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How to Inspect and Test Drive a Car

Pre-Purchase Inspection

About twice as many used cars are sold each year as new cars, thanks to their lower prices. Of course, used cars also come with more risks because of wear and tear, and they are often out of warranty coverage.

That means it’s important to make sure you inspect any used car, and take it for a test drive, before you purchase it.

After you’ve identified the used car you’re interested in, and run a Carfax Vehicle History Report to make sure there are no undisclosed issues, like accident damage or title issues, you’re ready to meet the seller, inspect the car, and take it for a test drive.

Here are the steps you should take when you inspect and test drive a used car.

1. Pick the right time and place for pre-purchase inspection

Arrange to take your test drive in daylight hours so you can get a good look at the car.

If you’re buying from a private seller, pick a high-traffic, neutral location, such as a service station or a shopping mall parking lot.

Man kicking car tire

Knowing all the steps to take during a test drive can help you find the right car for you. / Photo Credit: Getty Images

2. Check the Body Condition

Start by walking around the vehicle and take note of any signs of scratches, dents and rust. Little areas should be no worry, but large areas of those three items should be warning signs as to how the car was treated.

3. Open and Close the Doors

Open and close every door, as well as the hood and trunk or liftgate, to make sure they work smoothly and close tightly, and that the locks work. If the vehicle has a power liftgate operated by the key fob, test it out. While the trunk lid or liftgate is open, make sure there’s a spare tire and jack – or a tire inflator kit, which is becoming more popular with automakers these days.

4. Check the Gaps in the Body Panels

Check the gaps between body panels, including the bumpers, to see if they’re uniform. Run a finger along the gaps on both sides of the hood, for example. If they aren’t the same, that could be evidence of accident damage.

5. Test the Shock Absorbers

Press down hard on each front and rear corner of the car. There should be little to no bouncing after you let go. If it bounces, a strut or shock likely needs replacing.

6. Inspect the Tires

Tires are a great way to figure out the life of the vehicle. During your walk around, take note if all of the tires are of the same brand. Seeing a different brand on one or more of the wheels might raise some red flags.

If you see any, be sure to ask the seller about it. Look at each tire individually and note if the sidewall has cracks, bulges, or scuffing. Also look at the tire tread and see if there is enough tread by using a tread-depth tool or a penny.

The trick with the penny is to put Lincoln’s head down into the tire tread (see photo above). If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, then you know the tire needs to be replaced – and very soon.

Ask if the tires have been rotated on a regular basis and look at the tires to see the tread wore evenly on both sides.

7. Turn on All of the Lights

Have the seller or friend turn on the lights and make sure that all of them work. Don’t forget to check the reverse lights, turn signals and high beams as well.

Look at the light housings to make sure that they aren’t cracked or damaged, and that there isn’t any moisture coming in.

8. Check Under the Hood

Belts and Hoses: Feel the hoses around the radiator, air conditioner and other components to find out if there are any cracks or holes. Check the drive belts as well to see if there is any fraying.

Radiator: Find the plastic reservoir connected by a rubber hose to the radiator and check to see if the anti-freeze color is either green or orange. A milky or rusty color will give an indication of a problem with the radiator. Also look at the radiator itself. Any green or orange stain on the radiator may indicate a leak.

Fluids: There are four key fluids you want to check: oil, transmission, power steering, and brake. To find out where to check the fluids, open up the owner’s manual:

  • Oil: It should be either a dark brown or black. If it appears to be an amber color, then the oil was recently changed. If the oil on the dipstick has water droplets or appears grey or foamy, the car could have either a blown head gasket or a cracked engine block, which are both serious and costly problems.
  • Transmission Fluid: The transmission fluid should a pink color and have the smell of oil when you check it. If it’s brown or has a ‘burnt’ odor, then the transmission could be in trouble. Another sign of trouble to be on the lookout for is visible metal particles in the transmission fluid or the oil.
  • Brake and Power Steering Fluids: These should be filled to the proper level. Be sure to look underneath the car as well to see if any fluids are leaking.

8. Check Inside for Odors

When you first open the door and begin looking inside, do a quick sniff test. If you smell mold, must or mildew, that could indicate a water leak or flood damage. If you notice this, remove the floor mats and run your hand over the carpet to check for wet spots. Do the same sniff test with trunk. If you smell something strange, remove the trunk mat and do some investigating.

