Sep 21, 2011

Used Car Buyer's Guide: Part III

Part III: Test Drive

It is time to climb into the car and take it for a drive. Turn the key to the on position, but do not start the car.  Make sure the battery light, oil light, and airbag light (if so equipped) all turn on.  These lights should all go out once you start the engine. Start the car up and check all of the instruments.  Make sure the tachometer, fuel gauge, and temperature gauge are all operating. 


If the car is an automatic transmission, it should smoothly shift into gear.  It should not "bang" into gear and jolt the car.  As you start to drive you should be paying attention to the feel of the engine and the transmission.  The engine should accelerate smoothly with no stuttering or hesitation.  The transmission should shift quickly and smoothly and the engine should not rev up in between shifts. As you decelerate, the transmission should smoothly downshift as you slow down.  When you come to a stop, the transmission should be back in first gear.

If the car is a manual transmission, you should be focusing on the clutch engagement and the ease of gear selection.  The clutch should engage somewhere around the halfway point from the floor to the top of the clutch pedal travel.  It should not engage right at the floor.  It should also not engage near the top of its travel.    Engaging near the top is a sign of a worn out clutch.  As you let the clutch out, it should engage smoothly and firmly.  It should not "chatter" or vibrate and it should not slip.  The gear selector should engage each gear crisply, but should not be difficult to engage.  If there is a gear that is difficult to engage, that is a possible indication of a worn transmission or other potential issues. 

Start out slow.  Take the car over some bumps in the road.  Driving over bumps will allow you to listen for rattles in the interior, and more importantly, in the suspension.  The car should handle bumps and rough road without creating clunks or rattles from the suspension.  If you hear unexplained noises in the suspension system, further inspection by a professional is advised if you still want to purchase the car.  The suspension of the car should be commensurate with the type of vehicle you are driving.  For example, a BMW should feel smooth and firm.  It should be connected to the road and should not be bouncy or sloppy feeling.  A truck will have a firm ride and will navigate turns and bumps in the road in a different manner.  It is a good idea to drive more than one example of the model of car you are buying so you have something to compare it to. 

Drive the car at different speeds.  Take it out on the freeway and accelerate up to speed.  Carefully observe the feel of the car.  There should be no vibrations or shimmy in the steering wheel.  The car should not feel like it wants to drift from side to side.  If you take your hands off of the steering wheel, it should continue in a straight line.   When you come off of the freeway, pay attention to the brakes.  As you slow down, the car should not pull to one side or the other and there should be no pulsing or vibration while braking. 

I would recommend a thorough test drive.  Try to incorporate around town style driving as well as freeway driving.  Remember to always pay attention to gauges.  The temperature gauge should settle in and stabilize as soon as the car reaches operating temperature.  If everything is working properly, it should not move after it reaches operating temperature.  Let the car sit and idle for about ten minutes after you drive it.  Again, make sure the temperature gauge does not move.  If the engine gets hotter while sitting, there may be potential cooling system problems. 

Stay tuned for the final installment of the buyer's guide:

Part IV: Choosing a Car and Making an Offer

Return to Part II: Inspecting the Engine, Tires, and Brakes

Return to Part I: Visual Inspection

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