And now it's time for what could possibly be the most important part of the used car buying process the test drive. Test drives are essential for a variety of reasons, but most importantly, they provide you with an immediate analysis of the car's functionality, drivability and overall presence on the road.
Before you begin the test drive process:
- Make sure the radio and the heating or air conditioning fans are in the off position so you can hear the engine as clearly as possible
- Spend some real time on your test drive; don't just drive the car around the block.
- Be sure your test drive includes hills, surface streets, parking spaces and freeways so you can make the best assessment possible about the car's overall functionality.
During the test drive phase of the used car buying process, please pay particular attention to the following items:
- Acceleration: Does the car move immediately or does it hesitate or jerk in any way? Be sure to press easy and hard on the accelerator. The car should accelerate smoothly either way. If it surges, jerks forward or makes any unusual loud noises when you step on the gas, this could be a sign of an engine problem.
- Alignment: Accelerate the vehicle to about 20 miles per hour and then take your hands off the wheel for just a few seconds. The car should continue in a straight line if you're driving over a relatively smooth surface. If the vehicle pulls in either direction after you remove your hands from the wheel, it may very well have an alignment, tire or steering linkage problem.
- Braking: Turn off the engine and pump the brake pedal, then, with your foot on the pedal, turn the car back on. If the car has power brakes, the pedal should sink a little when the engine starts. Now, push the brake pedal down hard for a minute and if it sinks even further, the car may need a costly brake master cylinder. Another test you might want to try is to accelerate to about 25 - 30 miles per hour (as always, proceed safely). Step hard on the brake pedal to see if the car stops rapidly, smoothly and in a straight line. If the vehicle swerves to the right or left or if there's a lot of play in the brake (if it feels soft or you have to push it down halfway in order for the vehicle to respond), this could indicate a problem with the drums or rotors, another costly expense.
- Steering: A vehicle should respond relatively quickly to a turn of the steering wheel. If you have to turn the steering wheel more than a few inches to get the car to respond in that direction, there could be fundamental problems with the car's steering components. The best test is to find a wide-open area with no people or vehicles around and put the car through a series of turn tests, including tight figure eights. The car should respond easily to whichever direction you turn the wheel. If it doesn't, there could be a variety of problems with the car, including front suspension issues.
- Handling: A vehicle's overall handling is as important as its mechanical soundness. When you drive, does the vehicle pull to one side or the other, does it rattle or squeak, does it ping or knock when you accelerate to freeway speed or is it difficult to steer? These are just some of the handling characteristics you need to observe closely. A car should handle smoothly and easily in virtually every driving environment. Whether you're making sharp turns, accelerating rapidly to merge with freeway traffic, driving slowly along crowded city streets or braking suddenly to avoid a collision, your car should respond quickly, smoothly and easily to whatever driving conditions it's exposed to. Be sure to listen to and feel the car during your test drive. Prior to owning the car yourself, this is the only opportunity you'll get to test its handling in a variety of driving situations.
- Suspension: If possible, during the test drive, maneuver the car over a rough road to check the suspension. The car shouldn't sway, lurch or pull to one side during this test. Additionally, you shouldn't hear loud noises, rattles or squeaks at this time. If you do, there might very well be a suspension problem.
- Four Wheel Drive: If you're test-driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle, be sure to engage and disengage the system to make sure it's working properly. With manual four-wheel-drive vehicles, engage the front hubs and transfer case. With automatic systems, simply bring the car to a complete stop and engage the system by moving the lever into the four-wheel-drive position from inside the vehicle. Once engaged, slowly drive the vehicle in a tight circle. If the system is working properly, the front tires should hop as you drive.
- Transmission: Finally, bring the car to a complete stop. Put the car in park and then shift into drive. The transmission should shift seamlessly with no jerking or popping as you make the transition. Be sure to shift into all gears several times to ensure the transmission transitions seamlessly between gears. If the vehicle has a standard transmission, put your foot on the brake pedal and shift into reverse. Beware of knocking, grinding or clunking sounds as they could indicate a serious problem with the transmission components. (Note: If your car has a manual transmission, be sure that it shifts smooth without grinding while you shift gears. Also be sure that the clutch does not slip or make a grinding (bearing) noise. A test is to put the car in gear with the clutch engaged and your foot on the brake. Slowly release the clutch, if you feel the car start to stall, this is a good sign that the clutch is engaging properly.)