How to Test Drive a Used Car

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Buying a car is an exciting prospect, but there are a lot of steps to follow, and to protect your wallet, you don’t want to take shortcuts on any of them. One of the most important is the test drive, and whether you’re buying a certified used car, a vehicle from an independent used car dealer, or a car from a private party, there are some things you’ll you want to do before, during, and after the drive

What to Do Before You Test Drive a Used Car

First, before you even think about test driving a car, you’ll want to make sure that it is something that you can afford, and you’ll want to talk to your bank or credit union about getting preapproved for financing. Before you get too excited about a specific car, you need to run a vehicle history report from a company such as Carfax, so that you are aware of any issues the vehicle may have.

Now that you’ve done all that, you are almost ready to drive. Though it is called a test drive, you’ll be doing a lot more than just driving. It’s a chance to check out all of the car’s systems, and make sure it fits all of your stuff. It’s not a bad idea to take a friend along, as they might discover issues that you miss, and they won’t be as emotionally attached to a car that you’ve already fallen in love with.

You’re going to use all of your senses on the test drive, except maybe taste, because tasting anything you find in a used car would be a bad idea. You’re even going to use your sixth sense – your intuition – to deduce whether something just doesn’t seem right.

Examine the Exterior

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Before the car moves, you’ll want to do a thorough walk-around. Turn the car on, switch on the headlights and emergency flashers, then circle the car looking for lights that aren’t working or that have water in them, listening for any odd noises and noting any exceptionally strong exhaust smells. Can you see the exhaust, and if so, is it blue or black? Either could indicate major engine or emission control issues.

Look closely at the paint, and make sure it’s the same hue from panel to panel. Paint that doesn’t match can be an indication that the vehicle has been in a collision, and not all collisions are reported on vehicle history reports.

Glance under the car. Do you see anything hanging down? Do you see any fluids dripping? Look at the tire treads for wear or damage, and see if the tire and wheels all match. If the tires appear to be worn to the cords or are damaged, don’t drive the car, as you might end up responsible if a tire failure leads to a crash during your test drive. Remember, if they are in need of replacement, you’ll want to budget that cost into your buying decision or make their replacement part of the purchase deal.

Be sure to bring your child seat for the test drive, though you probably shouldn’t bring the child. The last thing you want to do is buy a car then find out that your child seat doesn’t fit safely into the car. Same goes for your dog’s crate. You’ll want to make sure it fits, can be tied down, and doesn’t block your view out of the vehicle.

Test Out the Interior Features

Time to drive, right? Well, almost, but first you’ll want to try out every single system in the car. So hop in and get comfortable by adjusting the seat, steering wheel, and mirrors. Can you find a comfortable position where you can see everything you need to see? If you can’t see, are there cameras, blind spot monitors, or reverse sensing systems to help you out, and are they working? Once your front seat is in a comfortable position, get into the seat behind it to see how much legroom your rear-seat passengers will have.

Switch on the interior lights and make sure they are all working. If they are pulsing from dim to bright, it could be an indication of an electrical issue. Are all of the dashboard lights working? If they are not, the fix might just cost a couple of bucks, or it could be much more expensive.

Turn on the radio and tune into a couple of local radio stations on both the AM and FM bands. Find some music, and then use the balance and fader controls to ensure that every speaker in the car is working properly. If there’s a CD player (and you use CDs), check its loading, unloading, and play operations. Plug your iPod or MP3 player into the AUX jack to make sure they play well with one another. Though you probably don’t want to pair your phone with the car at this time, you’ll want to make sure it has the ability to do so if that is a feature that’s important to you.

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Thoroughly test out the heating and air conditioning systems. Even if it is the hottest day of the year, you’ll want to check out the car’s heater. Likewise, you should turn on the air conditioning system, even on the coldest day. Manually adjust the fan speed up and down, and make sure that the different HVAC modes work and that air flows from all of the vents.

Close all the windows and see if there are any smells that come from the vents or are otherwise present in the car. Not only can mold and mildew be unhealthy to you and your passengers, their presence can also be an indication that the car has been flood-damaged. Check the operation of all the power windows and door locks, plus any power tailgate, sliding doors, or moonroof. 

Make sure the seat belts are in good shape and the latches confidently click into place and release easily when you push the release button.

Time to Drive

OK, now it’s time to drive. If you’re buying from a dealer, they will probably have a preset test drive route that they have designed for safety and smoothness. You’ll find that these preplanned routes don’t include any bumpy roads or left turns, but you will want to find some bumps so that you can listen for any rattles in the car and strange noises from the suspension. In the best possible scenario, you’ll be able to have a test drive that simulates your daily driving environment.

During the drive, you’ll want to continue to use all of your senses. How does the car sound when you accelerate, turn, or brake. Are there any unexplained noises from the transmission when you accelerate or decelerate? Listen for wind whistles from the windows or sunroof, as they can indicate leaks.

Things you feel in your seat are often associated with the rear end of the car, while things you feel with your fingertips on the steering wheel tend to come from the front suspension, steering, engine, brakes, or tires. Do the brakes operate smoothly and confidently, or does the pedal vibrate or go to the floor when you brake? With your hands loosely on the wheel, you can determine if the car pulls to the left or right when braking. It should glide to a stop in a straight line or pull ever-so-slightly to the right – never to the left.

Keep an eye on the instrument panel so that you can identify any gauges that aren’t operating properly or any warning lights that come on. You’ll want to assess whether the car has the performance that you expect, want, or need. Does it merge with sufficient urgency, for example, and can you see while you’re doing so?

Get the Car Inspected by a Mechanic

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Taking a comprehensive test drive is not a substitute for getting any used car that you are considering checked out by an independent mechanic. A good mechanic can find issues that you might not find, are not on the vehicle history report, or that sellers are looking to conceal. If the seller won’t submit their car for an independent prepurchase inspection, you should walk away from the deal.

Even if you identify any issues through the test drive or prepurchase inspection process, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the deal is dead. Each legitimate fault you find is a point of negotiation with the seller.

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