How to Test Drive a Used Car
Knowing how to test drive a used car will help you notice potential issues you might not notice if you simply drive the car as you would your own. When you're driving to work or to the store, you may not notice the little behaviors the car is exhibiting that are tell-tale signs of looming trouble. Also, a typical drive doesn't exercise the full gamut of capabilities the car has. You may forget to check something critical, like brakes pulling to one side. Then later, when you need them the most and have to stop suddenly, you find out they aren't really working properly, and never were. Sure, you know how to drive a car. To avoid potentially catastrophic situations like our example above, we'll explain how to test drive a car.
If you're following our What To Check When Buying a Used Car series, then you've completed your inspection of the vehicle using our Used Car Inspection Checklist before test driving the vehicle. If you haven't, please run through that checklist. You don't want to drive an unsafe vehicle. You have no idea about the condition of this vehicle. Brakes or lights may not be working. It could be spewing oil under the hood. The wheels may be about to come off. Or it may be great. You just don't know. It's worth your time to run through the checklist.
After years of driving jalopy's, and researching expert recommendations, here are our recommendations for how to test drive a used car:
Before You Move
Get in the car and turn the key to the On position, without turning it all the way to Start. All of the lights on the dashboard should go on. Then start the car. All of the warning lights should turn off after a few seconds.
Turn the stereo down or completely off. If you'll need heat or AC for your drive, turn it on now so that you're not fumbling with unfamiliar controls while you're on the road. Get the seat and mirrors where you want them.
Now listen to and feel the car through your seat and the steering wheel. Do you hear anything that sounds wrong? Any tapping, ticking, clicking, clunking, coughing, or stuttering? Do you feel any vibrations through the seat and steering wheel? If the car is idling rough, it can be in indication of improper cylinder firing, or misfiring, or worn motor mounts. The fix may be inexpensive, or may be very costly. Ask the seller about it, and make a note to ask a mechanic about it later.
Tentative First Steps
You need to drive the car on a variety of roads, and at various speeds. Start by driving the car through a neighborhood and on some mid-sized streets first. This will let you get a feel for the car, its steering, acceleration capability, and brakes. You want to travel at around 25, 35, and 45 miles per hour.
While you drive, safely loosen your grip a little on the steering wheel and see if the car wants to pull to the left or the right, and how severely. A car that is constantly trying to pull to one side has alignment or other issues, which again could be minor or major to repair.
Also, when you brake, do the same thing and note if the brakes are pulling in one direction or another. Brakes that pull to one side can be dangerous in the worst case, and cause rapid wear and tear in the best case.
As you change speeds, check that the transmission shifts smoothly. It should not jerk into the next higher gear when you accelerate. It should not make a clunking noise as you slow the car and it downshifts. There is no such thing as an inexpensive transmission repair.
Open It Up
If you're comfortable that the car is operating properly at these speeds, then its time to see how it behaves in more demanding situations. You want to get a feel for how the car can handle rapid acceleration. This is critical to safety when merging into freeway traffic, or when turning out of a parking lot in front of approaching traffic. Use one or both of these scenarios during your test drive, and make sure the engine doesn't hesitate or “bog down” when you press the accelerator in an attempt to gain speed quickly. Of course, don't exceed the speed limit.
If you can drive the car on a freeway or highway, that's ideal. You want to test speeds like 45, 55, 65, and 75 mph, within the limits of what's legal in your area. As you're driving at these different speeds, feel for vibrations which happen at certain speeds and not others. For example, a car may shake at 55 mph, but be fine at 45 and 65.
Also, recheck the steering at these higher speeds to extent you safely can. Any slight drift at lower speeds that may have gone unnoticed will be more severe at higher speeds.
Head for the Hills
If you're driving to this point has been on primarily level ground, try going up a hill with the car if at all possible. Some engines will be fine on level grade or on a descent, but lose power quickly when faced with an incline. All vehicles will have a harder time going uphill than on flat ground, so allow for that. If the car doesn't have the power it should when ascending an incline, that's a red flag. This could be an indication of excessive internal engine wear, which is costly to repair. Be sure to note this and ask a mechanic to check it out later.
Also, especially on steep hills, watch the temperature gauge if the car has one. The engine will naturally get hotter as it works harder to make the climb. The car should not overheat though
One Last Check
When you are satisfied with your test drive, after you park the car, take a moment to check it out again. Some leaks won't show themselves until the engine is warm and the fluids have been circulating through it. A car with cooling system problems will sometimes boil over a minute or so after being turned off. Take a look under the vehicle for tell-tale drips or new puddles. You may also want to take a look under the hood and see if anything looks wet. Nothing should.
Now that you know how to test drive, what to do and what to look for, you'll be a much more Clever Customer. If you're following our list and want to move forward with this car, your next step to obtain a vehicle history report.
A Simple Test Drive Checklist
To help you remember what to look for, we've created a simple How to Test Drive a Used Car Checklist. We kept it brief because we don't want you to be distracted while driving. In fact, take a buddy if you can and hand the checklist over to them while you drive. It's not intended to be a substitute for the information we've given here, but a reminder. Print it out and take it with you. While you're at it, get our Used Car Inspection Checklist as well.