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How To Test-Drive a Used Car

by recycler on August 5, 2010

Test-Drive Used Cars Correctly

Test-driving a vehicle before buying it is a very important step in the purchasing process, one that should not be taken lightly, so knowing how to properly test-drive a used car is invaluable knowledge and a powerful weapon. This should be no joy ride.

The Basics:

When conducting a test-drive, the most important thing is to take control. You want to be the person running the test-drive, not the salesman or the private party selling the used car. Also, if it is a certified pre-owned car or used car from a dealership, the test-drive will be conducted a little differently compared to that with a private party. For one, with a dealership, you will probably be able to take the car out on your own, while a private seller will most likely tag along.

Regardless of whether or not you are test-driving a used car sold by a dealer or a private party, it is highly recommended that you research the car you will be driving as much as possible before test-driving it. Know everything there is to know so there aren’t any surprises.

NOTE: It is not your job to diagnose or solve any problems with the car while test-driving it. Your job is to observe things that might be wrong, that seem abnormal, and then, if you are interested in the vehicle, to relay what you find to a professional mechanic to inspect further. You always want to get the car inspected after test-driving it.

Before Driving:

Have a plan. This includes everything from the route you are going to take, what stops you are going to make, how long the drive will last and what questions you want to ask. You should probably test-drive the used car for at least a half hour, and you and the seller should come to a clear agreement about what’s to happen before you even think about starting that car’s ignition.

Also, it is best if you do not just wing the route and you do not let the seller dictate the route. Try to plan a route with variety, whether it is hills versus flat ground, smooth versus rough pavement, or highway versus interstate.

We also recommend that you take lots of notes, so be sure to bring a notepad and a pencil or two. Jot everything down and don’t just rely on your memory. Bring a tape recorder to make audio memos if you need to. If your significant other will be part of the decision-making, bring him or her along, especially if both of you will have to drive the vehicle.

Inspect the car before driving it. Don’t waste your own or the sellers time if you aren’t interested in the car after a good once-over. Look at the body for damage and the interior for stains or weird smells, make sure the tires are inflated and that the car, overall, looks safe to drive. It’s not a bad idea to bring a tape measure to write down some measurements, like the trunk space, to make sure the car will meet your needs.

An overlooked little bit about driving the car is “entering and exiting”. You will be doing this a lot with the vehicle, so be sure it isn’t a backbreaking ordeal. Get in and out of the car a few times. Also, hop in the backseat and get a feel for what any passengers might be experiencing while riding with you. When in the driver’s seat, make sure you can adjust the seat to a comfortable position. And then play with every knob and button on the dash and doors like a kid at Christmas-time; make sure everything works and that the little pieces and moving parts are all in good condition.

It’s also advisable to mess around a bit with the stereo. Play a few different channels on the radio. Turn the volume up and down and listen/feel what that does to the car. Also, bring a CD to play in the CD player or an MP3 player if it has an audio hookup to make sure they are functioning.

Finally, test both the AC and heater, no matter what season it is.

While Driving:

Just like loading and unloading yourself into the car, another small but important notion that many people overlook is making sure the key turns with ease and the car stats without problems.

Once you are moving, try to get a good feel for the transmission. Does the used car change gears smoothly and quietly? Or does it clunk around? Make notes of anything that might sound or feel off and tell your mechanic when you take it in for inspection.

Try to get a good feel for the steering. How does it handle curves? Vary your speed around bends. Also, when it is safe to do so and you are on a straight empty road (or that parking lot you planned on your route) then take your hands off the wheel to check the used car’s alignment. Do this several times to see if the car pulls one way or another, make a note of it and tell your mechanic later.

You also want to be sure to check the brakes. Is the pedal sensitive or non-responsive? It shouldn’t feel like you are doing the leg press just to stop the car. Try taping them lightly and also do a quick-stop to see how the car handles it.

Finally, make sure you practice parking the car. You will have to park the car every time you drive it, so you want to make sure you are comfortable doing so. Also, if you live in an urban area and will be parallel parking, be sure you attempt this feat a few times.

Expert Tips for During and After the Test-Drive:

* Try not to talk. You want to take control of the test-drive but you want the seller to lead any discussion. Let the seller pour out his soul into the uncomfortable silence. Who knows what he will bring up about the car?

* Rate the car immediately after driving it to compare with other test-drives.

* Take detailed notes! Both for yourself (what you like; don’t like) and for the mechanic. Also, when you are done driving, ask the seller when you can take the car to a mechanic to make it clear that you will be doing this.

You don’t have to buy a car just because you test-drove it. If you are uncomfortable or do not like anything about the car, how it handles, or even if it’s just a gut feeling, it’s never too late to walk away!

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