if you really want to buy the Mazda3 Maxx. It’s got a different powertrain, different tyres, more fruit. The upmarket variant is going to feel a lot better. Never fall into the trap of driving the works burger, and then sign off on buying the poverty pack. And make sure you know which features in the car you’re driving are standard, and which ones are optional. This is especially important in the premium German brands, where just about everything is optional. And dealers are such specialists at loading up their demonstrators with all the fruit. Don’t assume it’s all included.

Drive on roads you know

Always drive on roads you know. The whole point of experiments is to control all the variables - except the one on test. That means a strange car on strange roads is going to feel … strange. But you’re not going to know how much of that strangeness is attributable to the road, and how much to the car. You want to assess the car, so it’s not ideal if you’re also testing the road. Try driving on a variety of surfaces you already know - some smooth and some choppy. See how the car performs in an environment you’re already familiar with.

Compare new with new

Never compare a worn-out old car with the one you think you want to buy. Guess what? Compared to your old car, the new one is going to feel pretty good. A five-year-old (whatever) with 100,000km on the clock will make any new car feel beyond excellent. Your mission is not to find a new car that’s better than your old car. That’s too easy. You need to find the best new car from a short list of competing new cars. Take a day out of your busy schedule and drive a short list of three or four top contenders back to back. Compare new cars with other new cars - that’s the benchmark.

Take your time

If you don’t usually drive double-digits of different cars every year, give yourself time to adapt. All cars feel different. They all have subtly different controls, and those controls all offer subtly different feedback when you nudge them. You need to adapt to the controls, understand the features (and have sufficient time to play with all the toys). You also need time to assess the comfort levels. Good luck doing all that in the six left turns it takes to get out the driveway, around the block and back. Test drives are useless if they don’t last at least half an hour.

Does it fit?

Your new car needs to fit your lifestyle. It’s an ugly situation if that deposit goes down and the car doesn’t get up your driveway without biffing the front lip. Every time. Not much fun if it’s two inches longer than the garage. Equally unpalatable if it has a two-tonne tow capacity, and the boat actually weighs two and a half. Make sure it fits. Take it home and check, if necessary. You’ll be driving on roads you know anyway - an excellent idea...

Assess your lifestyle

The car doesn’t just have to fit in the garage and up the driveway. Make sure it also accommodates your lifestyle. Let’s say you and the salient partner are dead keen golfers. If those two golf bags don’t fit in the back. Or the two bicycles, or the German Wolfhounds, or the three baby capsules - whatever - it’s a disaster. Not fun if the significant other’s prosthetic hip screams blue murder climbing up (or down) out of the shiny new car after half an hour inside. The point is: cars are more than just machines that go really, really fast and don’t crash. They need to accommodate you, and all the things you need them to do. If in doubt, go home and check.

Play with all the toys

Make sure you play with all the toys. Hook up the Bluetooth; make a couple of calls. Confirm the voice quality. Stream some tunes. Celine Dion … or one of those other artists they used to play at Gitmo. Play with the cruise control. Use the paddle shifters. Turn the seat heater on. Get toasty. See if the voice recognition system actually recognises your voice. Ask it to fetch your slippers. Tell it which radio station you want - Sydney’s 2UE, 954, obviously. Use the sat-nav system. Type in ‘B’. See if you can get there from ‘A’. (On roads you know.) Throw the car at a reverse-park. Check the view from the reversing camera. The point is: the toys are all there: Play with them. Identify - in particular - the ones you don’t like. Buying this prospective new car is a little like getting married - you need to love the bits you love, and you need to be able to accommodate the bits you don’t. Otherwise it’s all over. At least - i guess - you can divorce a car without giving it the house.

Passenger (it's a verb)

Always use some of the test-drive to sit in the passenger’s seat, and in the back as well. Might as well evaluate the entire stadium, right? Except in a 911 Porsche or an Audi TT - nobody ever seriously expects anyone to ride in the back of those. Being a passenger is also a great opportunity to assess ride quality, and a bunch of other things that might recede into the background when your working memory is otherwise occupied driving the car.

Fun with fuel

Always re-set the trip meter as you depart. When you return, it’ll give you some indication of the likely fuel consumption out there, in the real world - based on how you drive. Those official fuel consumption figures have been smoking crack anyway. So if you want to avoid those nasty little surprises like when the car tells you it’s actually got a drinking problem - about a week after the honeymoon is over. Look at the real-world fuel consumption, just after the test-drive, before you get hitched. Need to know why the official fuel figures are rubbish?
See my full report on official fuel figures here >>

Don't fall in lust

Speaking of which: You’re thinking: Test-drive - evaluation. The sales guy is thinking: test-drive - seduction. He knows if he gets you inside that car, you are very likely to fall in lust. And he wants you to want it, bad. The test drive is foreplay. He’s gunna get you in that car, and then he’s gunna make his move. It’s a very short trip from test-drive to the corner penthouse of deposit central, via lust. In fact, they are all in adjoining suburbs. So you need a plan: Drive the full short list. Three (or four) cars. Then go home. Sleep on it. That car, no matter how nice, no matter how accommodating, no matter how sexy: it’s really just a thing. Unlike your significant other, it’s not going to get upset if you go and test-drive another car tomorrow. And another one the next day. It will wait patiently. It won’t mind waiting a couple of days without hearing from you, even after being driven. It’s not going to make other plans, hook up with anyone else, or otherwise move on. It’s a product. You’re testing it, not taking it dancing after dinner. There’s no obligation. Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with it.


Do all of that stuff, and try to be analytical. If you’re in the market and you haven’t seen my updated video on how to beat a car dealer, check it out here >>

Car buyers love that video, and car dealers hate it - for precisely the same reason. Opprobrium is the sincerest form of endorsement. If you need the right new car at the right price, without going head-to-head with Darth Vader in a bad suit, contact me here >>

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