By on August 9, 2012

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[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.


The Drive

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.


Quick Stop

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 [email protected]]

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43 Comments on “How To Buy A Used Car Part Two: The Test Drive...”

  • avatar

    “coolant temperature should hit a fixed point within ten minutes and never move.”

    What are you talking about? Coolant temp moves quite actively as it dissipates heat which varies based on engine load. Many (most) modern temp gauges sit at a fix point, which means that the coolant is within normal operating range, but rest assured, if you use the computer to monitor real-time temps, as you can in a Grand Cherokee for instance, the coolant temp will vary quite a bit.

    • 0 avatar

      He means the coolant temp gauge should never move once at operating temperature, and it never should in a modern car that is working correctly.

      • 0 avatar

        In newer cars, a lot of times that’s true because the temp gauge either had a “dead zone” programmed in so that it reads “normal” from 170 to 210 C or so, or because it’s being controlled with an electronic thermostat, and the engine controller just wants to let the driver know that it’s “normal”. On an older car (up through the 80’s – early 90’s depending on make) where the gauge is just connected to a temperature sensor with no dead zone, it can and will vary a lot within a safe range, once warmed up. As long as it stays in the safe range and makes sense given the type of driving (city or long up-hill driving will make the car run hotter, highway at normal speeds will be cooler etc), then its not a problem

      • 0 avatar

        FC3Sman is correct. The temperature will indeed fluctuate up and down for quite a while before settling down to a stable temp. The real reason is this- the thermostat which controls the water flow typically have the wax switch (the mechanical part which controls the opening of the thermostat) facing the radiator, and away from the engine. So when the engine is warming up, it takes a while for that warm water to reach around to the other side of that closed thermostat.

        You can drill a very small hole in the thermostat flange so the hot engine water could reach the wax switch sooner. This will cut down on the cycling.

  • avatar

    As a person who is currently looking for a car for his son before he goes back to college this fall. This process has been extremely helpful.

    We’ve made a list of stuff to check on any car we went to look at. It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of the car that common sense tends to go out the window.

    Needless to say the first couple of car’s we look at were clunkers. But we feel better off by knowing and walking away.

  • avatar

    This is excellent, but for most of us it is no replacement for taking it to a trusted garage and having put on the hoist and inspected by a pro.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Yep, you’re right.

      From the article…

      “If you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to schedule a professional inspection.”

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry, I hate when I do that. But I just remembered another thing that my father taught me. With electronic odometers it doesn`t matter as much. When looking at the mileage of a car he always said to check the pedals. Most odo cheats would turn them back, but were too cheap or lazy to change such an obvious wear part.

    • 0 avatar

      Is that garage going to drive it for 15 minutes?.. you need to do this to check for coolant-oil mixes leakage issues.. Thats the milky brown oil that Lang mentioned.

      If the oil is new, check it has not been messed with to hide oil consumption problems… ie: Motor Honey

  • avatar

    Last summer when I was car shopping the first thing I did was check the oil on each car I checked out. On the vast majority of them the oil was extremely low. I walked away from all of them except the mazda6 wagon which I drove but ended up walking away from that too because of the oil…and the “dealer” was one of these industrial park craigslist guys who buys a ton of stuff at auction and posts it all on craigslist. Here today gone tomorrow. I laughed a week later when I saw all his posts had been flagged and someone else posted a post saying he was a scammer.

  • avatar

    I was selling my old car a few months ago, and the guy was pretty thorough with his inspection (which lined up with this one quite a bit). But there’s something that bothered me about his inspection: he drove the car like a maniac.

    He would coast in gear and then slam the gas pedal, the coast, then slam, in rapid succession.

    He would roughly downshift at highway speeds (60mph) to third without rev-matching or blipping the throttle or easing the clutch. Clutch in, fifth to third, clutch all the way out, repeat.

    In addition to his crazy mechanical stuff, he scared me just be drifting around in his lane, not merging properly, etc.

    My question is was his manhandling of my transmission necessary? And at what point do I ask him to stop the test drive for fear of him damaging my clutch or drivetrain?

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      Regarding the throttle open/throttle closed maneuver, if the tester has someone following behind, that person can look for puffs of blue smoke which might indicate the need for a ring job. The high vacuum created with the throttle closed at high rpms will tend to suck oil into the combustion chamber, which, when burned, produces the blue smoke.

      I suppose downshifting without double clutching or rev-matching is a way to test the effectivness of the synchronizers in the transmission, but even a perfectly good transmission may not do terrifically well in this test.

      But your tester strikes me as pretty much of a knucklehead — doing stuff without knowing why he’s doing it. Driving a car normally should give you a pretty good indication of what kind of shape the transmission is in . . . and, on a used manual transmission car, the biggest wear item that is likely to need replacement is the clutch. And the best test of the clutch’s condition is a gentle take-off from a dead stop, to see if there is any shudder or less than smooth engagement. Doing it dragster-style is more likely to cover up a problem than reveal it.

      My rule: (1) I’m accompanying the guy test driving my car and (2) if I’m not comfortable in any respect with the way he’s driving, he’s out of the driver’s seat and not buying my car.

