Your car has probably seen below-average use in the past year. However, with lockdown restrictions across the UK set to ease over the next month, and six people or two households allowed to meet outdoors in England from 29 March, you’re likely to be back behind the wheel soon – particularly as the Easter holidays are coming up.
If you’re planning on driving to meet family or friends once it’s legal to do so, the last thing you need is for your car to ruin your plans. But if it’s been sat unused for a long time, it may have developed some minor issues that mean it might not perform as you’d expect, or could you leave at greater risk of breaking down.
Thankfully, by taking the time to perform four basic checks, you can ensure your car is both safe and legal before taking it out. Read on to find out the key areas you should pay attention to.
It’s also worth taking a moment at the pumps, if you need to fill up. Our latest car survey* revealed that one in 50 breakdowns were caused by misfuelling – which isn’t something you want to have to admit when you’re ringing breakdown assistance.
The best way to ensure your car won’t let you down is to buy a reliable model. Our extensive survey of more than 47,000 car owners reveals the most reliable cars
Left exposed to the open air (particularly in salty conditions such as by the coast), brake discs can begin to corrode and display rust on the surface.
If this gets too bad the brake pads will bind to the disc, seizing the brakes and rendering the car immobile. Your vehicle will then need recovering to a mechanic to be fixed – you can find a reliable local garage at Which? Trusted Traders.
If your brakes are corroded, try gently moving the car. If the wheels don’t spin freely under gentle acceleration, don’t try and force the brakes free as you could cause further damage.
If you can get the car moving, corrosion on the brake discs can usually be removed after a few firm stops, after which the brakes should perform normally.
Questioning your car’s dependability? Discover which roadside assistance companies we recommend with our best car breakdown providers.
2. Car tax and MOT
You won’t legally be able to drive unless both your car tax and MOT are up to date – the government’s vehicle enquiry service lets you check whether it is or not.
In 2020, drivers whose MOT expired between 30 March and 31 July were given a six-month extension on their due date, with the latest due by January of this year.
However, mandatory testing resumed from August 2020. So if your car hasn’t had an MOT since lockdowns began, it’s likely to need recertifying before being allowed back on the road.
While it’s illegal to drive without an MOT, an exemption exists which allows you to drive it to a pre-booked MOT appointment only.
The Department for Transport runs an MOT reminder service, which will helpfully send you free text messages or emails a month before your next one is due.
You may still have valid car tax, depending on whether you’ve renewed in the past year. If you’re previously declared your car as SORN, you’ll definitely need to purchase new road tax before driving.
Give your car the best chance of passing its MOT – see how to pass a check.
3. Car battery
Typically, the first item to cause problems – even in new cars – batteries can lose charge if they’re not regularly topped up by the engine.
If you’ve caught it early enough you’ll notice the starter motor labouring to start the engine before eventually firing. An extended drive (with no stopping or starting the engine in between) should restore charge back to normal levels.
If the battery hasn’t got sufficient charge to turn over the engine, you’ll need to jumpstart it to get it going again. For instructions on how to carry this out safely, head to our guide on how to jumpstart your car.
Batteries left for extended periods of time can go into a state of ‘deep discharge’. At this point they will struggle to hold charge whatever you do with it, so it will need replacing if you don’t want to worry about your car starting each day or if you’ve stalled at a set of lights.
If you don’t plan to use your car often but need your battery to be in good condition for when you do, consider investing in a trickle charger. If you’ve got private parking and can run a lead to your car, it’s a useful way to keep the battery topped up when your vehicle’s not in use.
Time for a new car? Only cars that reliable and perform really well in our independent lab and road tests make it to our expert pick of the best cars.
Aside from losing some air pressure, your car’s tyres shouldn’t be affected by not having been used.
Make sure they’re properly reinflated to the correct pressures, though. Under-inflated tyres increase fuel consumption and can affect the braking performance of your car. You’ll be able to find the recommended tyre pressures for your model in the owner’s handbook.
You should also check your tyres have sufficient tread depth and no defects, such as flat spots or bulges in the sidewall (they will need replacing if you find any). The minimum legal tread depth in the UK is 1.6mm. You can easily check by inserting a 20p piece into a tyre groove. If the outer band of the coin is not obscured by the tread block, they’re too low and illegal to use.
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*Which? Car Survey: conducted online from December 2019 to February 2020 of 47,013 drivers who own 55,883 cars.