3 min read

What to Look for When Test Driving a Car

Use this checklist the next time you test drive a vehicle.
What to Look for When Test Driving a Car

Whether your family has grown, your transportation needs have changed, or you’ve finally saved up for your dream car, you’ll need to test drive it before you buy it.

You’ve probably done a fair amount of research to decide which car will offer the most value, meet your needs, and stay in your budget. If you’ve looked at dealerships’ inventory online, you’ve probably already looked up the vehicle history of any car you might decide to test drive.

Keep all of your research in mind. As you start test driving cars, focus on the car you’re driving and assess what shape it’s in and how well it’s been cared for.

Check the following things before and during your test drive:

  • Engine bay
  • Car body
  • Car space
  • Acceleration
  • Brakes
  • Technology

Car body

Obviously you'll want to inspect the car's body to see if there are any dents, chips, or scuffs, but you should also make sure all the doors, windows, and trunk open and close easily. If they don’t, the car may have been in an accident.

You should also check that the seat belts work correctly and that you can move the seats. If seats are designed to be removed or folded down, you’ll want to make sure they’re in working order.

You’ll also want to look for rust on the exterior of the car and under the car’s rugs.

Engine Bay

Open the hood to look for obvious problems, like leaks, damaged hoses/reservoirs, etc.

Look at the belts and the car’s suspension. If you're buying a brand new car off the lot, the engine components should also look brand new.

If you're purchasing a used car, you’ll probably see some normal wear and tear, but you don’t want to see anything too extensive that would require replacement soon after buying the car.


It's natural to want to test out a car's sound system—but you should really consider turning the stereo off for your test drive so that you can listen for any engine noises that could potentially be troublesome.

Listen closely to hear any unusual noises while the car is running and as you’re accelerating. Test gradual, medium, and rapid acceleration. Don't be afraid to tell your sales person to pipe down for a minute while you listen. Any grinding, squealing, or knocking could be cause for concern.

As you're accelerating pay close attention to how the car feels as it's shifting through gears. Is it struggling, slipping, or jumping as you accelerate? This could be a sign of transmission issues.


As you brake, listen to hear any squealing or grinding since that can be a sign the brakes are wearing thin.

You’ll also want to notice how it feels. If it feels like the brakes are loose or "mushy", they may need some attention from a mechanic.


First up: sound system, warning lights, heating, and air conditioning. While the radio and sound system may not be a deal breaker, the rest need to be addressed before you buy the car.

Even newer used cars have technology you may not be familiar with. Ask the salesperson to walk you though how it works so you’re comfortable and confident while driving the car.

Beyond Bluetooth and buttons on the steering wheel to control volume and answer calls, some cars have sensors that trigger windshield wipers or warnings about lane departures.

Understanding how and why your car starts beeping will help you better assess your driving and where you are on the road.

A final word on test drives

Even after a confident test drive, take a step away from the salesperson. Maintain your focus on your observations about the car, not on how much fun it was to drive.

Assessing your observations will help you compare cars and evaluate your options. You may be confident enough to make a decision after evaluating the car and after test driving a few other cars.

If you’re interested in a car and still have questions or concerns, ask to take the car to a mechanic for a closer evaluation. Most dealerships will allow you to take a car for a certain amount of time before deciding to buy it.