How to get the most out of a test drive

Hi all, James (Mr Car Enthusiast) back here again, if only because the chaps with poor judgement at the BBC didn’t see fit to give me the Top Gear job, and let me hoon it around central London with Ken Block. If only I’d been in a wildly successful 90s US sitcom… Could I BE any more bitter?

Regrets and resentment aside, this week I’ll be nattering about how to get the most out of a test drive. This may seem obvious – kick the tyres, drive it, and decide if you like it – but there are one or two subtleties and ‘tricks of the trade’ which I shall now cover in an informative, yet sardonic, manner.

Added bonus: by being an active test-driver, you’ll be contributing to the supply of ex-demo cars, as I discussed in my previous article*.

Put the key in your pocket and count to 10

Whilst your first instinct may be to stick the key in the ignition and hit the red-line, don’t. Take a couple of breaths and have a look around the outside. Consider if the ‘quirky’ rear lights would bring out your inner hipster, or actually make you loathe yourself in the longer term.

Get inside, adjust the seat, play with the controls and generally see how the car feels when it’s not moving. If you live within 50 miles of London, this is pretty much how it’ll be most of the time anyway.

Milking the fruit of human kindness

Okay, I was convinced that was a genuine turn of phrase as I typed it, but it seems that Google disagrees. Anyhow, contrary to what you may expect, a test drive doesn’t need to be just a quick trip down the road, barely hitting 30mph. This is a big purchase, after all. If you really want to get a feel for your potential vehicular partner-in-life, talk to your dealer about an extended, or even overnight, test drive. But please bring it back afterwards, as a successful test drive shouldn’t conclude with a jail sentence.

Variety is the spice of test drive life

Even if you’ve only got time for a short test drive, don’t just take it to the end of the road, round the mini-roundabout, and back again. Try a few different kinds of road – high street, motorway, winding country path, Nürburgring etc.

Think particularly about where you’ll be doing most of your driving. As much as it pains me to say it, if you’ll be driving mainly in town then raw performance isn’t especially important as, frankly, any car built in the past couple of decades can get you to 30mph quickly enough. But if you’ll mostly be driving on motorways, pay particular attention to how these feel on your test drive – a little engine screaming its head off at 4000rpm when doing 70mph may not be a great choice for you.

All I want to do is have some fun

If you’re test driving something sporty like the Peugeot RCZ, the Ford Mustang, or the Mazda MX-5, then you’ll rightly be focussed on how much fun you’re having. But just because you have little ‘uns and you need something a bit more practical, don’t cast joy and merriment from your mind completely.

For example, the Ford Fiesta and Ford Focus are both renowned for having fantastic handling even in the non-sports models, so on the test drive try mixing up ‘sensible’ driving with a bit of exuberance to see if it could bring a smile to your face during your commute.

The other stuff

In no particular order, here are some other things to consider:

  • How’s the all-round visibility? Try reversing round a corner, just to prove that the most irritating part of your driving test wasn’t actually useless in the real world.
  • Would your kids and all their paraphernalia fit in the back? You could even bring them along and encourage them to vomit violently, so you can see how easy the car’s interior is to clean. Please don’t actually do this (to clarify: bringing them is fine, vomiting is not).
  • How’s the luggage space, and is it easy to load and unload? If you secure a starring in EastEnders or another suitably gritty drama, could you fit a corpse in the boot without needing to fold down the rear seats?
  • Does it have the relevant gadgetry? You may find it harder to live without air con or Bluetooth than an electronically operated headrest.

Go forth and prosper

Those are all my words of wisdom this time, so use them well. Head on down to your local Perrys and tell them James sent you, test drive the car of your dreams (within practical limitations), try not to frighten the nice dealer sitting to your left, and hopefully you’ll find your new 4-wheeled best friend. Bye!