What You Need to Know Before Test Driving a Car

Dec 21, 2021 4 min read

When buying a car, most people know they need to do more than kick the tires and check the paint job. But without a mechanic’s assistance, how do you know what to look for and what to skip if you want a reliable set of wheels? It turns out, knowing how to test drive a car can make all the difference.

Before You Get Behind the Wheel

Do Your Research 

Our first rule for test driving a car? Know what you want. If you are looking for a van or SUV to haul your family to soccer games, don’t get distracted by the sleek, new convertible on the lot. Instead, focus on the type of vehicle you need. Browse online for models that have the features you’re looking for. Many people find it helpful to make a list of necessary items, along with the things it would be nice to have (if they fit your budget). 

While researching, pay attention to fuel efficiency ratings. If you are choosing between multiple models, compare fuel economy and factor gas expenses into the cost of owning the vehicle. 

Know What You Need to Test Drive a Car

You must have a valid driver’s license to test drive a car. But how old do you need to be to take a test drive? The minimum age requirement to test drive a car varies by state and dealership, but drivers 16-17 years old will likely be required to have a parent with them, while most drivers can take a test drive without a parent when they reach 18.

What about insurance? Do you need to be insured to take a test drive? Whether you are buying from a dealership or a private seller, you can test drive a car without insurance. Car dealerships are required to carry insurance that covers damage and injuries that might happen during a test drive. A private seller’s insurance will most likely cover drivers that test drive their vehicle, but be sure to confirm that a private seller’s car insurance is up to date. When you make the decision to purchase a vehicle, be prepared to have insurance before you drive your new car off the lot or before you transfer the title from a private seller.  

Schedule Several Appointments

When car shopping, don’t get pressured into the immediate sale. Schedule several appointments on the same day so you have a reason to leave the dealership and think about your purchase options. 

Take Precautions with Your ID

Before handing over the keys for a test drive, most dealerships will want to photocopy your license. Bring your own copy and ask for it back when you leave the dealership to cut down on the number of people who have access to your identifying information. 

When You’re Behind the Wheel

Size Matters

Don’t just think about the space your new car will take on the road — think about interior room as well. Will this vehicle primarily take you to and from work, or will you be transporting family members to activities and weekends away? Do you need something built for comfort, or can you prioritize fuel efficiency? When you start the test drive, pay attention to how well you fit in the vehicle — is it easy to get in and out? Will you struggle in a few years if your ride is low to the ground? Is there enough room for your kids to ride comfortably?

Check the Tech

When you sit behind the wheel, inspect the technology features before you get on the road. Is there a smart screen? If so, is it easy to operate? Will the smart screen require you to take your eyes off the road to use? Can you easily pair the car’s technology with your smartphone? The technology in your car should make it easy to avoid distractions behind the wheel, not add to them. 

Pay Attention to Handling

Another important item to look for when test driving a new car is how the car handles. Make a point to drive down imperfect pavement. When you drive over potholes and bumps, do you bounce and jitter, or does the car absorb the jarring and jolting? You want to ensure the suspension feels right — you don’t want to sway up and down after a bump, and you also don’t want to feel every single bump on the road. When you steer, the car should respond to quick turns of the wheel. You don’t want the car to be jumpy, but you also don’t want to have to work too hard to make the car respond.

Probe for Power

How long does it take the car to get up to speed? When you are on an interstate on-ramp, you want to know you have enough horsepower to be able to merge with traffic without making the engine work too hard. Try driving onto an interstate on-ramp or climbing a steep hill during the test drive to see how the car responds. The car will likely shift through a couple of gears; pay attention to how smoothly the transmission shifts from one gear to another. 

Brake with Confidence

During the test drive, pay attention to how the brakes feel. Do they respond to pressure without being too touchy? Be sure to try forceful braking, especially in conditions similar to what you would find on your typical commute. Is your foot to the floor before you feel the car slow? Braking should be smooth and progressive, and should not cause jarring or jolting. 

Listen to Road Noise

During your test drive, turn the radio off and close the windows. Really listen to the car. Are you hearing a lot of wind and road noise, or is the car quiet? Are there any knocks or unusual sounds coming from under the hood (or elsewhere) that you need to ask the salesperson about?

Check Visibility 

Look around while you are in the car. In addition to the windshield, check the rear view, the side views and blind spots. Does the car have an easy-to-use backup camera or side mirror support? Does the car come equipped with blind spot detectors on the side mirrors? 

If everything checks out, you may be on your way to owning a new vehicle. But before you sign on the dotted line, take a day to think over your purchase. Test drive multiple vehicles so you can compare models, and really think about which features are most important to you. 

Ready to Roll — Almost 

When you’re ready to buy, be sure to contact your Farm Bureau agent to understand how a new car will affect your auto insurance rates. Your agent can help ensure your new car is covered when you drive it off the lot.

Want to learn more?

Contact a local FBFS agent or advisor for answers personalized to you.