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.
Lists are complicated. Human beings are slightly harder to grasp, and figuring out the condition of a used car is a lot like trying to cup a drink of water with one hand.
It’s incredibly 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.
Keep This Article On Your Cell Phone While You Go Outside And Look At A Used 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. It works. Walk very slowly, and I mean tip-toe slow, to each of the four corners. Stop after each step.
Then consciously slow your thoughts down and take note of what your eyes see with each slow step and stop.
1. Aim Your Eyes At The Corners
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.
2. Doors – Open. Close. Rinse and Repeat
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? It could be your locks?
Is your door panel loose or flapping 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.
3. The Trunk May Have A Water Problem
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.
4. So Remove The Carpet
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.
5. Look For The Hood Gap
Make sure the gaps between the hood and the panels on either side are equally spaced. If not, chances are your car had an accident.
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.
6. Open The Hood – Check Your Oil
Now pop the hood check the levels and what I call, “The Green and Brown” – your 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 (sludge) or looks like a brown milkshake (head gasket), you may be looking at ungodly engine repairs.
7. Coolant – Always Bright And Clear
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.
8. Driver’s window down… 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.
9. Turn! Turn! Turn! The Steering Wheel!
Turn your steering wheel both ways 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.
10. What Does This Button Do? And this one? And this one? And…
Before you put it into drive, slowly test each and every button from the driver door to the right of your dashboard. 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.
11. Heat And A/C – Do A Slow Turn
Go ahead and test the heating and A/C system by turning the A/C to cold slowly and then the heat to the hottest setting. It should take no more than 20 seconds for that air to become completely hot or cool.
If you see an A/C button with a green or yellow 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.
If this happens keep the A/C on your car on the low setting after you drive off and see if the coolness comes and goes.
12. Local Yokel Driving
Give youself about 15 minutes of driving time and make extra sure you test the car on the slow stop and go 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.
13. Make Turns In Each Direction
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.
14. Highway Driving
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.
15, Test the brakes, but don’t make the owner hit the windshield!
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.
After you experience the highway drive go to a quiet suburban drive and test the brakes from 35 miles per hour to a full stop. Once or twice is usually enough to figure out if a car’s braking system is acting properly.
16. Park And Pop The Hood – The Transmission
Before you turn your car off, park it and check the transmission level if your car has a dipstick for it. The one behind the wheel doesn’t count. On nearly all cars you need to keep the car running on a level surface, but on a Honda you’ll need to turn your engine off.
Some transmission dipsticks are hard to read so don’t worry if that happens. Also, some cars don’t give access to a dipstick.
Last… Enjoy The Smell Of It All!
Finally, if you open the hood and wonder why oil smells so oily, you may have an oil leak. Some are small but smelly. Since the engine and catalytic converter may be burning it into the open air. Other leaks are more difficult to detect.
If you can’t find it, don’t sweat it. That’s why you hire an expert.
Step 6 : The Inspection