How to test drive a used car

Test driving a new car is one of the fastest ways to learn about a car. You can quickly determine if the car is worth your time to check out mechanically.

There are of course a few common problems that you need to look for when test driving a car.

The first stage of your used car test drive should involve testing all of the functions of the car:

You need to test the head lights, heater, A/C, radio, interior lights, mirrors, brake lights, turn signals, defrost, safety belts, windshield wipers and seats for how they function.

Plus, you want to check out any additional options like electronic seats, seat warmers, GPS etc.

Starting the car:

Before you start the car, be sure to check if the car is already warm. If it is, the owner may have pre-heated the engine before you arrived so that the car will start easier… if this is the case, be aware that the car may have cold start problems.

Open the hood before starting the car. Check to see if there are any wet parts of the engine, this will tell you if there are any leaks.

Start the car and pay attention to whether the engine strains at all when starting. This may mean the battery or electrical system is on it’s way out.

Once the car has been started, go back to the engine compartment and check again for any wet engine parts. Some engines will leak only when running.

Put your hand on the fender of the vehicle to check if you feel any harsh vibrations. The car should run fairly smooth and not shake the vehicle.

Finally, if the car has power steering, make sure that the steering wheel can be moved smoothly back and forth and there are no strange noises when you do this. If there is a loud whine when you move the steering wheel this may mean the power steering pump is fried.

Test Driving the Car:

Finally it’s time to take this car on the road! Through the entire test drive process, be aware of the sounds of the car. Does the brake pedal make noise? Does the engine make a strange noise at a certain speed? Does steering the car make a strange noise? These are questions to be asking yourself the entire time you are test driving the car.

The first thing you want to notice about the car is how the transmission shifts:

If you’re test driving an automatic car, you should almost not even feel the shift when driving slowly. If the shifting takes longer than 3 or 4 seconds this is a major problem.

If you’re test driving a standard car, the shifts should be smooth and easy. If the car grinds into the next gear then the synchros are probably in need of repair.

While driving down a quiet street, take your foot off the gas and let go of the steering wheel (CAREFULLY!). If the car pulls one way or the other, there is most likely an alignment problem. Also, push the brake lightly and if the car pulls left or right under braking there is most likely a problem with the braking system.

Make sure you take the car both up and down hills. Does the car shake when braking down a hill? If so, the brakes need service. Does the car handle accelerating up a hill? Or does it cough and lose power? This could mean a number of engine problems that need to be checked out.

Finally, you need to take the test drive to the freeway:

This step is really important. Any major problems with the car are going to be very apparent when riding on the freeway.

Here are some things to look out for:

  • Does the car pull to the left or right?
  • The brakes pulsing or shaking when applied.
  • Excessive wind noise when all of the windows are closed.
  • Does the car seem to “float” around? There may be suspension problems.
  • Does the engine sound normal?
  • If you stomp on the gas pedal does the car cough or hesitate before accelerating?

If any of the problems above are apparent during your test drive, you should have the car checked out by a mechanic before purchasing.

Also, be sure to check out our articles on car dealer scams so that you can protect yourself when buying a used car.

Have anything to add to the list? Seen any weird problems during a test drive? Let us know in the comments below.

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