  • avatar

    A good list. One additional thing I do is turn the key on and check that all the warning lights are present and accounted for. I don’t wish to find out after the fact that a persistent CEL has been snuffed.

  • avatar

    For a while, I had developed a rather extensive checklist that I used when helping family buy used cars. I included making sure I drove by a stretch of wall or tunnel and rolled the window down to listen for any undue noise…also, on the exterior I made sure to look under the hood and along the bottom for weld seam mismatch (also, a cheap magnet went a long way towards finding any “filler” in the body). It was much more than a simple “look and drive” and each of the folks I helped really appreciated how thorough it was. The one small-time dealer wasn’t looking overly thrilled by how long I took when I checked out the 1997 Tercel I eventually bought, but having gone through the details made my decision much easier, and made him the sale. As it was, I spent close to 40 minutes looking over the cars before I ever even turned the engine over!

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      I’ll second your magnet suggestion.

      When calling various sellers regarding replacement doors for the project car, we encountered very stiff resistance to a simple request: a photograph of the door panel with a few refrigerator magnets stuck to the potential problem areas. Unless you want to pick up a dedicated “spot rot” manual magnet or electronic thickness gauge ($50-1000), the ubiquitous fridge magnet is a useful tool to detect collision damage followed by a poor repair job. The light holding power coupled with its large surface area ensures you’ll quickly learn how to detect even smaller repair patches. Bring along a clean cloth to ensure the magnet’s surface is also spotless before use; you don’t want to add any scratches, however microscopic, to the seller’s car when you check for hidden body damage.

      And now you know why car guys always save the fridge magnets which ship with every annual phone book delivery, even if they never call the services touted on their top surface.

  • avatar

    Why sellers dont get a $20 oil change right before putting a car up for sale is beyond me. Clean oil right up to the top mark on the dipstick has to impress many buyers.

    Granted, money and/or time has to be spent on detailing the body and interior, in order to make the best first impression. That is what makes it hard for most people to be objective, looks.

    One of my mistakes was buying a car with automatic climate control (BMW) in the winter. Couldnt determine that the A/C needed repairs.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve done this for the past 2 cars I’ve sold, but my motivation was different. I keep my cars up to the book with maintenance, although I do most of it myself so I’ll have a stack of parts receipts but no labor ones (having access to a lift and hop is nice).

      I feel like it’s a gesture of goodwill to the buyer to give them fresh oil in the fact that now they have 3-5k miles to drive before they need to take the car into a shop for anything. I also let them know where the car stands opn the factory maintenance schedule and when all of the last major jlid changes and other servics were done, as well as what is coming within the next 30k.

      I’m a car enthusaist and overall decent human being. I feel like by selling myself as someone who cares enough to take care of my cars, I’ll have an easier time selling the car itself.

  • avatar

    I’d be mighty suspicious of a used car with brand new oil. Would wonder if the owner was trying to hide coolant contamination – the “chocolate milk shake”.

  • avatar

    I’m suspicious of a freshly steam cleaned engine, trans and underbelly. I want to see them in their natural state. Then I’d test drive the car first, then inspect.

    I wouldn’t abuse a car on a test drive, but I’d run it up the steepest hill around with every accessory on. Stopping on the hill a couple of times, then getting back to the flow of traffic is a good test. Parking it a clean spot will help show leaks.

    I went on a test drive with a buddy a told him to put in 6th at 30 MPH and punch it. I was looking to see if it would ping severely or what. It did good for a second, but then it went straight to redline.

    He negotiated a price then mentioned the bad clutch and got another $1,000 off. The guy didn’t look surprised about the clutch as that was likely one of the reasons he was selling it.

  • avatar

    The most important thing is to see the car start from cold. A warmed-up car can hide a multitude of sins. A cold car will reveal pretty much everything.

    Also- I would ignore tire wear or tire problems. Even if there is a problem- it’s generally cheap to fix.

    • 0 avatar

      Not if the frame is bent or suspension parts are bent. Poor tire wear can also mean wheel baring, steering components and suspension bushes are worn, caused by badly aligned wheels.
      The advice to be concerned about tire wear is good.

  • avatar

    Spelling Nazi here… I understand that “brake” and “break” can be easily confused, but how do you explain the use of both spellings in the same article?

    Just being difficult, don’t take me too serious. Great write up. All are useful tips, and many apply to buying a used motorcycle too.

  • avatar

    if test-driving a manual, ask the seller for permission to test the clutch this way: on a level road stop the car and engage the emergency brake, hard. Then shift into the top gear and start pushing on the gas and slowly release the clutch. You want to the engine to stall. If it doesn’t then the clutch is toast and you should either pass or ask for a whopper discount.

    but remember: ask for permission before conducting this test and explain what/why, not all sellers are OK with the roughness.

    • 0 avatar

      Wouldn’t this only work in FWD cars?

      RWD, doesn’t the wheels being locked up by the parking brake affect this?

      AWD – Those center diffs can be finnicky, I would think this would be bad for it.

  • avatar

    Not all power steering systems are anywhere near silent, as owners of Ford trucks and Jeeps will attest. Also concur with the person who said not all temp gauges sit in the middle of the gauge and never move.

