Many car buyers find the test drive the most intimidating part of buying a used car. It's like when the waiter invites you to try the wine and you don't feel qualified to pass judgment.
All you need is a little knowledge. Once you understand why you need to drive the car and what you should be looking for. You'll feel more confident about the whole process.
Why You Should Test Drive a Used Car?
When you test drive a used car you're attempting to answer two questions: can you see yourself driving it and does the vehicle have any problems? Many used car buyers think it's all about the last one.
Looking for defects or faults is important, but it's not as important as finding the perfect car that's right for you. A used car is a big decision and it's important not to rush. You may think you've found your ideal car, but if you're unable to live with it, you'll soon be out car shopping again.
Six Step Guide to Test Driving a Used Car
Today you can do 95% of your used car shopping online. However, before buying the car. You will still need to visit the dealer to visually inspect and test drive the vehicle. I've seen many people buy a car without test driving it.
Personally, I believe this is a huge mistake. I mean, you will try on a pair of shoes before you buy them, right? Before you spend thousands of dollars on this major purchase. Do this quick six step used car test drive process to make sure you're buying a nice, trouble free used car.
Before you get to the test driving phase of the used car buying process. I'm assuming you have already vetted the vehicle by inspecting the used car vehicle history report.
If you have not done this yet. Please visit my section on vehicle history reports. The last thing you want to do is test drive a car, fall in love with it and find out it's been in a bad accident or the title has been branded salvaged.
While you're driving the vehicle you should pay attention to the mechanical aspects of the car. This is the time to key in on certain things like is the engine running smooth, does the transmission shift well, are the brakes mushy, etc.
Even the smallest things, such as turn signals and windshield wipers should be problem free. Make sure you turn on and check everything before making a final decision.
Some questions your test drive should answer include:
- Does the car start and stay running on the intitial first try?
- Do the gears shift easily and smoothly?
- How does the car idle? Is it abnormally high or low?
- Does the car accelerate smooth and not cut out?
- Check to see if the power windows, seats, cruise control, A/C, defroster, radio, CD, DVD player and all the other knobs on the dashboard work?
- Are there any previous owner maintenance records available?
- Do you see any unusual exhaust or hear any odd noises from the vehicle while it's running?
- Is there any unusual smells inside the vehicle like mold or mustiness?
- Does the used car have a bumpy or smooth ride?
- Are the tires in good shape?
Get Comfortable for Your Test Drive
Settle in to the driver's seat. Set the seat height and distance from the steering wheel and pedals to where you feel comfortable. Adjust the mirrors then check the position of all the controls. Make sure you can find the pedals, the shifter and the turn signals.
Turn off the radio to avoid distractions. Don't let the salesman or seller rush you through this process. If you're not comfortable you're not giving the car a chance to impress you, and you may not be safe either.
Pick a Nice Long Test Drive Route
A private seller will usually want to go with you, which should be understandable. A used car salesman may be more willing to let you go out alone. If offered that opportunity, take it! It's much easier to get a feel for a car without him or her babbling along next to you. If you do go out unaccompanied, be sure to agree a distance and/or return time, and don't cut either short.
If you're unfamiliar with the neighborhood, ask the seller or salesman to suggest a route. This should cover a mix of roads so you can drive at a range of speeds and get a feel for how the car handles different surfaces.
Take the car through a couple crowded parking lots, practice parking a couple times to get a feel how the car handles. If you're close to home, there's no better time to see if the vehicle will fit in your garage.
Most test drives are probably less than 20 minutes, and that's really not long enough. You will want to give yourself a little more time if you're going to be driving this vehicle for a few years.
If you can have the car for an hour you'll have a better chance of picking up on things you don't like.
How Does the Car Drive?
You want to get a feel for acceleration, braking, steering and ride quality, but don't push too hard on the gas pedal while on public roads!
Check that everything happens smoothly, the engine doesn't stall or cough, the brakes grip without juddering or grabbing and the car doesn't bounce around. You don't need to be a mechanic to spot when something doesn't feel right.
Insider Car Buying Tip
It doesn't matter if you're looking at a used car or certified pre-owned vehicle. I highly recommend you spend a little money and thoroughly inspect any used vehicle you're considering. By doing so, you're decreasing your chances of buying an unreliable car. Keep in mind a dealer doesn't want to be stuck with a bad car no more than you do.
Listen for Any Odd Noises Coming From the Vehicle
While on the test drive listen carefully. It doesn't take special training to spot rattles, squeaks, knocks and grinding sounds, none of which should be there.
If you can drive on the highway, make a note of how noisy the car seems. Performance cars are often quite loud inside, (a result of wider tires and a sporty exhaust,) and you might decide it would be too tiring on a long journey.
Be on the Look Out for Anything Out of the Ordinary
On some modern vehicles the blind spots are surprisingly large, make sure you can see out of the vehicle well enough. Sometimes windshield pillars can make it hard to see traffic at intersections while high side windows can make it harder to reverse out of a parking space.
Have a good look round to see if you can live with whatever obstacles to visibility (blind spots) you find.
How Does the Vehicle Feel While on the Test Drive?
It's important you feel comfortable in the car. If you find your back aching or knees rubbing after 20 minutes this is probably not a car you'll enjoy driving.
Conversely, if it seems to fit you like a glove you may have found the used car for you.
When you finish the test drive it's time make up your mind. Either it's not the car for you, in which case you tell the seller or salesman and walk away, or you start negotiating. If the latter, it's time to bring up those problems you noticed during the test drive and see if you can get the price lowered or any necessary work done.
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