[Editor's note: Part One of Steve Lang's updated guide to used car buying can be found here]
Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule.
Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes.
When you approach the car’s owner, be friendly, polite and courteous. Do NOT try to “beat them down” to get a better deal on a test drive. Ever. While you have every right to ask direct questions, you have no more right to insult their car than one of their children.
Open the hood and look at five big areas. Oil dipstick, coolant, power steering fluid, radiator cap and brake fluid.
Oil: Golden brown, light tan, a little dark, or even dark brown to light black are fine. The oil is just doing it’s job. A tar color or tar like consistency is not good.
Check the dipstick for level and color. Then check the oil cap on top of the engine (on most models) for anything that resembles milky crud. If it has a thick film of milky crud, that’s engine sludge, you’re done.
Coolant: Check the coolant reservoir for level. Most sellers pay attention to this. But a few don’t. Remove the radiator cap if it’s accessible. If you see crud on the cap, you’re done.
Power Steering and Brake Fluid: Check for the level. In the case of power steering, check for any heavy leakage around the hoses. If the power steering hose is saturated with oil, this could be a sign of a more expensive repair in the times ahead. Make a note of it.
The Tires And Body
Tires: First, check the tires. Pull the steering wheel all the way to the left (and then right later on) so you can see the entire tread. Uneven tire wear– marks on the side or deep grooves in the middle– may indicate suspension issues. And nothing screams “lemon” louder than cheap, bald or strangely worn rubber.
Doors: Next, open and close all the doors several times, including the trunk and hood. This will also give you the opportunity to inspect the seats and floor. On the doors, check for paint on the hinges and black moldings. If a door creaks, it’s usually no big deal. If a door has trouble closing, make a note of it if you later chose to have the vehicle inspected. It can signal anything from a broken hinge to frame damage.
Panel Gaps and Trunk: Have a quick look at the panel gaps, especially the hood and trunk. Unless you’re looking at an old Land Rover, they should all be even. Check for water leakage in the trunk. Damp and/or a mildew smell often indicates problems underneath if you live in an area where rust is an issue. Lift the trunk’s carpet and see if there is any water or damp residue underneath.
The Interior Features And Lights
When you climb aboard, don’t be put off by worn seats or busted radios. Most interior surfaces and parts can be repaired or replaced easily and cheaply.
Windows: Lower each of the windows first while the key is at the ‘on’ position, and fire up the car.
Engine: Do you hear any tapping or pinging sounds, or does it kick over with a smooth ‘vrooom’ and settle into an easy, quiet idle? Start it up again if you aren’t 100% sure.
Buttons: Test all the buttons and switches including the radio stations. Ask for help and have the owner turn on the ‘left’ signal and look at the front and rear to make sure the bulbs work. Repeat with the right.
Exterior Lights: Then check the headlights along with the brights. Brake lights should be checked in the rear as well as reverse. This may be your only time to verify their proper operation before owning the vehicle. So take the time to do it.
Windshield Wipers and E-Brake: Finally have the fellow spray their windshield and make sure the wipers are in good order. Thank them for helping them you and then test the emergency brake to ensure that it’s operating properly. If you’re driving a stickshift you will want to do this later in the test drive on a steep upward incline.
Air Conditioning: Flip on the A/C. It should kick out cool air within fifteen seconds. With an older vehicle the performance of the A/C system should be one of the more critical concerns. (HVAC repairs can run as high as $500 to $1500.) When you’re on the road, test the heat and the A/C again to make sure the temperature and fan speed are constant.
Power Steering: Finally before going on the road lower your windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and right. The motion should be seamless and silent. If there’s a lot of resistance, or the force required is uneven, the steering system may need anything from power steering fluid (cheap) to a power steering pump assembly (moderate) to a new rack (first born). Make a note of it.
Shift: Now put the car in gear. Aside from a few models (older Mercedes in particular), a late or rough shift from park indicates that the car’s transmission may soon give up the ghost. If you experience very rough or late shifting, you’re done.
Brakes: Brake force should be quick and constant. Unless the brakes have been recently replaced (ask), you shouldn’t hear any squeaking sounds. Keep the driver’s window open during the first half of the drive.
Transmission: Drive the car through a variety of traffic conditions, inclines and speeds, for at least fifteen minutes. When going uphill, take your foot off the accelerator for a moment. Coast downhill as well. If the car’s transmission hunts, clunks or has trouble catching, the vehicle probably has a transmission or linkage issue. Make a note of it.
Engine: If you hear a lot of ‘clacking’ or other unusual engine noises on initial acceleration, the engine’s components may need attention. If there’s an oil gauge, keep an eye on it. It should show approximately 25 to 80 psi during acceleration, and 10 to 20 when idling. The coolant temperature gauge should hit a fixed point within ten minutes and never move.
After about twenty minutes of driving, take the car to a gas station. Keep the engine on.
Gas release: Open the hood and the gas cover release to make sure they’re in proper working order. I also take this time to put $5 of gas in as a goodwill gesture.
Most folks will not have a car buyer as studious as you, and it’s nice to reimburse folks for an expense.
Transmission Fluid: Restart the car. If you know where the transmission dipstick is (and it’s a damn good idea to find out), check the level and color. Does it have bubbles? If the fluid is very dark brown or black, or smells burnt, it could be a sign of future transmission issues.
Final Oil Check: Turn the vehicle off and again, check the oil. If it’s not between the marks (too low or too high), or if the oil cap is milky brown, you’re done. I’ve dealt with more than a few cars that had their oil caps wiped clean before the test drive.
Last Inpsection And First Decision
After leaving the gas station, see if you can find a nice open parking lot or area where you can do a few ‘figure 8’s’.
CV Joints: Lower the windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left. Drive very slowly and see whether you have any ‘clicking noises’ near the wheels. If it does, you will likely need to have the CV axle replaced on that side. Now turn it all the way to the right side and repeat. The turns should be ‘click’ and noise free.
Decision Time: By this point, you should have a pretty good idea whether your next step is towards purchase or home sweet home. If you’re blowing it off, thank the owner politely and leave promptly, without engaging in any further discussion whatsoever. (“It’s not what I had in mind.”) Show them the gas receipt as a goodwill gesture and thank them.
If you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to schedule a professional inspection.
[Mr. Lang invites TTAC readers to share theirused car test drive advice below. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org]