10 Tips for Test Driving a Used Car

by Easton Motors
7/28/2021 - Wisconsin

10 Tips for Test Driving a Used Car

So, you’re looking for a top-quality pre-owned vehicle. You’ve done your homework, you’ve narrowed your search down to your dream car, and you’ve actually found what you’re looking for at a dealership. What’s next? The test drive! Well, hold on just a moment because here at Easton Motors, we know that people are excited to drive a car, truck or SUV for the first time, and they may forget to do some very important things before and during the drive. That’s why we suggest car shoppers take advantage of these 10 tips during the inspection and test drive processes to ensure they’re getting a quality pre-owned vehicle that’s not concealing any problems or headaches.

1 - Call Ahead

Call ahead and ask the seller to ensure the vehicle’s engine will be cold upon your arrival. This may mean coordinating a time to see the vehicle when it’s been parked for an hour or two. Sometimes sellers will pre-warm a vehicle’s engine to conceal a sound or issue that’s more apparent at startup, including visible smoke from the tailpipes, or an unwanted rattle or knock when the engine is cold. Checking fluid levels accurately may also require the engine to be cold, but check the instructions in the owner’s manual of the vehicle you’re considering to be sure. 

2 – Bring Some Gear

To help you get up close and personal with the vehicle you’re considering, a few items will be useful before your test drive. A clean towel or piece of carpeting can make undercarriage inspections more comfortable than lying or kneeling in the dirt, and a flashlight is also an indispensable tool. A tire tread-depth gauge is a must-have, and a pair of gloves and rag can make fluid level checks tidier and more comfortable, too. Finally, using Google Maps or a reconnaissance drive through the surrounding area, track down the roughest stretch of nearby paved road and plan to visit it on your test drive.

3 – Look Under The Hood

Before your test drive, check all accessible fluids including engine oil and transmission fluid. Next, after confirming the engine hasn’t been pre-warmed, pop the hood and have a good look around with your flashlight. A qualified technician is the best person for a proper inspection, though test drivers can look carefully for signs of trouble, like visible fluid leakage. Next, have the seller start the engine for you while you listen carefully with the hood open. In the first few moments of idling, listen carefully for heavy rhythmic ticking, clanking, or banging that either disappears after a moment, or continues while the engine runs. Noting that direct-injection engines have a characteristic ticking sound that’s a normal part of their operation, call any other unusual sounds or thick smoke from the exhaust pipe into question and have a technician check the vehicle before you buy if you have any concerns.

4 – Check For Water Leaks

To avoid the frustration and expense possible from water leaks, spend a few moments checking key trouble areas for signs of moisture, standing water, rust, mildew, or water staining. Pull everything out of the vehicle’s trunk so you can see as much of the bare metal beneath the cargo area of the trunk as you can. If you see rust, mildew, or standing water, you should find another vehicle. Check for interior water leaks as well. Remove all floor mats and press your hand or a rag into the carpeting, focusing on the outer corners of the vehicle’s cabin. The presence of soggy carpeting in these areas may be evidence of a leak from the vehicle’s sunroof or a leak from the air conditioner.

5 – Before You Drive

Before driving off, spend a few minutes going through the vehicle’s cabin. First, remove all non-factory car items so you’ll be able to hear the sound of the vehicle’s drive more clearly. Next, pair your compatible smartphone via Bluetooth or USB so you can confirm proper operation of phone calls and media playback during your drive. Then, set the driver’s seat to your comfortable position. Finally, familiarize yourself with all onboard controls, confirming the proper operation of each as you go. Check the volume controls, the climate controls, the navigation, the seat and mirror adjustments, the door locks and latches, the gas filler door and power tailgate release, and more. Then, use everything in the vehicle’s cabin that runs on electricity to find out if anything isn’t working properly.

6 – Drive On A Rough Road

You’ll use the rough road you tracked down in Tip 2 to help make potential suspension and front-end problems reveal themselves. First, quiet the cabin. Then, working from the premise that healthy suspension components don’t make excessive noise on rough surfaces, head down that rough road at an appropriate speed and listen carefully. A dull roaring noise is normal from most vehicle suspensions on a road like this, but popping, clanking, smashing, or banging sounds from beneath warrant further investigation by a technician before you buy.

7 – Test The Brakes

If the vehicle you’re considering has a healthy braking system, it’ll exhibit a positive bite from the first bit of brake pedal input, and build resistance progressively as you press harder on the brake pedal. A spongy pedal feel or lack of braking response until the pedal is pressed significantly are signs that the brakes are in need of attention. Further, remember that scraping, grinding or squealing sounds from the brakes are signs that some components are worn and in need of replacement. On an appropriate stretch of roadway, slow or stop the vehicle from a moderate speed three times. 

