How to Test Drive a Used Car

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Test-Driving Basics

Caucasian man driving car on rural road
Eric Raptosh Photography/Blend Images/Getty Images

The most important thing to remember when test driving a used car is you are the customer, and the customer is always right. You set the agenda when it comes to your test drive — not the sales rep or the owner if it’s a private sale. If any aspect of the test drive makes you feel uncomfortable, walk away.

Preparation is key. Make sure you’re an informed used-car shopper before taking the test drive. A little homework will put you in a used car that exceeds your expectations. Also, this isn’t the time to diagnose problems. That’s not your goal during ​a test drive. You want to identify problems for your mechanic to inspect and offer solutions, including price. Don’t try to solve a car’s problems during the test drive.

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Planning the Test Drive

Leave the children at home when test driving a used car. They'll just be a distraction to you and the person selling you the car. Photo © Keith Griffin

Before you go to look at a used car, map out a driving route: Don’t drive haphazardly and, certainly, don’t let the owner direct the trip. Use Google Maps and Mapquest to help you plan your route. Make the test route a mixture of local streets, highways, and a big empty parking lot. Also, pack a notepad or recorder. They'll help you remember what you liked and disliked. Plus it can remind you what you want your mechanic to inspect.

Don’t bring the family along: They’ll be too distracting. Do bring along a spouse or partner who is sharing in the decision-making process. If you have young kids, bring along car or booster seats to check their fit. Just don’t bring the kids. You need to devote 100 percent of your attention to the test drive.

Negotiate how long the test drive can be. Shoot for at least a half-hour. It’s unlikely the owner will let you drive alone, but it’s worth a shot. Also, ask for all the records of the car, including the owner’s manual and maintenance records, and make sure the basic tire-changing tools are still with the vehicle.

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While the Car Is Parked

A cramped trunk space can severely limit your options. Bring an empty grocery bag to make sure the trunk can at least hold a couple bags of groceries for your weekly errands. If you're a golfer, bring a driver to see if it can fit. Photo © Keith Griffin

Walk around the car. Look for chips in the windshield or excessive body wear. (There will be some chips and scratches on almost all used vehicles.) Lots of chips and scratches along the wheelbase could indicate that the vehicle was driven in less-than-ideal conditions. Ensure that the tires are properly inflated.

Pop the trunk: Does it fulfill your storage needs? Open a grocery bag to see if it fits. Check if the trunk meets your recreational needs, too. Don’t drag along your golf clubs, but a tape measure will come in handy. Also, look for signs of leaks. Ask if the backseat folds down for more space — and then make sure that it does.

Take down the air freshener if it’s hanging from the rearview mirror, and put it in the glove compartment. (Once you’ve finished driving, give the vehicle a good sniff test.) Don’t be afraid to put your nose to the seats to see if any odors have sunk in. Look over the interior for any spots or stains. Odds are they’re set for life if the owner hasn’t cleaned them up.

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Before Heading Out

Basic controls like heat and air conditioning should be in working order during your test drive. Photo © Keith Griffin

Hop in and out a few times. Get a feel for how comfortable this is for you, how well the doors open and shut, and how heavy they are. Check if it’s easy to reach the door handle. Climb in the backseat, too. Check whether the vehicle’s going to be a good people hauler if that’s important to you.

Set the seat to your comfort. Are power seat buttons easy to operate when the door is closed? Don’t compromise. You’ll be spending tens of thousands of miles behind the wheel. Nothing short of perfect will do. Adjust the mirrors. See if the radio and air conditioning controls are within easy reach. Adjust the steering wheel. Does it tilt and telescope? Does the position fit you comfortably? Do the audio and cruise control buttons work?

Test the A/C and heat to ensure that they blow cold and hot. Test the cold before heat because it takes awhile for an engine to warm up. Cold air should blow in less than a minute. Bring the temperatures to their extremes. Check the vents to see if they close and open smoothly. Hop in the backseat to ensure that the systems work back there, too.

Get a feel for the transmission. Does the car shift easily from park to drive if it’s an automatic? A loud clunk doesn’t mean there’s a problem per se, but make a note so your mechanic can check it out. A manual transmission should shift easily among the gears. The clutch should also engage the transmission easily.

Turn the key: It’s something you’ll do at least twice a day for as long as you own the car. See if the car starts easily: not just how it turns over, but how much effort is needed to turn the key. Also, check how easy it is to remove the key. Finally, make sure the seller has two sets of keys and even a valet key. Keys can be expensive to replace.

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On the Road

People who live in urban settings should make parallel parking part of their used car test drive. Photo © Keith Griffin

Drive responsibly: Avoid "jackrabbiting," where you press hard on the accelerator when you start to drive. You’ll make the owner nervous and probably scotch the sale. However, don’t hesitate to do it once you’re comfortable with the vehicle. Just warn the owner.

Look for how well the car merges onto the highway. Check what the visibility is like on local streets. See how easy it is to view traffic signals. When you turn the steering wheel does it respond promptly? Or, is there some delay in response? There should be no play in the steering wheel.

Find a quiet area, get the car up to the maximum legal speed, and jam on the brakes. Check if the car pulls to the left or right. The brake pedal should have a firm feel. Soft or squishy brake response should be checked out.

Check the alignment. When safe to do so, take your hand off the wheel and see if the car pulls in one direction. Do this a couple of times on different road surfaces. This test indicates potential front-end alignment issues. Then, find a bumpy surface: It could be an unsmooth road or a parking lot with speed bumps. See how the car responds after hitting bumps. It shouldn’t wiggle like a bowl of Jell-O.

Keep your mouth shut: This is an old trick that works with used car buying. People hate silence. It makes them want to talk. You’d be surprised how often owners will start talking about problems with the vehicle when a squeak or rattle presents itself. Play the stereo briefly and crank it all the way up to see if there is any distortion in the speakers.

Go parking: Take the car into a parking lot. See how easy it is to park. (Urban dwellers should also parallel park the vehicle.) Parking lots can be a good low-speed indicator of a vehicle’s visibility. Problems at 5 mph multiply exponentially on a busy highway.

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End of the Drive

If you’re still interested after your test drive, ask the owner when you can bring the car to a mechanic. Never buy a vehicle that has not been independently inspected. You’re opening yourself up to a lot of headaches.

Make your notes right away with questions and concerns for your mechanic. Also, take a moment to rate the car. Use this evaluation system to help you out. If you have any doubts, walk away. There are plenty of other used cars for sale. Don't settle and get stuck with a lemon or a car you dislike.