Under The Hood

Test Driving A Used Car? Check These 15 Things Before You Buy

Buying a car is a big decision. The importance of a thorough test drive cannot be understated.  And when you’re buying used, you better be REALLY paying attention.

Here’s a savy list to help you determine if the car you’re test driving is a gem or a lemon.

1. Lights

This is a good one to knock out first,  because it’s an important safety feature and easiest to check when you have someone assisting you. Stand outside the car and ask the seller to demonstrate that the headlights, brights,  brake lights, and turn signals work.

If possible, arrange for a test drive to be done at night so you can access if the headlights are bright enough for your liking.

2. Tires

Examine all 4 tires. You’ll want to verify three things:

  • Are they the same size and brand?

  • Is there at least a quarter inch of tread left on each one?

  • Is the wear that exists present in the same place on all 4 tires?

3. Rotors

If the wheels on the car have spokes, peek through them and get a good look at the front brake rotors. You should be looking for major signs of wear including rust and scoring ( grooves).

Image courtesy of The ‘Boro How To

4. Side Panels

Squat near the front of the car, and look down its side panels. Feel the paint, it should feel even and smooth. In addition, the reflection off the paint should be true to form, and not distorted. If you see ripples, this could be indicative of a body repair that occured after an accident.

Image courtesy of Samarins.com

5. Doors

Check that all doors on the car open and close freely with minimal effort. While the doors are open, check the edges and hinges for signs of rust. In addition, test that all doors lock from both inside and outside the vehicle.

6.  Trunk

Open the trunk, and make sure there is enough room to store the things that you carry around on a fairly regular basis. (E.g. golf clubs, backpack,  gym bag, suitcase, instruments etc.) If possible, bring these items along so you can be 100% confident of the fit. While you have the trunk open, you should also lift up the carpet and check for signs of rust.

7. Hood Release Lever & Latches  

In order to check  your car’s engine, your hood release lever and latches have to be functioning. There should be a hood release lever on the driver’s side seat, located close to the floor.

Photo courtesy of Car Insurance Cost

Pull on it, and the hood should pop part of the way open. To open the hood fully, you’ll have to press on the hood release latch located outside the very front of the hood, just above the car’s grill.

Photo courtesy of Nissan Owner Channel  

Different cars have different placements of the hood latch, as well as two hood latches in some cases. So don’t be afraid to ask the seller for assistance in showing you where it/ they are located.

8. The Engine

Now that the hood is open, you should take the opportunity to check out the car’s engine. Start the car, step outside and listen to the engine as it runs. It should sound smooth. According to Courtright Automotive, If you hear any of the following sounds, you should be concerned:

  • Clunking and Grinding

Often times, this signals an issue with the transmission of the car. This is a very expensive repair/ replacement, and not one you want to be dealing with.

  • Clicking and Tapping

This indicates either a damaged part, or low oil pressure.

  • Knocking

A deep knocking noise signals that the vehicles connecting rods have become loose, or extremely worn out.

  • Hissing

Hissing noises are usually the result of an engine that is overheating, or a leaking vacuum device.

If you hear any of the following noises coming from the car’s engine, we strongly recommend getting a certified mechanic to inspect the car before proceeding further in the purchasing process.

9.  Under The Car

While the engine is still running, drop to the floor and check underneath the car for fluid leakages. To make this easy, make sure the ground beneath the surface is dry before you begin the test.

Hopefully, you won’t see any fluid underneath the car. If you do, you can sometimes determine what kind of leak it is by the color of the fluid. Similar to engine noises, if there’s any type of leak coming from the bottom the car, you’ll want to bring in a mechanic to check it out before proceeding with the purchase.

  • Power Steering Fluid. Color: red or light brown, and found under the front of the car.

  • Transmission Fluid. Color : red or light brown, and found under the middle of the car.

  • Engine Oil. Color: Dark brown to black.

  • Brake Fluid. Color: clear to light brown, and very slippery to the touch. A brake fluid leak is very dangerous, you should not even attempt to drive the car if you notice one. Fortunately, brake fluid leaks are quite rare in modern cars.

10. Seats

Slide in and out of the driver's seat. How easy is it to do so?  How does the seat itself feel? Is it comfortable? Seriously consider this, as you’re going to be spending a LOT of time sitting in it. While you’re in the seat, confirm that the seat adjustment levers / buttons( if automatic) are working properly.

11.  Dashboard Controls & Features

You’ll want to start with the basics like  radio, heat and A/C ( if applicable). But to really get the most out of this step, have the seller take you through all the features of the car and explain how to use each one. Newer cars come equipped with tech like bluetooth, GPS navigation, and even in-car wifi. If possible, test out all the available integrations on your smartphone, and make sure they are working properly.

During the test drive…

12.  Acceleration

Pay attention to how the car accelerates, and how the pedal feels beneath your feet. Is it smooth? When you get to high speeds, pay attention to the steering wheel. Does it shake at a certain speed? When you take your hand off the wheel, note if the car pulls to one side or another, or stays straight.

13. Braking  

Test how hard you need to press down on the brake in order to come to a full stop at low, moderate, and high speeds.

When you come to a stop, pay attention to a couple of things

  • The sound: do you hear any rumbling, creaking, or grinding?

  • The feel: when you put your foot on the brake, do you feel a rippling tremor as you stop, or is the motion smooth?

If you hear noises and feel tremors beneath your feet as you stop, it at the very least means the brake pads have been worn extremely thin. Hopefully this is the case, and the rotors have not been damaged, which is a much more expensive fix.

14. Handling

Does the car turn tightly around curves, or have a wide turn radius? Test out maneuvering at multiple speeds. If the car has a built in backup camera or parking assist, now would be a good time to test out those features and see if they perform as you expect.

15. Transmission

If the car is automatic, verify that the transmission smoothly shifts through all gears. If the car is manual, verify that the clutch is working properly and that the gear shifting is tight and intuitive for you.

As you can see, there's a ton of stuff you need to paying attention to during your test drive. At Swap Motors, we make things easier for used car buyers by evaluating every car in our marketplace. We showcase the good AND the bad, so you know exactly you're purchasing.

Want to make your used car buying experience as transparent as possible, AND save 20-25% off dealer retail pricing on top of it?

Check out Swap Motor's marketplace of private sellers and see if one of our cars catches your eye :)