Top 10 Tips on How To Test-Drive Used Cars


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A valuable test drive is indispensable in the search for the perfect used car.

However, many buyers are unaware of the examination techniques distinguishing the exceptional from the average. Often, they merely take a short drive and listen to the sound system.

Implementing the expert test-driving tips I’ve acquired as a professional driver significantly improves your ability to identify hidden issues, separate the undesirable from the desirable, and ultimately discover a secure and dependable used car.
1. Have an open mind.

A professional test driver must be impartial. The products made by the driver’s company may be better than the competition’s in some areas and worse in others. And sometimes, modifications don’t always change the car for the better.

2. Set a benchmark.

Early in the development process, automakers and their suppliers set benchmarks. For instance: “Surpass Car A in ride comfort and match Car B in steering feel.”

The used-car buyer must set their benchmarks. Early in the process, you may not know which vehicle — or even which type of vehicle — you want. It’s OK to be torn between an SUV and a sports coupe. Start by test-driving every vehicle you can get your hands on.

Great sources are car rental agencies. Check out their vehicle sales lots. Often they have vehicles their counter personnel doesn’t know about. Also, inspect lesser-known and local rental companies, which often offer older cars. The base version will ride and handle differently than up-level variants. By scoring seat time in various vehicles, you’ll likely gain the kind of perspective that will help you more accurately evaluate ride and handling dynamics.

3. Perform a pre-test inspection.

Before every test, pro-test drivers are required to ensure the test vehicle is in good shape. They check for proper oil, coolant, and transmission fluid levels, correct tire pressure, and more. For a used-car shopper, a pre-test inspection is a must, too. Open the hood. Any overpowering odor is big trouble. Look for signs of poor maintenance.

Pull the oil and transmission dipsticks and look for dirty fluid or low levels. Open the oil filler cap — dark, sludgy deposits on the interior mean oil changes were infrequent. Check hoses and fan belts for cracking. Lie on the ground and look under the car for things like leaking shock absorbers and dented skid plates on SUVs. Both before and after the test, look under the car for signs of oil or fluid loss. When you start the car and accelerate or decelerate, check the rearview mirrors for signs of smoking out the tailpipe.

Run your hand across the tread of each tire. Uneven wear indicates worn suspension parts. Measure tread depth with a gauge: New passenger-car tires start with about ten/32nds-inch tread, while SUV and truck tires vary from 11/32 to 15/32nds. (Those “like-new tires” may be closer to “worn out.”) Check tire pressure. Improperly inflated tires can affect how the vehicle performs in the test drive and may indicate that the vehicle didn’t receive the best maintenance.

Look at the brake rotors for cracking, grooving, or discoloration if you can see through the wheels. On some cars, you can inspect brake-pad thickness without removing a wheel.

If you suspect the vehicle’s been in a wreck, touch a rubberized magnet along the car’s sides. If the magnet doesn’t stick, a lot of body filler may be hiding underneath the paint.

4. Take notes.

Make a chart that covers the major areas: ride, noise, steering feel, tires, maintenance, interior wear, seat comfort, sound system, brakes, bodywork, and anything else that’s important to you. Grade each area from A to F., Make notes for items the grades don’t explain: “New radiator hoses but heater hoses need replacement.” These notes will give you a complete sense of what the vehicle offers and could prove useful as you compare it with other choices on the market.

5. Take your time.

Professional test drivers may drive for 10 miles or more to assess a single criterion. If you’re serious about the car, don’t allow the seller to pressure you into a short test. (Be kind — he’s probably had his share of joyriders. If this car is a serious candidate, offer him $20 for another 20 minutes.)

6. Be consistent.

Despite computer advances, the best vehicle-test computer lies between a trained driver’s ears. For your used-car test, you are the test instrument. Establish and practice your routine using your current vehicle or one of the rental car benchmarks. It’s best to drive the same roads, but running the same speeds is crucial: 35mph on surface streets and 60 on freeways will give good results without frightening the owner/salesman.

Make identical motions with the steering wheel. Here’s a good one —while driving in a straight line at 35, turn the wheel smoothly from 15 degrees to the right to 15 degrees to the left and back several times. Look for dead spots in the steering or notchiness that might indicate a problem with the steering rack or suspension bushings. If light freeway traffic grants the opportunity, at 60 mph, do a series of gentle sinusoidal turns — imagine unhurried lane changes — steering from 30 degrees to the left to 30 degrees to the right. (Warn the owner/salesman first!) Look for an uneven response indicating worn shocks, bushings, or mismatched tires. Go out of your way to hit bumps and notice the sounds and reactions of the suspension. If you see a problem that doesn’t crop up elsewhere, re-run that route in your current car or the benchmark.

7. Turn the radio off.

Unless you’re evaluating the sound system, switch it off. Periodically turn off the air-conditioner or heater fan, but leave the windows up. This is so you can hear unusual noises. However, it’s difficult for professionals to separate normal noises from those caused by wind, tires, and car problems. If you hear a disturbing noise, try to isolate it by changing speeds or switching pavement.

8. Keep it reasonable.

The vast majority of testing done by automakers and their suppliers is performed in a manner that does not violate traffic rules. For the most part, drive as you normally would; pay much more attention to what the car’s doing. If you’re buying a sports car, ask the owner/salesman if you can take it around a few freeway ramps at a more aggressive pace.

9. Drive down a dead end.

Used front- and all-wheel-drive cars often have problems with the constant velocity (“CV”) joints; these components allow the wheels to receive power while steering. Take front- and all-wheel-drive cars to an empty parking lot or cul-de-sac. Roll the windows down so you can hear unusual noises. Make tight, slow circles with the steering turned fully, first one way and then the other. Failing constant velocity joints make various expensive noises, including clicking and whining.

10. Get another opinion.

Professional testers often ask another certified driver to double-check their results. After you’ve found a good candidate at a good price, please take it to a mechanic for a thorough inspection and a test drive. Whether he charges $75 or $175, it’s well spent.

Philemon Shisia
Philemon Shisia
Philemon is a talented published author who contributes to the LUYA blog, showcasing their passion for content creation through writing articles. Their enthusiasm spans across a wide spectrum of topics, demonstrating their versatility and dedication to delivering engaging and informative content. With their expertise in crafting articles, Philemon captivates readers with well-crafted and thought-provoking pieces.

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