The Test Drive
By January 7, 2017on
Some guides offer 72 things you absolutely should do to a car before buying it.
The problem is many folks can’t even remember three when it’s time to look at a used car.
It’s intimidating to meet a complete stranger and figure out the dozens of little things that may indicate big trouble. Such as identifying uneven tire wear that may indicate suspension issues. Or a repainted panel or body weld that may be hiding frame damage or rust.
Guess what? You don’t have to know everything because you will eventually hire an expert mechanic who spends nearly all their working time looking at the overall condition of used cars.
Experience is the best protection from the unknown. So now it’s time to learn the basics. It’s time for you to inspect… you own car.
As a guy who has inspected and appraised over 10,000 vehicles a year, I do the same basic inspection. Every. Single Time. I call it…
The Slow Motion Walkaround
Try this on your own car. Walk very slowly to each of the four corners. Stop after each step. Then consciously slow your thoughts down and take note of what your eyes see.
Notice how much more you see now?! The dents. The scratches. You may even see paint work in that one or two (or five!) areas you had an accident.
You may also find that the gaps between body panels on one side are far larger than the other side. Or you may find loose black moldings around the doors, missing trim pieces, or that there is a small leak in the trunk.
Don’t get depressed if your car is now a beater. Used cars, just like all of life’s creations, get there ever so slowly over time.
Now open up your driver’s door. Then close your driver door as you would normally do and watch what it does. Did it close with a ‘thunk’, or with a rattle?
Is the door panel loose on the very bottom? Grab it gently underneath and see if it moves.
Open the door again and pay careful attention to the sounds and the movement.
Now go ahead and slowly inspect each one of your doors. Take all the time you need. This is practice. Do that and then come back in about five minutes.
When you open your trunk is there a nasty musky smell? Brown stains and pungent smells inside a trunk can be evidence of water collecting there. That can be due to the trunk moulding wearing out, or, it could also be due to an accident that was never repaired quite right.
I see an awful lot of both in my daily inspections because front to rear fender benders are by far the most common type of accident.
Now remove the interior carpet in your trunk and see what’s underneath. Is the around the spare tire brown or discolored? Is water collecting down there? Go out again and come back. This is something you can easily figure out even if you’re not an expert.
Make sure the gaps between the hood and the panels on each side are equally spaced. If not, chances are your car had an accident.
<image gaps – 2 pics side by side>
Accidents are usually not the end of the world. But sometimes a substandard repair can be a big safety issue so watch for large uneven gaps between both sides.
The Fluids – Green & Golden Brown
Now pop the hood check the levels and what I call, “The Green and Brown” – coolant and motor oil. The oil dipstick should be within the crosshairs between ADD and FULL. The one you see above is below those crosshairs which means it’s low on oil due to either oil leaks or the engine burning the oil.
If the oil is jet black or looks like a brown milkshake, you may be looking at ungodly engine repairs.
The coolant level should also be at or near the full mark. Most coolants are green while others may be orange or red. What you want to see is that the coolant is clear with no dark contaminants inside the reservoir.
Open up the coolant reservoir cap and see if there are any solid or gel like substances inside. An empty reservoir is a quick red flag. But one thing you also want to watch out for is if the coolant has been overfilled. This could be a sign that the owner is trying to hide some coolant leaks or head gasket issues.
If you can’t quite figure it out on your own car, don’t worry. That’s why you pay a mechanic. Just make a mental note of what you think you see.
Now sit in you car and roll down your window so you can hear your engine. Start it up!
Engines are complicated machines so I’ll make this really simple.
If something doesn’t sound right when you start it up, you need a second opinion.
If you hear a strange rattle, or if the car is idling in a very noisy way with high rpms, trust your intuitions. Little noises often hide bigger issues when it comes to engines. Even your own.
Turn! Turn! The Steering Wheel!
Turn your steering wheel and check if there is a whiny sound as if the car is almost complaining about your brute turning force. That turning should be whisper quiet. If not, you may be looking at anything from a leaky power steering hose, to a power steering pump, to a new steering rack.
The steering effort should also be constant as well. If you have to claw at the steering wheel to get it turn, or if the steering feels like it changes between light and heavy, that’s a red flag.
What Does This Button Do?
Before you put it into drive, slowly test each and every button from left to right. Power windows, locks, mirrors, door locks, sunroof, and radio controls should all be tested before you leave the driveway. Then there is the big one – the heating and air conditioning system.
Go ahead and test the heating and A/C system by turning the A/C to cold and the heat to the hottest setting. It should take no more than 20 seconds for that air to become hot or cool.
If you see an A/C button with a light flashing on and off, chances are you have an issue that won’t be cheap. Air conditioning systems are sealed. So you likely have a leak somewhere or a compressor that may need to be replaced. Keep the A/C on your car on the low setting after you drive off and see if the coolness comes and goes.
Local Yokel Driving
Give youself about 15 minutes of driving time and make extra sure you test the car on the slow roads along with the highways.
On the slow roads you want to keep that driver window down in the beginning so you can listen to any unusual noises. Does the car have a whine that gets louder as you accelerate? That could be a transmission on its last legs. An engine that is knocking or making pinging is also a big indicator of future problems. Don’t be paranoid. Just drive, listen, and make sure the car sounds right to you. The deeper dive from an expert will come later.
Listen for “clicks” and “thunks’ as you make turns. A “screech” or an uneven brake on low speed is also a danger sign. If you’re noticing a brake squealing sound for the first time, this is a great time to realize that the damn radio doesn’t have to be on all the time.
Keep that window lowered and hear that engine accelerate as you head onto the highway. Are there any banging or rough noises? If not, raise the window up and make sure the transmission is shifting normally. There should be no jerking motions and in most cars, the engine shouldn’t have to suddenly rev up to the highest levels to make a shift happen.
Eventually you will want to test the brakes, but that does not mean STOP! If no one is nearby you, go ahead and quickly slow down the right lane from the speed limit to 50 miles an hour. The car should never wander and it should be a drama-free experience. If not, make a note of it.
The Transmission And Coolant Check
Before you turn your car off, park it and check the coolant level along with the transmission. The coolant should be at or near the fill mark and the transmission fluid should be within the crosshairs. On a Honda you’ll need to turn your engine off.
Some coolant reservoirs and dipsticks are hard to read so don’t worry if that happens. Also, some cars don’t give access to a dipstick.
If you can’t find it, don’t sweat it. That’s why you hire an expert.
Step 6 : The Inspection