Buying a car? Here's how to test-drive a new or second-hand vehicle

<i>Image: iStock</i>
<i>Image: iStock</i>

Cape Town - Perhaps you regard test-driving a car, as a spontaneous, carefree adventure where you get the chance to take your desired and potentially new ‘ride’ for a spin around the block.

Carmen Jacobs speaks to Eugene Herbert, group managing director of Masterdrive, to obtain advice on what the actual purpose of a test-drive should be.

Herbert says: "The purpose of the test-drive is to determine whether the vehicle you are considering to purchase will suit your driving style and whether you are happy and satisfied with all the vehicle specifications.

“It is also necessary to test if the car is a comfortable match, whether you can for example, position the seat to suit yourself?

Remember you will spend many hours and kilometres behind the wheel so think about the fact that long after the pain of having paid your money, you still have to think of how happy you are that you did,” Herbet added.

The aspects of the Test Drive

Eugene advises on the best time to undertake a test-drive.

Image: iStock

1. Go in the morning when the engine is still cool and you can detect any problems on start-up. This is especially true of pre-owned cars.

2. Do a visual check on the tyres — after all you wouldn’t want to have a flat half way down the road. Ensure there is nothing underneath the vehicle as it would be a big let-down if you rode over the yard cat. 

3. Maintain the speed limit and match the traffic conditions. If you travel on highways make sure that part of the test is done on the motorway at motorway speeds.”

4. It’s best to always have the salesperson accompany you on the test-drives should anything go wrong. If possible take a trusted friend along who at best will give you some objective advice, at worst company on the drive.”

5. Expose the vehicle to multiple road surfaces. Herbert says this will give you a chance to determine how well the vehicle performs on various road surfaces.

“Not will doing so give you an idea of its handling ability and how it copes with different road surfaces, but it will also give you a better idea if the suspension is nice and firm. Bad shocks will be exposed," says Herbert.

6. The execution of an emergency stop is another crucial part of the process; mainly be to check the braking system.

“Find an open clear road and do an emergency stop — the car should pull up nice and straight. Any faults on the braking system will show up,” he explains.

He further advises to make use of the time with the salesperson during your test-drive to inquire about other vehicle details. Herbert's word of advice is to use the test-drive to ask about warranties, service plans and service costs, maintenance plans, fuel consumption, carbon emissions, service history and ownership.

“More specific questions about engine specifications like kW and torque can be found in information booklets and online,” he adds.

Image: iStock

When to seal the deal?

Herbert suggests not to pressurise yourself into having to make the decision to purchase, immediately after the test-drive or even after the first car you take on a test-drive. He strongly suggests shopping around and to visit more than one dealership and test-drive other cars. He explains dealerships can be privately owned and may give you a better price offer or offer extras that others may not.  

“Also remember that at month end the dealer may be more willing to offer a better deal. He does after all have salaries and other expenses to settle and he may need the cash flow,” Eugene explains.

An important factor to consider before deciding to buy is according to Eugene to be certain the vehicle meets all your personal requirements, especially with a pre-owned vehicle you would have to spend more time checking for potential issues.

The test-drive does not have to an unnecessary lengthy occasion. Herbet says that you should be able to do all of the required checks with a 15-30 minute drive. “After the car has been running and it has stood in one place for a while check and see if there are any oil leaks on the floor,” he advises.

Important vehicle checks

1 Interior - Check the convenient positions of switches and dials, the space offered the quality of the fit and finish does everything fit together nicely, is it all solid and made of good quality materials. Check the wear on the pedals and steering wheel. Does it match the purported kilometres covered?

2 Exterior - Ensure there is no exterior damage, especially with pre-owned purchases. Look at things including gaps between panels, scratches, dents and rust. Also check for overspray in some of the sections not readily visible and if the ‘bolts’ that hold the panels in place appear original.

3 Safety features - The safety features the vehicle is fitted with would be dependent on the price. Basic features include ABS, traction control, airbags, smash-and-grab and stability control.

4 Parking features - Test the vehicle’s parking mechanisms. There are various features (rear-view cameras, rear park assist, sensors) which can assist with parking; different cars can have some of all of these.

5 Actual driving - The vehicle should drive smoothly, have visibility, check that the brakes are not sticky and the engine is responsive.

6 Clutch wear - “Put the car (if manual) in top gear and engage the handbrake fully and then let the clutch out. The car should stall, which is good. If the engine still continues to run, the clutch is faulty. Caution: Be sure the handbrake is holding the vehicle stationary before letting out the clutch!” Herbert added.

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