How to make a shortlist of cars to test drive

How to make a shortlist of cars to test drive

When you're looking to get a new car, it can be difficult to make a shortlist. In this guide we'll help you to decide what type of car you want, to help you to narrow down your choices.

There are so many great cars to choose to from, so it can be hard to decide on a Top 3 Shortlist. And even harder to choose “The One”. In this guide we’ll try to give you some useful tips on how you can whittle down your choices, before taking your shortlist for a test drive.

The main thing is to decide what criteria is most important to you. What one or two or three things feel essential to you? Or motivate you most? The process you should take, is to consider what you need, and what you can afford, and then decide what you want with that, in order to come up with a solid shortlist of choices. Then compare these choices by looking at their credentials, read reviews, do a test drive for each one, see what your nearest and dearest think, and then most importantly, what you think, and feel.

What you need

Start with what you need the car to offer. How many passengers will you be driving around? How much storage space will you need? What type of driving will you be doing?  This will determine the body type and size of car you will choose.

If you’re unsure, visit our guide...

Read our guide to car body types

Fuel or power type and efficiency

Decide on what fuel type you might consider. Petrol? Hybrid? Or all-electric? This depends on how much driving you do each week, and whether it’s generally short local trips, or longer distances. And whether you can charge at home (if you’re interested in electric options).

If you do long distances it’s definitely worth looking at fuel efficiency and working out how much you would spend on fuel or charging. As well as the tax and any other costs that go with the car. To try to work out a Total Cost of Ownership, with whatever fuel-type you are open to, and especially if you are comparing one against another (e.g. petrol vs. petrol plug-in hybrid).

If you want to know more, visit our guide...

Read our guide to fuel types

Your budget

A lot of your decision will boil down to your budget: choosing the car you like most, that fits within your means.

With this in mind, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Consider the outlay price, tax, fuel costs, and servicing, and not just the upfront cost. And make sure you leave room in your savings or monthly earnings for any unexpected costs or emergencies. 

If you want some more advice on this, then visit our guide...

Read our guide on deciding your budget

What you want

Now onto the fun stuff. What do you want? What excites you? Try to pick one or two or three key wants to narrow down your choices. These can be anything, from body type (I want an SUV), to fuel type (I want a PHEV), to brand (I’ve always wanted an Audi) to design (but I love the look of the new Volvos) to interior (I want it to look plush and elegant inside, yet nonchalantly understated, with a touch of je ne sais quoi).

Unfortunately, you may not be able to get everything you want. But you should try and get as much as you can, within reason. If you make a list of needs, and a list of wants, and search according to these then you will be able to create a shortlist (that may begin as a long list) and then it’s a case of deciding what’s most important to you, and removing what’s least important to you, one by one, to eliminate the choices that don’t quite make the grade.

Does brand matter?

Most people have brand preferences, especially when it comes to cars, and sometimes they have certain models in mind too – a sort of slowly evolving idea of what their next car choice might be. Or a car brand and model that they’ve had in mind for years.

If you’re most motivated by buying from a certain marque, or from one or two or three choice brands, then feel free to stick to what entices you most. But do explore other options too, to compare your choices against alternatives, in their stats, or how they feel to drive, just so you’re totally sure that the brand you like most is right for you in reality, and it offers you everything you require. 

The more brand-agnostic you can be, the more you can make a rational choice based on the criteria that’s important to you, as well as looking at what has reviewed best, and the best prices. It gives you flexibility to find out what would be considered the top choice in the segment or class you’re interested in, and to be guided by your research.

However, gravitating towards the brand (or few) that you love, is totally understandable. And if this is the case for you, then it usually helps you whittle down a shortlist to a model or two from one brand, or the same kind of class vehicle from your top three brands. So it can make life easier in that regard.

Just don’t always believe the hype, look at reviews, look at the details, and take a test drive. You might change your mind along the way. 


In car buying surveys the top reason people buy is usually reported as design. Once rational decisions about car type are made, and choices are compared, it’s usually comes down to what the car looks like, with brand coming a close second or third.  

You’ll be looking at the car every day, and showing it off to family or friends, so it’s important that you really like the look and feel of the car. It’s no use buying a brand that you like, if exterior or interior feels somehow clunky to you, and puts you off.

You need to be happy with the badge, and the way it looks on the inside and outside. So take time to explore your choices thoroughly online and in showrooms once you make your shortlist.

The little things

Sometimes it’s the little things that make you fall in love with a car. The design of the lights, the interior console, the ‘infotainment system’, or simply a snazzy cupholder. Once you make a shortlist of three or four choices, based on your needs and wants, that you have researched as good options, then book a test drive to see how they feel.

Explore the interior and boot, and all the trim options to see what you like most, and if any particular detail grabs you by the heartstrings and won’t let go.  

Trim and colour

As you draw ever-closer towards your final choice, if you’ve found the brand(s) and model(s) you’re most interested in, then you’ll need to think about what trim level you would go for, on any of your key contenders.

Do you want the base model at the lowest price, so you can just about afford a certain model? Or do you want a higher spec choice, with a larger engine, larger wheels, interior and exterior features, and whizzy bits of tech (such as a parking aid technology)?

We would generally recommend to avoid the base model, which are fine options, but which can lack the practical details that help, or the design touches that make the car feel a little special. For both your own satisfaction, and for resale, it can help to have a nice trim level.

When you compare your final choices, try to do so using the trim and spec you would go for, so you can be clear on the final price, and that with these finer details, that it has everything you want.

It’s also worth noting that if you know what trim you want, and what colour, that you will likely get a better deal if you buy. As your specific requirements will show you mean business and mean you will be offered a more specific price for exactly what you want, in order to complete a sale. And it means you won’t be offered lots of other trim and spec choices or packages, or offered alternative choices that aren’t actually important to you.

Making the final choice

A shortlist can be as short or as long as it needs to be. A list of cars, that each fit your needs, and that you could see yourself driving. Once you have this list, compare the credentials, the cost and fuel consumption, read reviews to establish the pros and cons, and test drive each one.

When it comes to making the final choice, if you’re on the fence then ask your partner, children, family, or friends what they think. Especially if they’ll be in the car with you on a regular basis (and liable to pass judgement on your choice).

And if that doesn’t sway you, then simply go with your gut feeling. Ultimately it has to feel right for you, and as long as all the key boxes are ticked, then it comes down to which choice you like the most.

And if you simply can’t choose, and one doesn’t stand out, and nothing feels quite right, then don’t hesitate to give it some time. You can look at your options all over again, and start afresh. To look at other types or brands of car that you might not have previously considered. Or to look at what new releases are due out soon, or over the next year or so, as there might be a new model that’s on the horizon that’s everything you’re looking for, and represents the missing piece of the puzzle.

Take your time, do your research, and then try every option.

Test drive

Use our search tools to find the car you want, or we can help you decide. Compare prices and stats, and if you find something you like, then you can book a test drive through us. Just add in your car choice, and trim if known, and we’ll give you a call to check your details and see what choice(s) you have in mind, and then get the local dealer(s) to give you a call to arrange a convenient day and time for a test drive.

Once you try every choice you have in mind, then you’ll make the right decision. And doing the research is definitely worth it in the end.

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