9. Sit in Every Seat

Test each seat for fit and comfort, and check that the seat belts extend and retract easily. The driver’s seat should be comfortable for you and allow a proper reach to the steering wheel, pedals, and interior controls. Make sure all the seat adjustments work. While you’re in the driver’s seat, check the car’s visibility, especially to the sides and rear. Some of today’s vehicles have wide roof pillars that can hurt visibility, making lane changes and parking more difficult.

Move around to the other seats to evaluate their space and comfort. If you have young children, will their child or booster seats fit?

10. Check the Controls and Warning Lights

Check that all the warning lights on the instrument panel light up when you turn the ignition to On (they should turn off after a few seconds).

Start the car up and play with all of the switches and buttons throughout the vehicle to make sure that they operate properly. Try out the climate control system and see if the heater and air conditioner works. Also be sure to try the audio system.

The more features a vehicle has, the more things you’ll need to check.

11. Pair Your Smartphone

Pair your smart devices with the vehicle and confirm the car is can do the functions you use most. Not every phone will be fully compatible with every vehicle, and vice-versa, and that isn’t easy to fix. Also check all the connections – 12-volt outlets, USB ports, auxiliary inputs, etc. These features can stop working and may not still be under warranty coverage.

12. Check the Headliner and Sunroof

Check the headliner and trim for any signs of staining or water leaking through a sunroof or window. If the vehicle has a sunroof, check to see if it opens and closes properly.

13. Lift the Carpet

Make sure it isn’t covering a rusty floor, and sniff around for musty odors – both telltale signs of flood damage. Do the same in the trunk or cargo area.

Apple CarPlay Home Screen in 2020 Honda HR-V

Taking advantage of some multimedia features requires having a compatible smart device. / Photo Credit: Honda

14. Make sure there’s a spare key

Today’s keys and fobs can easily cost $200 or more.

15. Test Drive the Car

Listen to the noises the car makes while it’s in motion: Before you start the engine, turn off the stereo and turn the fan down to a lower speed so you can focus on hearing the engine and any other sounds the car makes. It should be smooth when the engine is idling, with minimal vibration through the steering wheel.

Accelerate slowly: Place the transmission in drive and accelerate slowly; does the engine accelerate without hesitation and the transmission shift smoothly yet crisply? Feel how the car performs. The steering should be smooth and responsive, and it should return to the center position easily after turns. The brakes should provide smooth, short stops. Listen for unusual noises that might indicate mechanical problems.

Take your time: Don’t settle for a quick drive around the block. Give yourself time to adapt to a new car. Tell the seller you want to take the car on the highway, and take it up to at least 60 mph. Plan to drive at least 10 miles to give yourself enough time to evaluate the vehicle under a variety of conditions. Look for opportunities to drive over railroad tracks or other rough surfaces to see how the suspension reacts.

Make sure you test any car you’re considering buying at highway speeds. / Photo Credit: Ford

Test at highway speeds: Once you’re at a highway speed, check for vibrations from the wheels, suspension, and steering wheel. Step hard on the accelerator to make sure the transmission downshifts quickly and smoothly to deliver adequate passing power. Make abrupt stops on both the highway and surface streets – when it’s safe to do so – to check brake performance. Watch for pulling to one side, squeaks, or other noises. Does the vehicle ride comfortably, with minimal bouncing at highway speeds? With the stereo off, listen for how loud wind and road noise are, and whether there are air leaks around the windows and sunroof. Turn on the stereo to determine if wind and road noise will drown out music. Test the cruise control while you’re on the highway.

16. Look underneath the car for leaks after driving

After the test drive, look underneath the car for leaks. (Having a flashlight can help.) In warmer weather, you can expect water to drip from the air conditioning system, but if it appears to be something else, ask a mechanic to check it out.

Other Considerations

After conducting a thorough test drive and evaluation, you should have a better feel for whether this is the right vehicle for you, and you may uncover potential problems that should be addressed before you sign a sales agreement.

It’s also a good idea to get a mechanic to give the car a thorough inspection, as they can often see places you can’t.

If you have your eyes on a particular model – a Honda CR-V EX, for example – try to test drive more than one. Even if they’re similarly equipped, one may sound, feel, and perform differently than the other. And just because you have your heart set on a CR-V, that shouldn’t preclude you from trying a competitor, such as a Toyota RAV4 or Ford Escape. Doing so may simply confirm your first choice, but it could also open your eyes to another possibility.

If you’re considering a newer used car, you can look for certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicles. These are models checked by the dealer and certified to meet the manufacturer’s standards. CPO vehicles typically come with extra warranties and other perks, but they are also generally more expensive than other used cars.

Next Steps

If you have questions about this story, please contact us at Editors@carfax.com