How to Test Drive a Used Car

How to Test Drive a Used Car

Shopping for a used car can be tricky if not downright intimidating. Nobody wants to be ripped off.

That goes for you and the person trying to sell their vehicle, but there are some ways you can streamline the process. Here are a few things you can do to ensure you get the most out of your test drive.

Plan Ahead

It’s a good idea is to arrange to arrange test drives with several cars you are considering on the same day. Comparing vehicles back-to-back will save you time and if you are looking at the more than one of the same model, a better sense of what to expect.

SEE ALSO: Used Car Pre-Purchase Inspection: 10 Things to Check

If you aren’t familiar with the area where you’ll be checking out the car, consider mapping out a test drive route. An ideal route will have a good mix of highway, city and suburban streets. Include a dead-end street or parking lot where you can test how the car performs during hard braking. Additionally planning a drive route will keep your mind on the car, rather than the route.

First Contact

car-exhaust-smokeWhen you arrive to check out the car, look at the body panels for anything that might hint at an accident history. Check the tires to see if they’re worn down or are improperly inflated, both of which could affect the performance and safety of the car. Open the hood and take note of any overpowering odors. Check the dipstick to see if the oil looks clean and smooth. Pay attention to the hoses and belts: do they look cracked or worn out? Those are all signs that the car hasn’t been well maintained.

When you want to start the test drive, ask the seller to fire up the car while you take a walk around it. Keep an eye on the exhaust. If there is any smoke you may be looking at a pretty big issue. Some sellers warm up the car prior to a buyer visiting, so some issues may be masked. Be sure to ask the seller not to start the car for at least a few hours so you can see it start totally cold. Touch the engine to make sure it hasn’t been running before you see the car start and consider walking away if the seller let the car run anyway.

050415-F-0000S-013Take your time to assess the interior. Quality issues may not be immediately glaring. Use the knobs, handles and switchgear to ensure that they’re all in working condition. Make sure that the air conditioning works properly. Inspect the windows to see if there are any cracks or chips. Take a look at the seating and upholstery and see if the wear matches your expectations. During your interior inspection, it’s a good idea to test the sound system as well, since you’ll be using your ears during the test drive to hear for any suspect mechanical sounds.

It’s almost time to hit the road. Check the tires first, ensure they’re inflated, and not worn out. Also ask if there’s a tire repair kit or spare tire available.

Setting Off

Roll down the windows and with the car on, row through the gears if the car has a manual transmission and inspect that the parking brake works normally. Listen for any clunking or grinding when changing the gears. Roll up the windows when you’re about to set off. Start off slowly and apply the brakes to ensure they are working and provide adequate pedal feel. Get comfortable with the feel of the brakes and steering. At slow speeds, sounds and clunks may be clearer to hear. At higher speeds, wind and tire noise can mask unusual noises.

Mustang-SuspensionAgain, it’s important to not blast off from the start of your test drive; you may put the seller in a bad mood! Get a good feel for the steering, ensure there’s no play in the wheel and hold the steering wheel loosely. If the car wanders off to one side and you are on a level road, the alignment probably needs to be adjusted.

Is the wheel vibrating? This may point to issue with tire balance or front suspension issues involving bushings or CV joints. Sense a vibration in your bottom? That’s not the car giving you the warm fuzzies; it may be a hint of poorly balanced wheels or a rear suspension issue. When you apply the brakes, can you hear grinding? Is there a pulsing? Does the car jerk to one side? If so then the car you’re looking at may need brake repairs.

If the car is feeling solid, then it’s a good time to test its engine and transmission. Applying and letting off on the throttle should be a smooth and linear feeling. Try to get a feel for a sticky throttle or hesitant transmission. Does the car idle normally at stops, or does the needle on the tachometer wander about. These can all be signs of more serious issues. Check how the car performs on rough pavement. Does it wobble and bounce around like a boat in water?

mechanic-working-on-carCheck Again

Think you’ve got a good idea about the car you’ve been driving? Confirm any doubts by double-checking. Drive over that sketchy pavement again to confirm your first feeling, or roll down the windows to hear if there really is a squeak coming from the wheels.

If you’re still interested in buying the car when that’s all over, ask for an up-to-date vehicle history report. Finally, find a mechanic and pay them to provide a pre-purchase inspection. Don’t ever buy a car without a real professional taking a look around. You can even tell the mechanic about concerns you have from the test drive. If your mechanic is good, he should be able to spot the problems and tell you what they will cost to fix.

Armed with this information, a used car test drive shouldn’t be stressful. Keep an open mind, take your time and pay attention to the small details. Don’t forget that if you have any doubts, you can always just walk away.