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The Keys to Test Driving a Used Car

POR: Alex Perrone


We at Endurance are all about protecting our customers’ investments in vehicles. While we do provide coverage for new cars, providing contratos de servicio de vehículos for USED vehicles tends to be our bread and butter. Therefore most of us who work here know a thing or two about the do’s and don’ts when it comes to buying and/or protecting a used car.

Today on ShopTalk we’re giving you some insider knowledge that will help you know if that used car you eyed on the lot or on a listing somewhere is a wise investment or an unwise money pit. As providers of vehicle service contracts many of our experts have seen hundreds if not thousands of old or used cars worth more money as scrap than on the road. A lot of these tend to be trade-ins and repossessions bought on the cheap, lightly spackled, and retailed to unsuspecting buyers. We have written at length before on the best ways to FIND a certified pre-owned used car and now that you have it in your sights, before you get your checkbook and/or wallet out you would do well to give it a proper test drive.

NOTE: One does not simply jaunt around the block for a test drive. There’s a real method for any driver new or experienced to get the most out of a test drive, and much like the modern dating scene you should start by taking things slow.

  1. Slow down and Savor in the Moment

Not all of us are gearheads but when testing a car we would all do well to treat inspecting a car like analyzing a piece of fine art. The more time you spend looking and driving and getting a feel, the more you begin to notice. Things like dents, dings, scuffs may be easier found but some of the realities associated with abuse and neglect can be overlooked rather easily if you don’t take the time.

  1. Leave no Door Unopened

Now that you’ve got it into your head to take your time, be sure to walk around the car, and slowly open each door, along with the trunk. Have no qualms regarding opening and closing a door more than once if it just doesn’t seem right to you. Some car doors can have loose hinges, frame damage, a damaged locking mechanism, or even ripped moldings. Take special care to check for water or water damage beneath or on the carpet. Examine every nook and cranny for gaps and imperfections that are right in front of you. Even of you don’t fancy yourself an expert you will still have a relatively good grasp of the vehicle in question’s qualities.

  1. First Dates are Interviews: Ask Questions

Get to know your car by asking the dealer or owner questions about it but you should know what questions to ask. Like a first date you should be friendly, courteous, and polite and absolutely do not talk down. Sure you can be direct but again, you wouldn’t insult your date or bring up money matters immediately.

  1. What does this button do?

Embrace your inner child now because the test drive is absolutely the best time to push all the buttons and play with all the features is before you go on the road. DO ALL THE THINGS! Adjust the seat and mirrors, and begin testing the windows, radio, mirrors and so forth. Take as much time as you need to make sure everything is working properly.

  1. Pop the Hood, Start It up

Whenever you start up a vehicle, be sure to check the air conditioning and the heat. If it takes more than 15 seconds for either work, take note because those repairs can be expensive and complicated (we know). Either way, you need to pop the hood as priority after starting up the car. You may not be a professional mechanic but you really only need to know the “big 3” aka: fluid levels, leaks, and sounds. With the vehicle check the coolant level and any oil build-up around the engine. Also look at the transmission fluid dipstick which should measure “cold” on the lower divot. Any ticking, rattling, or other abnormal noises are easy to pick up on but you can also enlist the help of an experienced mechanic later on if you are still uncomfortable.

  1. Smells and Looks like Oil

Motor Oil can tell you so much about a car unless the car has just been given an oil change. Simply remove the dipstick and check those colors: is it a pale, milky brown or burnt, black, and tar-like? No need to be an expert, if it looks lighter that’s a good thing but be sure to check the oil level on the dipstick to make sure it’s in the markers between “ADD” and “FULL.”

  1. Steer Clear

Before driving onto the road properly, you should lower the windows and turn the steering wheel all the way in both directions. You should NOT hear any strange noise or have that feeling of tugging hard to move. Uneven force or high resistance can indicate that the steering system may need anything from new hoses, power-steering pump assembly or even a brand-new rack.

  1. Windows up AND down

Be sure to drive the car with the windows open and also with them closed. They will help you identify unique issues. You will be able to listen for any and all unusual and repeating sounds. When you have the windows up you will be able to hear any piping, pinging, and thumping sounds coming from the engine or interior.

What Sounds *Could* Your Hear?

  • Are the tires noisy?
  • Do you notice a hard transmission shift?
  • Are there groans or whistling noises as you speed up or slow down?

You do not need to figure everything out but know that if something sounds odd to you it can either be a slight issue or a major problem. 20mins minimum in stop & go traffic goes a long way to helping you determine which.

  1. Shifting and Braking

As we noted above, even if you can’t hear it you should be able to feel if your transmission is either jerking and/or shifting late. That is the indicator for a major issue in need of repair. There are some cars with worn out transmission mounts  but many used cars with higher mileages may be equipped with  continuously variable transmissions (known as CVTs which are notorious for their short life and high replacement costs.

Besides giving a shift you need to take a brake as well. Talk to the dealer or owner and firmly (but don’t be clumsy about it) them out. The brakes should feel responsive and consistent. If you are feeling bad vibrations or notice some squealing it might be that they are in need of replacement or have been replaced badly. Them’s the brakes.

  1. Inspect Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

If your gut is telling you that the car is not your speed, like a first date you should thank the other party politely before letting them know you still need to look at a few more vehicles before you commit to anything. Unlike a first date where “have you been tested” is kind of rude to jump to, if you still like the car you’ve been testing you should just pop the big question: “Can I have the vehicle inspected?” If the owner says no it’s over. Not worth the negotiating. Any refusal of an inspection THE biggest red flag there is when buying a used car. We know it hurts but don’t let yourself fall in love with the car. KNOW that there are millions of certified used cars in the United States — plenty of other fish in the sea. Start playing your favorite break-up song, light some candles, write in your diary and move on.

BUT: if the seller agrees, you are now ready for the next step. The next step of the used-car-buying process that is and that means bringing in the expertise of a true professional mechanic who can tell you if that car is a keeper or a disaster waiting to happen.

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