Used car shoppers have a lot of company these days. Used vehicle sales topped the 42-million mark last year and, according to the most recent Used Vehicle Market Report from Edmunds.com, jumped another 1.8 percent during the first quarter of 2015. In other words, a lot more people are buying pre-owned vehicles than new ones. And what every one of those people should keep firmly in mind is that there’s also a lot more to look out for when test driving a used vehicle. If you’re in the market for a used car, find the best one for you with the U.S. News used car rankings and used car listings.

how to test drive a car
Test drive a used car like a pro (Kate_sept2004/Getty Images)

When buying a used car, you have to recognize that, with pre-owned cars and trucks, the test drive has a two-fold purpose, says Philip Reed, consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. “First, if you haven't driven that make and model before, you will be trying to figure out if you like this model in general. Secondly, you are, in a sense, pre-inspecting the vehicle to determine its mechanical condition. I say ‘pre-inspecting’ because we also recommend taking a used car to a mechanic before buying it. But on the test drive, you can decide if the car is worth taking it to a mechanic since that will usually cost about $100 for an inspection.”

Although $100 is a lot, it’s money well spent, adds Lynn Parker, chairman of the Automotive Maintenance & Repair Association (AMRA). Parker says that even a used vehicle represents a significant investment that’s expected to last for years, and that a small outlay now can prevent big headaches in the future. He also advocates doing a little homework before the actual test drive begins.

“Make a checklist,” he says, “but not about the car you’re shopping for. You need to make one for your previous vehicle, listing everything you hated and loved about it. Then that should be your benchmark for the vehicle you’re test driving. If you’ve always hated how you feel making a left turn in your old vehicle, make sure the next one helps you overcome that. If you think your old vehicle had one of the best seating positions, make sure the next one does too.”

Next, a quick visual inspection is in order before the drive begins. You should look for major, obvious issues at this stage and leave a more detailed evaluation for an expert. Parker says, “Step back from the vehicle enough to look at both sides at the same time. Are there different kinds of tires on each side, or different paints? These are indicators the vehicle may not be a good choice. In the cabin, look for areas that are particularly worn, like on the steering wheel or brake pedal. These can be signs of heavy use.

“Also, get down and use a flashlight to look beneath the carpets and floor mats for storm or rain damage,” he adds. “This is a way to eliminate a vehicle very quickly.”

For the actual road test, tips supported by both Reed and Parker include taking the time to check things like mirrors, steering-wheel position and seating position while still parked, so you can concentrate on the driving experience when you’re on the move. Also, because you want that experience to match the way you are going to use your car in the real world, you should make sure that the test drive includes a wide variety of conditions, not just a salesperson’s pre-selected route.

Either way, this is the time to visit an ATM, go through the drive-through, try to fit the vehicle in your garage, and cover your daily work route, all with an eye to seeing how the car or truck will suit your actual needs. Adds Reed, “If you’ll be using the car for family duty, install any child safety seats you usually use to make sure they are compatible.”

But shoppers should rely on their ears, too, listening for any unusual or unpleasant noises, especially from the engine and climate systems. For front-wheel drive vehicles in particular, Parker says you want to turn the steering wheel to full lock both ways and listen, with “clicking noises being another bad sign of money waiting to be spent.” He also suggests bringing your own CD or MP3 player to test out the vehicle’s audio system with familiar music.

Readers probably will have noticed that kind of sound advice also applies to new vehicles, as do many of the tips mentioned here, and there’s an important reason for that: Despite the many differences between test-driving a used vehicle and a new one, there also are plenty of similarities, including these 5 Things to Focus on During a New Car Test Drive.

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