First, test the brakes slowly. Using light pedal pressure, ‘feel’ for signs of vibration, pulsation, or scraping from the brakes, and listen closely for a high-pitched squeal. As you slow the vehicle, adjust the pedal pressure slightly at the tips of your toes, to see if you can coax out any unusual sounds.

Next, stop the vehicle again using more pedal pressure, as if your green traffic light suddenly turned yellow. While stopping quickly, be on the lookout for unwanted sounds, a soft pedal feel, or a tendency of the vehicle to try and steer itself to one side or the other.

Finally, perform a hard stop. Applying full brakes, be sure the vehicle’s ABS braking system kicks in, that the vehicle doesn’t try to steer itself to one side, and that the pedal remains firm beneath your foot. If that’s not the case, have a technician check the braking system before you buy, as new parts or repairs may be required.

8 – Test The Driveline System

On an appropriate stretch of road, accelerate from a stop to a good cruising speed three separate times. This is easily overlapped with the braking system test above. 

First, accelerate gently up to speed. Does the engine pull strongly and smoothly, or does the power delivery feel lumpy and inconsistent? In most modern cars, you should barely feel the transmission shift at all, if throttle pressure is light.

Next, accelerate more briskly up to speed, perhaps at half throttle. Is the engine or transmission smooth at higher revs? Do you hear or feel anything unusual? Is the power delivery smooth and consistent?

Finally, full throttle. Pay attention to the quality of the gear shifts, and the feel and sound of the engine at high revs and while shifting gears. 

By giving the engine and transmission a wide range of situations to handle in a back-to-back fashion like this, certain problematic sounds or sensations can become more apparent. An engine misfire, for instance, will result in a lumpy or rough feel to the acceleration and may be signs of an ignition or fuel system problem. Rough shifting in certain conditions may be a sign that the transmission needs some attention or a software update. If you have any concerns, have a technician check the vehicle before you buy.

9 – Inspect The Wheels & Tires

Spending some time crouched down low at each of the vehicle’s wheels, preferably on the towel or carpet you brought along, can provide plenty of insight into its condition. Inspect the tires fully. Check both inner and outer tire sidewalls for damage, using your flashlight if necessary. Light scuffing is no cause for alarm, but visible gouges or bubbles in the tire sidewall often indicate more serious damage and the need for new rubber.

Using your tread-depth gauge, determine how much life is left in the tires. Uneven tread wear across the width of a tire is a sign of alignment trouble, which you may ‘feel’ through the vehicle’s steering as an unsettled feeling, or a tendency to pull to one side or the other. If that’s the case, an alignment is necessary.

Check the wheels while you check the tires. Look for excessive curb rash, missing chunks of the wheel rim, cracks, or other damage, which could cost you money. The vehicle’s disc brakes may be easy to see from this position as well. Using your flashlight if needed, look between the spokes of the wheels at the metal disc brake rotor behind each one, if applicable. Healthy disc brake rotors are smooth and shiny. Excessive gouging or rings of rust on their surface indicate that a brake job is needed.

Finally, using your flashlight, look up inside of the wheel well and locate the strut or shock absorber. Though a qualified technician is the best person for a suspension check, you may be able to detect visible fluid leaks or seepage, which are a sign of trouble.

10 – Test The Steering & Front End

With the vehicle running but parked, turn the steering wheel rapidly from one side, fully to the other. Repeat this in both directions, several times. If you hear a clunking or popping sound in the process, possibly accompanied by a tactile snapping or popping sensation through the steering wheel, you’ll want to have the vehicle’s front end checked over by a technician before you buy. An inconsistent or ‘notchy’ steering feel during this exercise may be a sign of trouble, too.

Finally, in an appropriate area, place the vehicle in DRIVE, turn the wheel fully to one side, and gingerly apply the throttle. Do this several times, with the wheel pointed in both directions. You’re not trying to spin the tires, but you are trying to get the car to ‘leap’ forward with the wheels turned sharply. If you detect a loud clunk or popping sound or sensation during this test, have the vehicle’s motor mounts, front end, and CV joints inspected professionally before you buy.

Here’s Another Useful Tip

Ask the dealer if you can see the vehicle’s service records. These will show you if the car has had the scheduled maintenance performed on time.

At Easton Motors, our professional sales consultants will make sure you get the most information possible before and during a test drive so you can make a very informed buying decision. For your convenience, we have seven Buy-Here Pay-Here dealership locations throughout Central and Western Wisconsin including in Adams, Baraboo, Beaver Dam, Portage, Sun Prairie, West Salem, and our brand new location in Wausau. Shop our huge inventory online, and even apply for EZ pre-approval for financing! We’ll see you at Easton Motors where getting credit and buying a top-quality pre-owned vehicle is as EZ as 1, 2, 3! 

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