You know you should do a test drive before you buy someone’s used car, but how do you know what to look for? Here are some of our tips to make you seem like an expert on your next test drive.
- Listen. This is very important. Turn off the radio, keep the conversation to a minimum and listen to the sounds the car makes. Do this both with the windows up and the windows down. Does the engine run smooth? Does the transmission shift cleanly? Are their bumps or rattles that sound bad? Does the steering make a noise when you turn?
- Pop the hood. Everyone does this, but most people don’t know what to look for. Yes, you should check the fluids, but most people selling a used car will know to fill the oil first. Look for signs of oil in the engine, smell for burning oil or radiator fluid. When you open the hood, it’s really the only time you directly see the frame of the car, so look for bent frames, a tell-tale sign there has been an accident.
- Drive the car at all speeds. Take it slow through stop and go traffic. Take it out on the highway and work through all the gears. Only by testing the car in every situation can you be sure there isn’t a hidden problem. If the owner does not live near a highway, have him meet you near one. Look for colored or excessive smoke from the exhaust.
- Ensure the car is not warm when you arrive. Cars with starter problems usually only have the problems when it’s a “cold start”. Make sure you tell the owner you want to test a cold start, and be sure the car is not warm by feeling the hood when you get there.
- Look underneath after a drive. Check for dripping fluids. I had a great test drive once but noticed tons of oil coming out of the bottom afterwards. Only then did the owner mention it burns a quart of oil per week. If you ran the air conditioner, expect to see water dripping from the frame.
- Feel the car. Feel for signs of body putty, look carefully at the paint to see if it all matches. Do the lines of the hood and doors line up? Those are telltale accident signs. Cars that have been in accidents I almost always avoid for a variety of reasons. You should also check a Carfax and ask the owner about accident history.
- Try everything! You’ll feel stupid, but roll all of the windows up and down, turn on the heater, try the AC, leave no switch unturned. Every thing can be extra cost to you, better to find it now.
Checking all of these things should give you a give you a pretty good idea if there is something major. Other problems may be harder to detect, but these 7 should be a good starting point. If possible, it never hurts to have a mechanic do a once over as well.