Your Best Tool for Buying a Used Car: The Test Drive
Buying a used car can be a nerve-wracking experience. You can be a savvy buyer, though, by looking beyond the mileage on the odometer or past the gas mileage statistics. All it takes is a simple test drive.
A used car test drive is a key element in the purchase of any pre-owned vehicle. Use the opportunity to not only check out the car mechanically, but to discover how the car feels. To maximize the experience, try to duplicate the driving conditions where you will use your car the most. For instance, if you frequently vacation in the mountains, take it for a drive up some steep, winding roads. Ask yourself: Does this car have the power and handling necessary for mountain driving? If this purchase will be a commuter car, try it in a stop-and-go rush hour situation. Is it nimble and easy-to-navigate in heavy traffic? If you are buying a four-wheel drive for recreation, make sure you find a spot to try it off-road. Is there enough room for camping gear? Can you pull a trailer?
While driving, pay particular attention to your personal fit in the car. Is it comfortable to sit in? Is it equally comfortable for your spouse or partner? Does the car have good visibility in every direction? Does it drive straight down the road, or is there a pull to one side or the other? Look around, including in the backseat, and see if the vehicle looks and smells clean. Chances are, if the previous owner took care of the inside of the car, they also took care of it mechanically.
Make sure all the accessories are in perfect working order. Try the radio, all the power windows and mirrors, as well as the A/C and the heater, including any seat heaters. If it has a moonroof or sunroof, open and close it a few times. Check the upholstery around the opening to make sure there is no evidence of water leakage. For off-road vehicles, take the time to engage the four-wheel drive on a dirt road—or, in a pinch, in a dirt parking lot—to confirm low-range works.
Other big items prone to problems include the brakes and the clutch. Check the brakes by doing a quick stop on a deserted street. Do the brakes squeak or squeal? For the clutch, is it easy to shift into every gear, including reverse? Also, glance down at the dashboard to see if there are any warning lights illuminated.
Your behind-the-wheel test may be over, but don’t fall in love quite yet. A true test drive also means a quick look at the rest of the car. Most car lots give the engine compartment a wash so that everything appears clean, but look under the hood for cracked hoses, leaking fluids, or loose wires that may indicate a potential problem. Check the oil and other fluids. Are they full and clean? Be sure to peek under the car for any puddles from oil or radiator drips.
Tires are important as well. Look for uneven tread wear, which could indicate an alignment issue. Also note the tread depth to get an idea of how long it will be until you require new tires. Look in the wheel wells for signs of rust.
Always ask the seller if there are maintenance records available for you to review. It will help ease your mind to know that all regular services were taken care of on schedule.
If the car passes your own scrutiny and no obvious warning bells are going off in your head, it is time for the final phase of your test drive. Schedule a pre-purchase inspection with your auto repair shop where your technician will look over everything that you couldn’t easily evaluate on your own. Make sure you do this before you sign any contracts since you may be able to use their report as a bargaining chip in your purchase negotiations. Trust what your technician tells you; if they advise you to walk away, be prepared to do just that.
With your used car test drive complete, you have proven yourself an educated consumer. You can buy with confidence, and enjoy your new ride for years to come.