Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

What do you do when test driving/checking out a used car

when I go to test drive and inspect some used cars this weekend what are the key things I should do and look at when I inspect/drive the cars? The cars I will be looking at range in age from 1990-1999 and all will probably have anywhere from 125000 miles and up

Besides giving all of the fluids a visual inspection (I assume that you know what the danger signs look like in regard to motor oil, coolant, and trans fluid!), I would suggest that you bring a friend or relative along with you.

That way, when you drive the car, he/she can follow behind and report on whether they see smoke (and what color the smoke is), and whether the car tracks straight or not. A car that is visibly “crab-walking” has probably been badly damaged in an accident and should be avoided, but this condition is not always apparent to a person who is driving the car for the first time.

In particular, I would try to avoid those cars with blown head gaskets this time around.

Kinda know, if the oil is milky and if the coolant isn’t green but what should i look for with the transmission? My routine will be:

  1. Walk entire car, bounce front and back
  2. Check all fluid for color and i was told to 'smell" the oil but what am i smelling for?
  3. Check belts for wear
  4. Open radiator, start engine and look for bubbles
  5. Check exhaust for steadiness and no white smoke.

When engine running, give it some gas, drive out and apply brakes and then do the same in reverse. I may be alone so what can or should i do when driving?

In addition to the good adice already given, always take a potential purchase on the highway and try “pushing”" the engine, quick lane change maneuvers, fast stops, etc. You can lean a lot by stressing a car a bit that isn;t obvious with the car stationary. If the engine is preigniting, the tranny not properly shifting, of the brakes pulling you want to find out before you purchase, not after.

uneven Tire wear patterns can tell you a lot.
For ATF, the smell should be kind of nutty, and the fluid color cherry red (best); some degradation of reddish brown is probably still acceptable, but needs to be changed.
If a private owner, I like to ask about maintenance records, etc.
Proof of timing belt changes essential.

In the oil “smell” check; if you catch a whiff of a gasoline smell, not good.

Look for maintenance records! A car that comes with proof of maintenance is WAY better, regardless of mileage or price, than a car with no documentation.

Odds are you won’t be able to go into an inspection as much as a mechanic would but here’s what I would do. Several dealers I worked for used to send cars back to the shop for inspections to determine if they were going to keep them or send them off to wholesale so I’ve done more than I can remember.

First step was a test drive to check for pulling, brakes, etc. and the most important factor; making sure the transmission shifted fine. Be very suspicious of a car that has what appears to be new transmission fluid in it.

If everything is ok there, a compression test usually followed. Since you likely won’t be able to do this an alternative (of sorts) would be to connect a vacuum gauge to an intake manifold fitting and check the vacuum while the engine is running. Low compression, head gasket, poor valve seating, etc. will all show up instantly on the gauge. (And a vacuum gauge is a MUST for the tool box in my opinion.)
Run the engine long enough for it to be fully warmed up and make sure there is no knocking, oil light flickering, temp staying down, etc.

The obligatory once-over for severe rust and check all of the lighting and heater/AC operation. A thorough inspection is much deeper than all of the above but that’s a general guideline anyway.

If the car is an automatic you could perform a converter stall test. I’ll tell you how to do this test if you want. It can reveal slippage in the transmission friction material.

Some real good points already made. Some additional ones.

  • When you put the transmission from forward to reverse, how quickly does it engage? Any “clunks” or other noises?

  • Get under the car and look at the frame and underside for signs of fluids leaking. Area around the CV boots, ends of the steering rack, under the motor, and under the transmission can all get a visual look. If you see “dampness” try to get a finger smudge of the fluid and see if you can tell what it is. Water can just be condensation from the AC.

  • the older the car the less you want fancy stuff like moonroofs, and power accessories. Old luxury cars with fancy AC and heat controls get problematic as they age for example. The more basic the car the better when looking at 10 to 15 year old cars.

  • when driving the car pay close attention to steering imputs. Does the car track straight without pressure on the wheel? Is the little to zero “play” in the wheel? Does the car react quickly when you turn the wheel? Does it feel solid and “planted” on the road? Standing still move the steering wheel lock to lock and listen for any strange sounds from the power steering pump.

  • work every control and every button to see if everything functions, blinkers, all fan speeds on the AC/heater blower. How cold is the AC air? How hot is the heated air? Does the defrost setting put lots of air on the inside of the windshield? If some items don’t function how critical are they to you?

Good Luck and happy hunting.

Wear a pair of coveralls and take a flashlight when you go shopping. When you have zeroed in on the cars you want to examine (I do this on Sunday afternoon when no sales people are around)do a visual inspection to eliminate any cars you don’t want. Get down on your hands and knees and look under the car for dripping oil other fluid. Examine the tires for even wear. Check the brands of the tires–if every tire is a different brand, the previous owner may have been cheap. Look around the wheel wells and the undercarriage for signs of rust. At this point,open the hood. Check the oil–if it is milky in color, the car has a serious problem. Look in the coolant reservoir. If the coolant appears rusty, this is a danger sign. Pull out the transmission fluid dipstick and check the color of the transmission fluid.

If the car passes these tests, now start the engine and take a test drive for at least half an hour. If all seems well, now is the time to pay a trusted mechanic to do a final check.

How many dealerships allow you to drive the car that long and or have an independent mechanic do a review on the car for a day and such?

If a dealer won’t let me drive a car for half an hour and let me take it to my mechanic,I move on.
Back in 1991, I was thinking about buying a minivan. I had looked at minivans, driven a few, but decided that I would rent one for a trip of roughly 700 miles to see if I really wanted a minivan. I found a 1990 Ford Aerostar at one dealer and drove the car. I told him I thought I liked the Aerostar, but that we had a rental lined up to take a trip. If we liked the minivan we had arranged to rent, I would be back. The dealer had me cancel the rental and told me to drive his Aerostar. He said I was under no obligation if I didn’t like it. We drove his Aerostar and I bought it when we got back. He had confidence in his merchandise and he obviously trusted me.

I like to plug an OBD-II scanner in. I pass on the cars with the monitors incomplete because that probably means the check engine light was on and they disconnected the battery just before you looked at it to turn the light off. The OBD concern may have been minor, but if they are hiding that, then what else might they be hiding?

Quite a few times, dealers have let me keep a car I was looking at overnight and bring it back the next day.

Buy here pay here places also? I have zero chance of getting a dealership type place to have the type of car I can afford and/or offer financing on it. Gotta keep the total car price under $2500 before downpayment.

Yeah, you’re right. I thought about it after posting that. I suspect that the practices for low cost cars are different than the way upper end car buyers are treated.

In your price range, I suggest that you skip the car lots and look at the cars for sale by owner in people’s yards. That’s what I’m currently doing for my son’s first car.

i have done some looking but not seeing much in my price range, but will continue the search.

“Buy here pay here” lots scare me. New car dealers wholesale cars more than six or seven years old as a rule because these cars don’t have loan value. My recommendation is to arrange your financing and see what private individuals have to offer who may be selling a car.

right now the only place that will finance me is a BHPH, I really don’t have an option of going through a traditional dealership as they don’t have cars in the dollars I can pay, nor can I get a staright loan via a loan company or bank.