    Generally speaking, I wieght body and interior condition far more heavily than mechanical condition. Mechanicals are cheap and easy, relatively speaking, compared to rust, paint, and trashed interiors.

  • avatar

    What the heck is a CV Joint?

    • 0 avatar
      Felix Hoenikker

      On FWD cars, the CV joint connects the axles shaft to the wheel bearing.

    • 0 avatar

      “Constant Velocity” joint. The connection between the half shafts and the wheels on a FWD car need to allow the plane of the wheel to rotate for steering. With a normal Universal Joint, like in a wrench set, the output velocity is sinusoidal (velocity plotted against time would look like a wave) which would lead to vibrations during a turn. With a CV joint, the output velocity is constant with respect to the input no matter what the turn angle is.

      • 0 avatar

        Must be a lifelong RWD owners. I think just about every FWD owners would know about a CV joint, unless he/she regularly get brand new cars every 2 years or something.

  • avatar

    I’d add plugging in an OBDII code reader into the OBD port before getting started. Many times an unscrupulous seller will clear the codes, but this will also show up as the computer not being ready for testing. This means that either the codes were reset or the car had a dead battery. If the codes are reset it means they are trying to hide something…..

  • avatar

    While you’re under the hood, check the fender sheet metal. Factory parts should have the manufacture name stamped in somewhere. If not, then it’s probably replacement metal from a repair.

    I also like to spend some time just looking under the car at the engine, suspension, and body. If something is wrong it’ll stand out.

    Of course, the #1 way to get a good used car is to buy from a private seller who has a big pile of maintenance records.

  • avatar

    Checking the rubber boots around the CV joints is useful to. Look for leaking grease or rips. Keep in mind that many new FWD cars the CV joint forms part of the suspension and if the CV joint disintegrates the wheel can come off.
    While the wheel is turned out take a look at the break disks. They should be smooth and flat. Grooved or uneven surfaces mean poor and uneven breaking and the car will eat break pads until the disks are replaces.

    • 0 avatar

      “Keep in mind that many new FWD cars the CV joint forms part of the suspension and if the CV joint disintegrates the wheel can come off.”

      Any examples? I’ve never seen anything like that. A wheel bearing failure could cause such a thing. Are the wheel bearings built into those CV joints?

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    And NEVER, EVER drive with the stereo on. It will mask out noises. If you plan on testing the radio’s functionality, do it last, after completing all other tests.

  • avatar

    Another trick, ask the seller to make sure that they don’t drive the car before you arrive so you can truly see the cold start.

    Then arrive 15 minutes early to make sure they don’t start it briefly or are trying to fix something at the last minute.

    We showed up to look at a motorhome last year and there was a huge puddle under it. The engine blew a coolant hose just before we arrived. No sale.

    I also second the OBD2 scanner, if nothing is set they erased the codes.

  • avatar

    The information about oil sludge is flat wrong. A light brown “chocolate milkshake” coating on the underside of the oil cap is perfectly normal for many modern cars that are driven for short trips in cold weather. Some cars will even have this with longer trips in sub freezing temperatures. My 2008 VW Passat 2.0T, which I have owned since new and now has 75K miles, does this. The tightened emissions requirements of modern engines mean that often there is a lot of water vapor in the crankcase. This is due to modern PCV systems. This water vapor is what forms the “milkshake” on the underside of the oil cap and is in no way an indicator of engine sludge, yay or nay… It’s simply the result of normal water vapor in the engine crankcase making its way to the top of the engine, which is where the oil cap is. Yes, it can be a sign of other problems, but unless you do the following, you won’t know for sure:

    A better test for sludge is to have Blackstone Labs do their “LemonAide” test. Hopefully you will get an engine that has not just had an oil change and can wait for the test to be completed before buying. The oil analysis will tell you the internal state of the engine and identify most potential problems.

    So, don’t be scared of the “chocolate milkshake”, as you most definitely are not “done”.

  • avatar

    I check for grease pencil marks. For some reason parts from junkyards always have these marks, and people installing these parts on cars never seem to go to the trouble to remove them. Older cars that have been in accidents always have these marks.

    Checking for paint overspray and mismatched color on panels can reveal bodywork.

    I open the drivers door a bit and see if it droops. If it doesn’t, I pull up on it to see if there’s play in the hinge. If there is, I do this with the other doors. Any play suggests lax maintenance, and can be cross-checked against the mileage.

    Be suspicious if you arrive and the windows are down. They could be airing out an objectionable smell.

    Check brake rotors for surface rust. If they’re orange, it could be that no one is test driving the car, which means there’s little interest in it and so you may be able to get a better deal.

  • avatar

    When buying used car NEVER forget to perform car inspection.

  • avatar

    Once you know what type of car you are looking for and how much money you are willing to invest for the car, all you need to do is find the right dealership. Take a technician with you to check all parts. Have patience and wait for the right time.

  • avatar

    That’s a piece of great information. There’s nothing wrong with buying used cars as long as you know the problem. In fact, it’s easier for you to save the day.

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